The Texan princess, the Caravaggio mural and the wonders of the palace that nobody wants to buy | Culture


Rita Carpenter threw a coin into the Trevi fountain on her trip to Rome when she was 16 years old and asked to marry an Italian and live in the eternal city. Back then, she was an American tourist on her first visit to Europe, and little did she know that what would come next would exceed her expectations. Almost five decades later, she remarried a Roman prince, Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, and settled in a luxurious 16th-century villa, full of history and priceless treasures, including the only surviving mural by Caravaggio .

Now, following the death of her husband in 2018 and the ensuing family dispute over the inheritance, Carpenter is forced to leave the impressive palace that has been her home for the past 20 years. The Villa of the Dawn is a mansion with six floors and a large garden, with an area of ​​about 2,800 square meters located in the heart of Rome and which has been the historical residence of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family, cradle of cardinals and even of two popes through the centuries.

Caravaggio's mural in the Villa da Aurora in Rome is the only one by the painter that is preserved.
Caravaggio’s mural in the Villa da Aurora in Rome is the only one by the painter that is preserved. antonello nuca

Although Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi is the only one who lives there, she shares the property with the children from the prince’s previous marriage. Together, they have a tax debt that they are unable to pay off, but they cannot afford the villa either, so a judge has ordered its sale. Although, curiously, at the moment nobody has wanted to buy it. The first auction, held in January with a starting price of 471 million euros, was declared void. It will be auctioned again on April 7 with a 20% discount. “I know very wealthy people who were interested in making an offer, but they had problems with the computer system. The auction was done entirely through the internet, “says the princess without revealing any names.

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In the past, the impressive palace was one of the centers of power in Rome whose beauty was praised by Goethe, D’Annunzio and Stendhal, who described the villa’s garden as one of the most beautiful in the world. Today, most of the property is in disuse; inside it is cold, it is dark and you feel the humidity. The structure is in dire need of considerable repair and the paintings are crying out for the restoration workshop. But such an accumulation of wonders in one place makes it unique.

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The nearly 40 rooms of the palace are full of relics: countless pieces of art, books, letters or a masterpiece by the painter Guercino, an exponent of Roman baroque; and of other painters such as Dominichino, Paul Bril or Giambattista Viola. Or a multitude of portraits of the illustrious members of the Ludovisi family, including several cardinals or Pope Gregory XV. Added to all this is a telescope given to them by Galileo Galilei who, as Princess Rita recounts, frequently visited Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a well-known patron of Caravaggio. It also tells that Julius Caesar’s villa had been built in the same place, and that Cleopatra passed through there.

The room attached to the main room is striking, where old paintings intermingle with more mundane details, such as recent photos of the family, a blessing from Pope Francis for the couple, three large red volumes of yearbooks of the families of the Italian nobility that arrive until 2020 or the royal wedding script of William of England and Kate Middleton. Princess Ludovisi remembers the conversations with her husband in that hall. “The simple moments are the most beautiful when you spend them with the person you love. Here I lived the happiest 20 years of my life”, he confesses. Her favorite work in the entire collection is a portrait from a photograph of her and her husband that she has placed at the entrance to the villa.

Portrait of Rita Ludovisi and her husband the aristocrat Nicola Boncompagni Ludovisi, from whom she inherited the title of princess.
Portrait of Rita Ludovisi and her husband the aristocrat Nicola Boncompagni Ludovisi, from whom she inherited the title of princess.
Antonello Nusca (THE COUNTRY)

The princess, of Texan origins, feels indisposed on the day of the visit and asks to do the interview by video call. Through the screen, he becomes emotional remembering the Ludovisi family’s ties with Spain and leaves his room to show in person the letters of King Philip V of Spain (1683-1746), who made Prince Antonio Boncompagni Ludovisi a knight of the famous Order of the Golden Fleece. “I’m in pajamas,” he jokes, “I’ll be there in five minutes.” Soon after, she appears dressed in an elegant long coat and high-heeled boots. “Only 400 families in the world have the honor of being Great of Spain,” he presumes, while pointing to the signature that closes a good handful of letters: “I, the king.” He keeps them in a wooden cabinet in the main room of the villa, crowned by the imposing mural of the Aurora made by the painter Guercino in the best years of his career, according to historians. Much of the family’s documents are kept in the Vatican’s secret archive, but many others are still kept in the villa. The princess has spent the last 13 years digitizing 150,000 historical writings.

