A villa in Rome containing the only known ceiling painted by Caravaggio went on Tuesday on an auction block ordered by the court, thanks to an inheritance dispute that set the heirs of one of Rome’s aristocratic families up against their stepmother, a Texas -born princess.
Princess Rita Jenrett Boncompagni Ludovisi, formerly known as Rita Carpenter, woke up Tuesday in the Casino dell’Aurora surrounded by her dogs on what could have been the last day her home for nearly two decades was actually hers.
An online auction organized by the Court of Rome began at 3pm and closed shortly afterwards without a winner. The starting bid was set at 353 million euros ($ 400 million), and the villa right on the famous Via Veneto was awarded a legally assessed value of 471 million euros ($ 533 million).
Without winning bids in the first round, the villa will go up for auction twice more at lower prices, and the Italian Ministry of Culture can try to match the highest bid at any time. The next round is scheduled for April 7th.
“It has been emotional since I received the message from the judge on September 2. I have rarely slept,” Boncompagni Ludovisi told The Associated Press before the auction began. “It’s like going through the stages of death and dying. … You’re angry at first, and then you can not believe it, and then you finally go into a point of accepting it.”
The house, built in 1570, has been in the Ludovisi family since the early 17th century. After Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi died in 2018, the villa became the subject of an inheritance dispute between the children of his first marriage and his third wife, the San Antonio, Texas-born Princess Rita.
The villa, also known as Villa Ludovisi, was one of 42 plots at auction on Tuesday, but was by far the most prestigious and expensive thanks to Caravaggio, who adorns a small room next to 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 used as an alchemy workshop. The 2.75 meter (9 feet) wide mural depicting Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune is unusual: it is not a fresco, but rather oil on plaster, and represents the only ceiling mural that 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. “It’s a beautiful piece about a mythological theme that is rare in Caravaggio’s art because he mostly dealt with sacred themes.”
“So it’s a painting of real artistic and historical significance and of great beauty,” he said.
The list on the Rome Court’s auction site highlights Caravaggio among the home’s other attributes, but notes that the villa will need an estimated 11 million euros ($ 12.5 million) in renovations to meet current building standards.
“I actually always wanted to turn it into a museum, but it’s not going to happen,” Boncompagni Ludovisi said on Tuesday as she took visitors on a tour. “So my hope is that whoever buys it will treat it with the care and love that my husband and I did.”
The American princess, who was previously married to former US representative John Jenrette Jr. from South Carolina, married Boncompagni Ludovisi in 2009. At that time, the villa was dilapidated and her husband used it only as an office.
Together, they tried to renovate it as best they could. They opened the house up to visit students and travel groups and hosted dinners to raise revenue, and thanks to funding from Rutgers University, they helped digitize the family archives.
Boncompagni Ludovisi does not know what will come next. Without an immediate buyer, she has more time in the villa, but assumes that she will eventually have to move out. She would like to meet the new owners, give them a tour and teach them some of the history in hopes that they will keep the home open so the public can enjoy it.
“It was really such a privilege to live here. So great a responsibility, but such a privilege and a journey of love to be here,” she said. “Even when all the pipes would burst.”