Roman villa housing Italian master Caravaggio’s art up for auction

A Roman villa housing the only mural by Caravaggio and at the centre of a legal battle between a former Playboy model and the sons of her late husband, an Italian prince, will go up for auction Tuesday.

The Casino dell'Aurora di Villa Ludovisi Boncompagni, in Rome. - A Roman palace housing the only mural by Caravaggio and at the centre of a messy legal battle between a former Playboy model and the sons of her late husband, an Italian prince, will go up for auction on January 18, 2022.
The Casino dell'Aurora di Villa Ludovisi Boncompagni, in Rome. Photo by Laurent EMMANUEL / AFP

The sprawling property, valued at 471 million euros (almost $540 million), is a Baroque jewel with gorgeous gardens and a valuable art collection that also includes frescoes by Guercino.

Art lovers are demanding the Italian state step in to buy the spectacular property, arguing that artistic treasures should be protected and available for public viewing.

But the government might not have enough to cough up for it – the auction is only open to those who can put up 10 percent of the starting price of 353 million euros – and rumoured buyers include Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei.

READ ALSO: New York returns 200 stolen antiquities to Italy

The auction was ordered by a Rome court following a dispute among the heirs of Prince Nicolo Ludovisi Boncompagni, the head of the family who died in 2018.

The dispute is between the prince’s third and final wife, Rita Jenrette Boncompagni Ludovisi, a 72-year-old American former real estate broker and actor who once posed for Playboy, and the children from his first marriage.

‘Auction of the century’

The residence of the noble Ludovisi Boncompagni family for hundreds of years, the 2,800-square-metre (30,000 square feet) Casino dell’Aurora is located in central Rome between the Via Veneto and the Spanish Steps.

Its sale is being held behind closed doors, and has been dubbed by Italian media as the “auction of the century” in its breathless reporting on the legal wrangling around it and who could buy it. 

There are those who believe the cultural gem should be preserved for the nation.

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: From Rome to Madrid in search of a lost Caravaggio

Almost 35,000 people have called on the Italian government to exercise “its pre-emptive right” to buy the building and the Caravaggio, which alone is valued at 350 million euros, according to a petition on

“Sign this petition to prevent another piece of Italy, such a beautiful one, from being sold off,” it said.

The artist’s works: visitors look at paintings by Italian master Caravaggio. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP)

However, the estimated price of the villa represents a quarter of the annual budget of the culture ministry.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini wrote this month to Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the finance minister to raise the issue of the sale, according to reports.

Under Italian law, the government can only exercise its pre-emptive rights after the sale to a private individual, and then within 60 days of the sale’s competition – and for the same price.

‘Beautiful, important building’

The oil mural by Caravaggio – real name Michelangelo Merisi – dates to 1597 and is located on the ceiling in a corridor on the first floor of the palace.

It depicts Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune with the world at the centre, marked by signs of the zodiac.

“It’s certainly one of his earliest (works) and is very interesting because the subject is a mythological subject, and Caravaggio painted almost only sacred works,” art historian Claudio Strinati told AFP.

The palace was originally an outbuilding in the grounds of the Villa Ludovisi, of which nothing remains today. Its name comes from a Guercino fresco depicting the goddess Aurora, or Dawn, on her chariot.

“It is a very beautiful, very important building, with some very beautiful paintings,” said Strinati, a former museum curator in Rome.

“It would certainly be a positive thing if it became public property, it could become the home of a museum or particularly important cultural activities.”

The auction is due to start on Tuesday at 3pm Rome time and will last 24 hours.

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Why did Italy choose opera over espresso in its bid for Unesco status?

Italy has put another pillar of national culture forward for inclusion on the UN agency's list of intangible global heritage - but it's not the art of making coffee, as many had hoped.

Why did Italy choose opera over espresso in its bid for Unesco status?

Music or coffee? This was essentially the tough choice Italy’s National Committee for Unesco was faced with when deciding which treasured Italian art form to recommend for recognition this year.

In the end, the committee on Monday chose to put forward the art of opera singing as the country’s candidate – meaning the art of making espresso coffee will not be considered for addition to the list alongside Neapolitan pizza-making after all.

On announcing the decision, the committee did not give any reason for its selection though said the much-discussed and somewhat controversial application for the candidacy of espresso coffee had been “highly appreciated”.

“With the candidacy of the Italian opera to the world’s intangible heritage, Italy is aiming to get recognition for one of its most authentic and original cultural expressions,” said culture minister Dario Franceschini after the committee’s decision.

“Italian opera singing is an integral part of the world’s cultural patrimony, which provides light, strength and beauty in the darkest hours”.

A performance of Puccini’s 1900 opera ‘Tosca’ at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

The announcement came as a boost for those working in opera houses and theatres across Italy after the Italian arts an cultural sector was hit hard by pandemic-related closures.

Italy has around 60 opera houses – the most in the world.

“Opera was born in Italy,” said Stephane Lissner, the French director of the San Carlo theatre in Naples, which opened in 1737 and claims to be the world’s oldest opera house.

“In the 19th century, when you arrived in any Italian town, the entire population sang opera arias. It was normal,” he told AFP.

Compared to France or Germany, he said: “Italy is different, Italian theatres are different… and if you go into the villages, they’re not even towns, you find small theatres.”

In Italy, lyrical music “is not just reserved for the elite”, he added, although he said “the majority of the public cannot pay certain ticket prices and has been abandoned”, which he said was a “huge error”.

In contrast, Italian coffee is an everyday pleasure enjoyed by the majority of the population – and the price of an espresso is kept below the symbolic threshold of one euro at most local bars due to the widespread belief that the drink should be  accessible to all.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

In fact, it’s not unusual for people to avoid bars that charge more than one euro for un caffè normale, even if that’s for a better-quality cup – with some reports of customers even complaining to the police about being charged higher prices for artisanal or specialist coffees. 

But this focus on keeping the price of Italian coffee low may be part of the reason the Unesco bid was rejected, according to food writer Nunzia Clemente in Naples.

“90-cent coffee shouldn’t make us proud,” Clemente wrote in a post on Italian food blog Dissapore.

Pointing to examples of corner-cutting by bar owners struggling to make a profit, she said “the final result is, half the time, bad to say the least”.

Unesco’s ruling on the bid for recognition of opera is due at the end of the year.