architecture

$535 million villa with rare Caravaggio gets discounted price tag after failing to sell

Updated 20th January 2022
$535 million villa with rare Caravaggio gets discounted price tag after failing to sell
Written by Livia BorgheseSana Noor Haq, CNNRome, Italy
A stately villa in the heart of Rome valued at 471 million euros ($535 million), which houses the world's only ceiling mural by the Italian painter Caravaggio, failed to attract any bidders at auction Tuesday. It had a starting price of $350 million euros (over $400 million).
Italy, Lazio, Rome, Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi. Whole artwork view. Globe world divinity Jupiter air Pluto Earth Cerberus three heads dog Neptune water nude body trident pitchfork gray horse, photographic campaign 2009.
Italy, Lazio, Rome, Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi. Whole artwork view. Globe world divinity Jupiter air Pluto Earth Cerberus three heads dog Neptune water nude body trident pitchfork gray horse, photographic campaign 2009. Credit: Mondadori Portfolio/Hulton Fine Art Collection/Getty Images
Now Villa Aurora's owner, Texas-born Rita Carpenter -- better known as Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, third and final wife of the late Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi -- will try again in three months. According to her lawyer, Beniamino Milioti, the second attempt by auction house Fallco Zucchetti will take place April 7 at a 20% price reduction, with a starting bid of 282 million euros ($320 million).
"After hearing the news, Princess Rita is exhausted, but serene. It is an auction that received worldwide attention and the value of the real estate remains incredibly high," Milioti said in a statement.
While most of the infrastructure was demolished in the 19th century, Villa Aurora is the only remaining part of the larger Villa Ludovisi, a 16th-century house which was considered "one of the wonders of the world," according to art historian Claudio Strinati in a column published on the daily Repubblica.
The Boncompagni Ludovisi family are descendants of Pope Gregory XV, and Villa Aurora has been at the center of a bitter legal dispute between Carpenter and her late husband's sons from a previous marriage. Carpenter has lived in the property for 20 years, she told CNN. An Italian judge ordered the house be put up for auction.
But maintenance of the property will not be cheap. One of the conditions for whomever buys the property will be to spend 11 million euros in restoration expenses.
"I'm hoping that an angel buys it and that they understand the depth of history here," Carpenter told CNN.
Barely a stone's throw away from Via Veneto, the iconic street memorialized by "La Dolce Vita" director Federico Fellini, Villa Aurora is flanked by a garden and various garages, and covers a total of 2,800 square meters (just over half an acre), according to public sales documents published by the Justice Ministry.
The six-floor property houses myriad artworks, including an oil wall painting attributed to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, better known simply as Caravaggio, whose body of work became synonymous with the artist's visceral depictions of violence.
Portrait of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 17th century. Found in the collection of National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
Portrait of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 17th century. Found in the collection of National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. Credit: Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection/Getty Images
Spanning the ceiling of a small 2.75 square meter room (approximately 30 square feet), Caravaggio's Villa Aurora mural represents three gods -- Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto -- as they gather around a translucent globe.
It was commissioned by cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte in 1597, who would have used the room as an alchemical laboratory, according to the expertise commissioned by a tribunal, published by the ministry.
The painting has an estimated value of more than 310 million euros ($360 million), according to Alessandro Zuccari, a history of modern art professor at Sapienza University of Rome.
Zuccari, who was called by the tribunal to estimate the work of art inside the property, concluded in his evaluation that Caravaggio's painting is "priceless, being the only mural by one of the greatest painters of the modern age."
The villa is also frescoed by the Baroque painter Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino, who worked in the villa between 1621 and 1623. Among Guercino's works are the fresco of the Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, which was painted for the nephew of Pope Gregory XV, Alessandro Ludovisi.
Aurora, 1621, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino, fresco. Casino of the Villa Ludovisi, Rome.
Aurora, 1621, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino, fresco. Casino of the Villa Ludovisi, Rome. Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images
If the villa attracts a bidder in April, by law the Italian government can match the winning bid and take possession of the property. For art historian Elizabeth Lev, that would be the ideal solution.
"There is nothing I'd like more than to see it in the hands of the Italian state so that we can continue to enjoy it," she told CNN. "They are very much in need of restoration but nonetheless, there are tremendous works from one room to another. You are looking at masterpieces...and absolute unique exemplars in the history of art."
This story has been updated following the January auction with additional details and interviews.
Ben Wedeman and Jacqui Palumbo contributed to this report.