Princess Boncompagni must give up her Caravaggio

His villa in Rome, which houses unique frescoes, is being auctioned off by the Italian state.

The gait is fragile. An agreed smile, the usual courtesies, and the principessa Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi suddenly comes alive. « Look ! Here is “Aurora”, the masterpiece by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino, and the Landscapes room decorated with frescoes by Domenichino, Viola and Bril… And here, in the center, it is a work by Pomarancio. »The visit takes place with his head turned towards the staggering ceilings which have just been awarded a price. The Aurora room: 52,605,376 euros. The Landscapes room: 30,890,946 euros. Further on, the “Fama”, the vault of the Temple of Fame, by Guercino again: 37,068,000 euros. Princess Rita barely stops in front of Roman statues « probably from the Forum of Trajan » (550,000 euros each, there are four); 2,800 square meters, electric wires piercing a fresco and lopsided paintings… This exceptional heritage cannot remain as it is.

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Two floors higher, the door opens onto a new ceiling, the highlight of the visit: the only mural painted by Caravaggio. “On January 18, you will buy a Caravaggio and you will have a villa as a bonus! I hope that the new owners will not turn this place into a nightclub… ”The fresco“ di sotto in su ”(low angle) of 2.75 meters alone justifies the price: 310 million euros. Alessandro Zuccari, professor of history at the University of La Sapienza, in Rome, appointed as an expert, admits having had difficulty in estimating its value: “It is an extraordinary work. And since she is unique, we have nothing to compare her to. A Caravaggio unicum is invaluable. ” It was necessary to fix a price, as well as for the rest of the villa, 471 million euros therefore, since the Italian justice obliges the principessa to sell: « I wanted to stay there until my death and continue the fight of my husband. I wanted a museum, “they” want to make apartments. ” « They » are the three children of the prince, who died in 2018. It is an understatement to say that the relationship was not harmonious: « When they are small, they are cute to eat. When they grow up, we wonder why we didn’t!  » he had told a reporter from the « New Yorker ».

Of Texan origin, the « principessa » opened the villa to generous donors. But the couple refused to sell it to Bill Gates

The roots of these dissensions go back to an old debt. To extinguish it, Prince Nicolo had commissioned two of his sons, Francesco and Ignazio, to sell property. What they did, but, it seems, keeping a « surplus » of 4 million euros which should have gone to the father. Learning about it, Prince Nicolo decided to cancel the old deeds of donation, which provided for a third for Francesco, a third for Ignazio and a third for him. Nothing for the third son. The prince then writes a new will and sticks to the legal quotas: 50% for his wife, 50% for his three descendants. During the lifetime of the father, the acrimony remained muted. After her death, she exploded: the sons want to sell, the princess wants to stay. Because she fell in love with the place at the same time as with her prince. But attempts to settle and negotiations fail. « Twenty-three times I went in front of lawyers for a conciliation that I was ready to sign, but twenty-three times they asked for more! » she says.

A letter from Louis XVI’s wife to his cousin Cardinal Boncompagni Ludovisi. © Claire Delfino / Paris Match

In the meantime, the princess organizes once a month private visits (300 euros) and even dinners (from 5,000 to 7,000 euros) under the frescoes of Guercino. Nicolo’s children try to make their mother-in-law bend by legal means. Even, according to her, by intimidation: “One day, my youngest stepson came with a tattooed guy saying to me: ‘You saw, he is getting out of prison. You should be careful with yourself… ”” The eldest, Prince Francesco, was sentenced to a 20-month suspended prison sentence in 1992 for a fraudulent credit card scam. And an arrest warrant against him was issued in Austria for sales of iPads without software. More recently, he was arrested for acquiring a 37-meter yacht through tax evasion. In a family that gave Italian history two popes, Gregory XIII and XV, seventeen cardinals and five senators, one would have dreamed of a more irreproachable heir.

The former hunting lodge of Cardinal del Monte, the only remaining building of a large estate sold to the city in the 19th century

The former hunting lodge of Cardinal del Monte, the only remaining building of a large estate sold to the city in the 19th century © Claire Delfino / Paris Match

What the kids have arguably underestimated is the character of Rita, née Carpenter. And also his origins: “Don’t mess with Texas”, the motto of his state of birth. Passionate about politics, the princess began working for Ted Kennedy. In 1976, she married John Jenrette, a Democratic representative from South Carolina. Four years later, he accepts 50,000 dollars in baksheesh. It’s an FBI trap that sends him to jail. It is also the time when Rita poses naked for « Playboy ». Divorce was pronounced in 1981. She began a career as an actress in Z series, then became a television presenter for Fox News before turning to real estate in 1994, selling the General Motors building in New York to Donald Trump. On this occasion, she had to fight in court to recover her commission ($ 6 million). A character trait that Nicolo’s children should have paid attention to.

The eldest son Ludovisi was sentenced to prison for several scams

In 2003, she landed in Rome with a hotel project to be built on an estate belonging to Prince Nicolo. It’s love at first sight. Already married twice (and having had an affair with actress Michèle Mercier, his widow tells us), the prince does not rush. Six years later, Rita Carpenter nonetheless becomes Princess Boncompagni Ludovisi and the couple choose to live in Villa Aurora. It is there that Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, in 1597, commissioned a young protege, Michelangelo Merisi dit il Caravaggio, a fresco to brighten up the corridor of the old hunting lodge. Abandoning his chiaroscuro style, Caravaggio draws this allegory showing Pluto, Jupiter and Neptune, to whom he gives his image.

In the park, a “Pan God” by Michelangelo.

In the park, a “Pan God” by Michelangelo. © Claire Delfino / Paris Match

More daring still, the Roman gods surround a translucent celestial sphere representing the Sun, which means that the Earth revolves around this star, a belief which, in 1600, will send Giordano Bruno to the stake. The Ludovisi, who then formed one of the five great Roman families, bought the villa and considerably extended the estate. To the point of having to cede, three centuries later, most of it to the city of Rome. Thus was born the via Veneto, the most famous artery of the Eternal City. Then time has done its work and, through ignorance or neglect, Caravaggio’s fresco disappears under the dust and soot. « Child, when I went to see my grandfather, I ran in this passage, but it was only a black ceiling of filth », will admit the prince Nicolo.

Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi on the terrace overlooking the gardens of Villa Borghese

Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi on the terrace overlooking the gardens of Villa Borghese © Claire Delfino / Paris Match

Miracle in 1968: the piece is rediscovered. The family fortune is not what it used to be. Prince Nicolo does not have the means to undertake the restoration work. Thanks to an agreement with the State, 10 million euros are injected. Under the impetus of the princess, the villa Aurora is opening up to prestigious guests whose donations are welcome. Some even offer to buy the house. Bill Gates will offer 190 million dollars and the former emir of Qatar, 300 million! The prince does not wish to sell, even if the last years of his life are difficult for him. “He was depressed about what his kids were going to do after he left,” says Princess Rita. Faced with a blocked legal conflict, the Italian state decided to put it up for auction. The princess replies wearily: « The only thing I would wish for is a fate identical to that of Princess Borghese, who was able to end her days at home. » Above all, I hope that those who buy the villa will take care of it.  » The state has thought about it: the buyer will be required to spend at least an additional $ 11 million on the work. Something to reassure the principessa …

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