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Also teach a picasso and several Dalí paintings that she herself acquired in New York and that contrast with the surroundings. Princess Ludovisi, 72, a former actress and reporter, agrees to pose for the camera without makeup and talks about how hard it is for her to let go of a place that means so much to her. “It is very difficult to sell all this to someone, although over the years you learn that life takes dramatic turns and that, nevertheless, it continues. As we say in Texas, you have to acclimate to any change along the way,” he says. And he adds: “After living so long, you start to develop that philosophy. I’ve come down without makeup, 10 years ago, I would have said ‘no, I need mascara’, but you get to a point where you don’t really care. If someone doesn’t like my looks or whatever, I don’t care. I guess you get less shallow as time goes on.”

Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi is generous: she opens her house to visitors, offers coffee, and is hospitable and friendly. His idea was to open the villa to the general public in 2010. On a large table in the Aurora room there is a newspaper clipping of The New York Times that attests to it. “The first time I proposed it to my husband, he told me: ‘But we live here, it’s our house,’ and I replied: ‘I know, but people need to see all this, we live in a museum, dear’.

The Villa of the Dawn in Rome went up for auction in January 2022, but there were no bids.  In April it will be auctioned again.
The Villa of the Dawn in Rome went up for auction in January 2022, but there were no bids. In April it will be auctioned again. antonello nuca

The princess speaks of him passionately. “He was a chemical engineer, brilliant at everything,” he says. And he gets excited again when reviewing the wonders that his mansion hides. “It is a unique and spectacular place,” he sums up. “Opera was born here: Vittoria Archilei sang solo in this room for the first time, in 1601. At that time, sopranos had to sing accompanied by a man,” she says about the artist, one of the most famous singers of her time and sponsored by the Medici. Also review the twenty statues in the garden, including one by Michelangelo. They walked there, among so many illustrious personalities: Tchaikovsky, Hawthorne or Henry James and, more recently, Madonna or Woody Allen. “Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi used to play cards here with the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini”, recalls the princess. He wants to reopen the villa, currently closed due to the pandemic, to visitors this April, “so that people can enjoy such a rich place.” He assures: “It is a great honor and a responsibility to live in a place like this”.

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When he arrived at the town, almost two decades ago, it was practically abandoned. “We fixed everything that needed to be fixed, we didn’t go on vacation in the summer or at Christmas: we stayed in the villa, we invested all our resources and our time in it,” he says. Among other things, they repaired the roof and the old wooden elevator, which together with the spiral staircase designed by the Baroque architect Carlo Maderno, designer of the façade of Saint Peter’s Basilica, leads to the three upper floors. In the first one is the mural that Caravaggio painted in 1597, which is titled Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto and that is valued at 310 million euros. “For me, it was always a great privilege to sacrifice everything for the town, for history,” adds the princess. And she points out: “My husband said: ‘My children will never understand or appreciate all that you have done to restore the archives, digitize them and open the village to the public’. We never got any help.”

Guercino's mural in the main room at the Villa de la Aurora, named after this work by the Baroque artist.
Guercino’s mural in the main room at the Villa de la Aurora, named after this work by the Baroque artist. antonello nuca

A few months ago, thanks to the work of the FBI and the cultural brigade of the Carabinieri, he recovered several letters from Don Bosco that had been stolen and sold in California. “I am satisfied, I have left a legacy for the family, with the archives and everything else that will last,” she explains. “I hope there is someone who can buy and restore this amazing historic villa. He would be world famous, someone with a sensibility for art and deep pockets. Restoring it will be very expensive. And he adds: “There is still much to discover in this village. Here everything is an adventure”.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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