£393m Rome villa with Caravaggio ceiling fails to sell in court-ordered auction

The house, built in 1570, has been in the Ludovisi family since the early 1600s, and has become the subject of an inheritance dispute.

Italy Aristocrat Auction
Italy Aristocrat Auction

A villa in Rome containing the only known ceiling painted by Caravaggio went up for auction on Tuesday, thanks to an inheritance dispute – but failed to reach the reserve price.

The dispute has pitted the heirs of one of Rome’s aristocratic families against their stepmother, Texas-born Princess Rita Jenrett Boncompagni Ludovisi, formerly known as Rita Carpenter.

An online auction for the Casino dell’Aurora, organised by the Rome tribunal, began at 3pm and closed a short time later without a winner.

Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi
Princess Rita Jenrett Boncompagni Ludovisi (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

The starting bid had been set at 353 million euros (£294 million), and the villa just off the famous Via Veneto was assigned a court-appraised value of 471 million euros (£393 million).

Without a winning bid, a new auction will be held in several weeks with a lower starting bid.

“It’s been emotional since I received the notice from the judge on September 2. I’ve rarely slept,” Princess Rita told the Associated Press a few hours before the auction.

“It’s like going through the stages of death and dying. You’re angry at first, and then you can’t believe it, and then you finally go into a point of accepting it.”

Italy Aristocrat Auction
The Casino dell’Aurora, also known as Villa Ludovisi (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

The house, built in 1570, has been in the Ludovisi family since the early 1600s.

After Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi died in 2018, the villa became the subject of an inheritance dispute between the children from his first marriage and his third wife, Princess Rita, who has lived there for nearly two decades.

The villa, also known as Villa Ludovisi, features the Caravaggio in a tiny room off a spiral staircase on the second floor.

It was commissioned in 1597 by a diplomat and patron of the arts who asked the then-young painter to decorate the ceiling of the small room being used as an alchemy workshop.

Italy Aristocrat Auction
The main entrance of the Casino dell’Aurora (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

The 9ft wide mural, which depicts Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune, is unusual: it’s not a fresco, but rather oil on plaster, and is the only ceiling mural Caravaggio is known to have made.

“It’s probably the first work of Caravaggio’s that we know of, so historically it’s really a milestone,” said Claudio Strinati, an art historian and Caravaggio expert.

“And then, in and of itself, it’s a beautiful piece about a mythological theme, which is rare in Caravaggio’s art because he mostly dealt with sacred themes.

“So it’s a painting of real artistic and historic importance, and of great beauty.”

Italy Aristocrat Auction
Princess Rita in front of a picture of her with husband Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

The listing on the Rome tribunal’s auction site highlights the Caravaggio among the home’s other attributes, but notes the villa will need an estimated 11 million euros (£9 million) in renovations to comply with current building standards.

The “monumental property” on six levels is “among the most prestigious architectural and landscape beauties of pre-unification Rome”, with three garages, two roof terraces and a “splendid garden with arboreal essences and tall trees, pedestrian paths, stairs and rest areas”.

“I had always wanted to turn it into a museum, actually, but that’s not going to happen, I presume,” Princess Rita said as she took visitors on a tour of the home. “So my hope is that whomever buys it will treat it with the care and love that my husband and I did.”

Italy Aristocrat Auction
A wall painting attributed to Caravaggio (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

With no winning bids in the first round, the villa will go up for auction two more times at lower prices, and the Italian Culture Ministry can try to match the highest bid at any stage given the property’s value as a part of Italy’s cultural heritage. The next round is scheduled for April 7.

The American princess, who was previously married to former US Representative John Jenrette Jr, married Prince Nicolo in 2009.

She said: “I keep thinking, won’t it be painful to drive by here and see someone else living here?

“It was really such a privilege to live here. Such a great responsibility, but such a privilege and a journey of love to be here. Even when all the pipes would burst.”

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