“I told the magistrate that it was priceless, from a cultural point of view; she told me that she had to think of a number, ”said Alessandro Zuccari, a professor at the Sapienaza University of Rome.
He had been commissioned to help establish the monetary value of Villa Aurora, owned by the Boncompagni Ludovisi family for 400 years.
The task was impossible.
How to establish the value of a unique place, declared a national heritage, in which at least nine of its rooms have their ceilings painted by the main artists of the 16th century, among them the only mural made by the visceral, influential and magnificent Caravaggio?
What price do you assign to a house built on land where you once lived Julius Caesar, which has a sculpture of Miguel Angel in the garden, a spiral staircase designed by the architect Carlo Maderno —who made the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica— and a telescope that Galileo Galilei gave to the Ludovosi family?
These and other artistic gems, plus a rich history, make it invaluable.
However, a toxic dispute prompted a court order to sell it.
From 1622 to 1886, the Ludovisi and then the Boncompagni Ludovisi created and maintained the largest (in its final form, 36 hectares or 89.6 acres) and most magnificent private residence within the walls of Rome: the Villa Ludovisi.
It was a vast complex of gardens and buildings created on land acquired by the powerful Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi in 1621, in which the connoisseur and patron of the arts housed a famous collection of antiquities.
The casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, known as Villa Aurora or Casino dell’Aurora It is the last vestige of that famous town.
It had been built as a hunting lodge in 1570, and its previous owner, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, had been the one who lCaravaggio was commissioned in 1597 to adorn the ceiling of his alchemy laboratory.
The artist painted a scene in which the gods Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto appear, representing the three elements that Del Monte used in his alchemical experiments: air, water and fire.
Jupiter appears moving a translucent orb stamped with the signs of the zodiac, and the Earth and the Sun below.
The mythological work was covered up and only rediscovered in 1968 during renovations.
Later, the new owner, Cardinal Ludovisi, hired Carlo Maderno – one of the fathers of Baroque architecture – to rebuild the place and gave Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), better known as Guercino, one of the ground floor ceilings to use as a canvas.
The baroque artist painted, in vibrant blues and reds, the goddess of dawn, dawnsoaring through the sky in his float and throwing flowers as he makes way for the sunlight.
Its cool land gave the name to the town.
As if that were not enough, there are frescoes by the Flemish painter Paul Bril, as well as the Italians Giovanni Battista Viola, Domenichino, Giovanni Valesio and Antonio Circignani, known as il Pomarancio.
Besides what’s on the walls, there’s a dizzying array of historical itemsincluding tens of thousands of valuable documents, including letters written by the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette.
Galileo, according to records, made astronomical observations in the 1620s from his rooftop loggias, the same ones in which, three centuries later, the British-American writer Henry James would enjoy panoramic views of the Eternal City “against a faded sapphire sky”, as he recounted in his memoirs “Italian Hours” (1909).
James wasn’t the only literary giant to visit; before she dismembered, Villa Ludovisi, with its lush gardens, fountains, and statues, was a must-see through the centuries for artists, writers, musicians, and wealthy travelers.
The Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, the Frenchman Stendhal —who wrote about walking “with delight among the great avenues of green trees”— and the German Goethe —who liked a statue of the goddess Juno so much that he had it copied— walked through it. to his home in Germany.
In the decade of 1880 much of the property was sold and in it was built via Veneto and its surroundings, one of the most glamorous commercial districts in the world.
The family’s main palace, the Palazzo Margherita, eventually became the U.S. Embassy.
What remained of all that cultural richness —Villa Aurora— was inherited by Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, born in 1941.
His Serene Highness was head of one of the oldest and most distinguished noble families in Italy, eleventh great-grandson of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585), who introduced the Gregorian Calendarand the tenth great-grandson of Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi (1621-1623), who founded the modern system of papal elections.
The Boncompagni Ludovisi count numerous leading figures in the Catholic Church, European and Italian politics, science, and the arts.
For two and a half centuriesthe family also maintained one of the largest and most important collections of ancient sculpture ever assembled.
Prince Nicolò studied chemical engineering in Switzerland, spoke seven languages and had many interests.
Among other things, he developed the world’s largest tuff quarry in Riano, north of Rome, and dedicated himself to buying and restoring historic properties in the city of Rome.
But Villa Aurora only began to restore it after meeting his third wife, Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.
In January 2003, Rita Jenrette (née Carpenter), then a Manhattan real estate broker, flew to Rome with a client interested in building a hotel on one of the prince’s estates outside Rome.
The real estate business was the latest twist in the varied and colorful career of this Texan whose resume includes being investigator of the Republican Party and of the Congress of United Statesas well as country music singer, model, Drama Logue Critics Award-winning actress, author of two books —one of them was his best-selling memoir—and a journalist for the Fox network.
She was also the wife of John W. Jenrette Jr., a South Carolina Democrat who was one of several members of Congress jailed for taking bribes in the FBI’s Abscam operation of the 1980s.
In the midst of that scandal, posed nude for the magazine Playboy and revealed, in the interview that accompanied the photos, details about a time when she and her husband had sex on the steps of the Capitol during a break in a session of the House of Representatives, which caused an uproar.
After divorcing Jenrette, Rita began what would become a successful career in real estate in 1994, completing an Executive Management Program at Harvard Business School in the year she met Prince Nicolò.
Judging by what they both say in a video produced in memory of Prince Nicolò, it was love at first sight.
“It took my breath away… I couldn’t describe it any other way,” says the prince. “I was impressed by the intelligence of him and the beauty of him… Everything.”
“I called my best friend,” says Princess Rita.
“I told him, ‘I know that sounds crazy.’ I had a career in New York earning six and seven figures. ‘But this man it stirred something inside me. It’s so wonderful.’”
Rita moved to Rome and that same year she fell in love with something else: Villa Aurora.
By then, it was in ruins, so he convinced the prince to have it restored.
After years of negotiation with the Italian government, which designated the house a national treasure, work finally began in 2009 to reverse the effect of years of neglect.
The water had damaged everything from the frescoes to the ancient statues in the garden, some of which date back to 500 BC Among other things, a new roof had to be put in, the exterior had to be repaired and the original cream color restored with a bit of pink.
The couple moved to live in the ancestral home of the Boncompagni Ludovisi.
In addition to the restoration the princes digitized the archives and opened the house to a public that he had never had the opportunity to see the treasures it housed.
The princess herself served as a guide in the tours.
But in March 2018, Prince Nicolò died.
In his will he gave his wife the right to remain in the property for the rest of her life; should it be sold, the proceeds would be divided between her and her stepchildren.
But the three children from his first marriage disputed their right to remain in the villa, an agreement could not be reached between the parties, and a court ruled that an auction should be held.
That is why that place of inestimable value became a property like any other, with a living space of 3,000 square meters and a landscaped garden, which had to be set a base price to sell it with the blow of a hammer.
The figure that Zuccari had been asked to help think of ended up being $533 million, 65% of it for the Caravaggio fresco. On top of that, the auction announcement made it clear that the buyer would be responsible for about $11.5 in repairs.
Had it been sold, it would have been the most expensive residential property ever sold at auction.
But instead of offers, on January 18 all there was was silence.
Another attempted sale is expected in April, with a 20% price cut.
Meanwhile, more than 38,000 people have signed a petition calling for the state to buy the villa so its many treasures can be on public view.
Italian law gives the state the option to buy the property, but only after the auction has taken place and for the same price. However, the Italian government may not have the funds to buy it, even at the reduced price.
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