T. Corey Brennan
It’s at once a real estate drama, an art market thriller, a cultural heritage quandary, and a vexed and vexing family saga. At the center of it all is a richly-frescoed, antiquities-filled villa in Rome, the Casino dell’Aurora, owned by the papal Boncompagni Ludovisi family for a full four centuries. For reasons not all that easy to comprehend, an Italian court is forcing the home’s sale – on a judicial auction website, buried deep in a highly depressing mix of foreclosed properties and confiscated bric-a-brac. The initial asking price? 471 million euros, which observers quickly noted was the highest sum ever asked for a private residence.
A first round of the auction, held online on 18 January 2022, reportedly had no bids. A second round is slated for 7 April 2022, with an automatic 20% reduction in price – if achieved, this would still make the Casino the most expensive home in the world. The story of the sale has sparked hundreds of features in worldwide media, high-level academic debate on the Casino’s value, a significant grass-roots petition asking the Italian state to find the funds to buy the residence, and (somewhat predictably) a plethora of less lofty takes.
There’s a reason for all the attention. The Casino dell’Aurora (built 1570) sits in central Rome atop a walled enclave of roughly two acres, on ground that once belonged to Julius Caesar (100–44 BC), then the historian Sallust (c.86–35 BC), and eventually a long series of Roman emperors, starting with Tiberius (ruled AD 14–37). In 1621 Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, the nephew of pope Gregory XV (reigned 1621–3), bought the Casino and several adjacent properties within the Aurelian Walls to form an outrageous urban enclave, the Villa Ludovisi. The Villa later swelled further to almost 90 acres, before its vast greenspace was developed in the late 1880s into a new residential and business quarter. The last major remnants of the old Villa Ludovisi are the Casino, the residence of Prince Nicolò (1941–2018) and American-born Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, and some elements of the nearby compound of the US Embassy in Rome.
What won particular acclaim for the Ludovisi park was its significant collection of antiquities – some of which Cardinal Ludovisi himself unearthed on his new premises while relandscaping the grounds. These included the sculpture of the “Dying Gaul” now in the Capitoline Museums, and an obelisk that since 1789 has crowned the Spanish Steps, before the church of Trinità dei Monti. The Villa Ludovisi quickly became a fixture on the Grand Tour, with the Casino an essential element of the experience. Indeed, the Cardinal had acquired so many marble sculptures – by excavation, purchase or gift – that within a decade of his death in 1632, his brother set up a dedicated museum on their grounds. There he and his descendants placed about 120 of the finer pieces, leaving at least another 200 outdoors.
Today, the bulk of the best-known Classical items can be seen in the Museo Nazionale Romano at Palazzo Altemps, though others have travelled farther afield. For instance, a 13-foot Roman statue (its body very probably that of a Muse, and originally from the Theater of Pompey) popped up unexpectedly in Brookline, Massachusetts in 2011, and today has pride of place in the recently refurbished Greek and Roman galleries of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
To focus just on the art in the Casino, what has soaked up much of the media’s attention over the past months is a unique ceiling painting by Caravaggio, his “Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto” (1597), rediscovered only in 1968, and now officially assessed at 310 million euros. Next is a series of frescoes that Cardinal Ludovisi commissioned during his uncle’s pontificate, by Guercino (principally his “Aurora”, which gave the home its present name, and “Fama”), Agostino Tassi, Domenichino, Viola, the Flemish painter Paul Bril, and others. But only a handful of news reports have mentioned that the Casino and its grounds still hold dozens of pieces of Classical sculpture from the original Ludovisi collection. This is understandable. Hardly any of these items that remain are well known, and some have escaped detection, to the point of being considered “lost” in an extensive catalogue of the 1980s edited by Beatrice Palma.
Yet all this material, from the ancient to the Baroque and beyond, has been fetching increased attention. The year 2010 marks a red-letter date, when Prince Nicolò and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi completed an 11 million euro restoration of their home’s exterior. They then generously opened up the Casino dell’Aurora to group visits as well as study. Here results have been quick. A formal collaboration with Rutgers University led to the creation of a 32-hour online course on the papacy, with a focus on Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572–85) and Gregory XV Ludovisi. A student-directed long format documentary film followed, in this case focusing on the 21st-century challenges of preserving the Casino dell’Aurora. Perhaps most consequential has been the digitization of a large private archive recovered in the home during renovations – some 150,000 pages in all, dating back to the early 1400s.
So far it has been undergraduates, especially from Rutgers, who have filmed the Casino and done almost all of the first wave of work on its digitized documents. Those include such highlights as the future Gregory XIII attesting to the paternity of a son (1552), detailed financial accounts for the Boncompagni and Ludovisi families (spanning 1378–1745), and 25 previously unknown letters of Louis XVI (1754–93) and Marie Antoinette (1755–93) (spanning 1775–87).
There’s much more. In the fall of 2019, Indiana University directed a non-invasive survey of the grounds of the Casino, down to a depth of seven meters, which revealed massive Roman remains. And at the same time a team from the University of Bologna at Ravenna made the first comprehensive diagnostic study of the Casino’s main ceiling paintings, with images snapped from scaffolding in natural, ultraviolet and infrared light. A February 2021 conference was the first venue for the Ravenna team’s consequential findings, to be followed by a special number of the journal Storia dell’Arte, with the assessments of twenty expert contributors.
