Princess Rita Jenrette Boncompagni Ludovisi has the rarest of guilty pleasures: gazing up at the world’s only Caravaggio mural, as she practices yoga in her Roman villa. But those days of stretching and contorting under a depiction of the gods may soon be over. The villa in central Rome is up for auction due to a bitter inheritance dispute. Now she’s hoping the Italian government will step in to purchase it-and let her remain living in it-after an initial sale this week failed to snag any buyers.

“Perhaps the state will buy it and let me stay here as they did princess Borghesi over in the Borghesi gardens,” said 72-year-old Ludovisi, the third and last wife of Prince Nicolo Ludovisi Boncompagni, who died in 2018. Born in the US state of Texas, Ludovisi has lived on the estate, known as Villa Aurora, or Dawn Villa, for some 20 years. “It’s extraordinary, and of course it’s a great privilege to be the caretaker of this villa,” she said in her sitting room, decorated with framed photos of her family.

The home-which began as a mere outbuilding on the estate of Villa Ludovisi, which no longer exists-is named after a fresco by Italian baroque painter Guercino of the Roman goddess Aurora on her chariot. But now it is up for sale after a fallout with her late husband’s children from his first marriage, and she admits she has no idea where she’ll end up living. “I have looked at a couple of places in Rome where my husband’s ancestors lived... (but) I just don’t know, it would make me so sad to come by Villa Aurora and see someone else living here,” said Ludovisi.

A journalist films the Hall of Fame painted by Guercino in the Casino dell’Aurora inside the Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi in Rome. A Roman villa housing the only mural by Caravaggio failed to find a bidder in an auction on January 18, 2022 sparked by a dispute between its heirs. —AFP photos

‘Happiest moments here’

Villa Aurora has been valued at 471 million euros ($534 million) - a cool 350 million euros of which are for the Caravaggio alone. It is the only mural the master of chiaroscuro ever painted. It depicts Roman gods Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, along with the signs of the zodiac in the centre. The 2,800-square meter residence failed to attract any bids at an auction this week.

A new sale has been scheduled for April 7, and the bar has been lowered to 376.8 million euros-a 20 percent discount. Located near Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, the villa boasts a large garden dotted with sculptures. Many Italians are hoping the state might buy it, to prevent it being snapped up by a wealthy foreigner. A petition on for the government to purchase it and turn it into a museum has already collected nearly 40,000 signatures. For Ludovisi, the property’s value is deeply personal. “I still feel him everywhere,” she said, referring to her years there with the prince.

The building had been uninhabited since the 1980s when the couple moved in. “We spent our happiest moment here, we were really happy and we sacrificed everything for the villa”. Under Italian law, the government can only exercise its right of pre-emption after the property has been purchased by a private individual. At that point, within 60 days it can claim it, but only by matching the purchase price. It would be no easy sum for the government to find though, considering the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic in the already debt-laden country. —AFP