Somewhat poignantly, the fall of 2021 emerged as another turning point for appreciation of the Casino dell’Aurora, when news of the judicial auction brought a steady stream of journalists and camera crews to document what they could before the sale. And what’s left of ancient material to see? Plenty, and not all of it published even in short catalogue entries.
Once on the grounds, it’s easy to walk right past the architrave of a temple to Hercules, dedicated by the emperor Hadrian’s appointments secretary and now converted into a garden fountain for horses. Further up a long driveway we find a funerary monument with a 2nd-cent. AD Greek inscription, commissioned by a teacher of Fronto (AD 100–70) much admired by Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161–80).
Next, a substantial altar that honors – with a full-length portrait in high relief and elegant inscription – a veteran of Rome’s praetorian guard, well known to Renaissance humanists but since 1885 thought to have been lost.
Then at the entrance of the Casino are twinned statues of Dacian prisoners that once decorated the Forum of Trajan (inaugurated AD 112), identical to another eight mounted high up on the arch of Constantine (opened AD 315). Not antique, but worthy of mention among much else carved in marble outside the home, is a life-sized satyr that is traditionally (and perhaps accurately) attributed to Michelangelo.
And that’s even before one gets inside the doors, where a half dozen fine reliefs (dating back as early as the Julio-Claudian era) and almost a dozen portrait busts compete for attention. The strong sense one gets is that there is always more to be found. One example will have to suffice.
In November 2019, Frankfurt-based photographer (and Antigone contributor) Carole Raddato made her first visit to the Casino dell’Aurora. As soon as she entered its vestibule Raddato spotted, 10 meters away in an oval niche above the principal door of the main sala, a fine bust of a bearded Roman. When we entered the sala – the ‘Aurora’ room, painted by Guercino and Agostino Tassi – I made a quick motion toward the bust, universally identified as Marcus Aurelius. “It’s not Marcus Aurelius,” Raddato said. “I think it’s Lucius Aelius Caesar,” Hadrian’s first adopted son and presumed heir, who died on 1 January 138, after nearly eighteen months in that status. And as it happens, she added, there were just a few other such sculptural portraits in the world – most notably, a full-length heroic statue in the Louvre and a head on a modern bust at the Uffizi, as she soon proved with her phone. Put briefly, Raddato’s electrifying observation soon found its way into print and has not yet received a single voice of dissent from experts.
In a detailed 1983 work, Beatrice Palma outlined the story of the origins, basic reception and vicissitudes of the Ludovisi collection of sculpture. Yet here many new additional details have since emerged. That’s especially thanks to the rediscovered private archive in the Casino dell’Aurora, which is particularly rich on the last phase of the Villa Ludovisi in the 1880s, with documentation ranging from unpublished photographs of antiquities in the then undisturbed gardens to detailed visitor logs of the family’s private museum.
It comes as some surprise, given the grumbling of many Victorian-era writers about the difficulty of access to the Villa Ludovisi, that it now appears its museum had seen up to 3,000 visitors a year.
The introduction of photography seems only to have sharpened public interest in seeing the sculptures in person. Already in the period 1845–55, James Anderson (1813–77) photographed several major pieces in the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection, isolating individual pieces with dark drapery to create dramatic images. Though undeniably powerful – and evidently a commercial success – Anderson’s work with the Ludovisi collection offers no real information on the details of its arrangement in the gallery space
In 2017, however, a storage area of the Casino dell’Aurora offered a breakthrough, when there came the chance discovery of a small red leather-covered box labeled (in gold) “VILLA LUDOVISI” – the work of Grillet, the Neapolitan photographic firm. The contents? Twelve glass plate stereoscopic views from around 1860 of the interior of the museum’s statue galleries, which comprised just two crowded rooms. Since then, there have come to light two additional Grillet images of the interior of the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi that do not belong to this set.
These Grillet images make a critical contribution. The placement of the sculptures circa 1860 corresponds precisely to a comprehensive annotated inventory that Theodor Schreiber published in 1880. This suggests that the Ludovisi pieces, once positioned in the museum, didn’t move much. The major pieces seem to have been pushed against walls – indeed, Schreiber in his inventory uses the gallery walls as an organizing principle – thus robbing them of a good portion of their three-dimensional effect. (The Grillet images amply validate Henry James’s complaint that the famed Ludovisi ‘Juno’ was “thrust into a corner behind a shutter.) And it seems that the Boncompagni Ludovisi designated the second room as the site to display their most famous pieces.
What’s next for the Casino dell’Aurora is anyone’s guess. It was an Italian court that set the record-breaking asking price, on the basis of an expert estimate, with the stipulation that the buyer also undertake 11 million euros of conservation work. Whatever happens – whether the home passes to another private owner, or to the Italian state, or to a public / private partnership – it seems unlikely that anyone, including scholars, will be gaining access for some time to come, which of course makes the completed digital work all the more valuable.
Yet this oddly online judicial auction, hyped as “the sale of the century“ of “the world’s most expensive home”, has had at least one positive effect. As art historian Raffaella Morselli of the University of Teramo has argued, “in my opinion the high evaluation… is not only correct but it is a protection against the possibility that the Casino can be sold off for a lower amount. In this way, it was placed at the center of everyone’s attention, making us open our eyes to its uniqueness.”
T. Corey Brennan is a professor of Classics at Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ), and the founder and editor of the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi. His book The Fasces: A History of Ancient Rome’s Most Dangerous Political Symbol will be published by Oxford University Press in October 2022. With Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, he is the co-author of Villa Ludovisi: A Biography, scheduled for publication by Brepols in October 2023.
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