ROME – It has been heralded as the real estate transaction of the century.
For sale was a 30,000 square foot 16th century villa in downtown Rome, with a landscaped garden and a painted ceiling masterpiece – by Caravaggio.
But when Villa Aurora went up for auction on Tuesday, the high price – 471 million euros, or $533 million – scared off potential buyers. There were no offers at the minimum auction price, according to the notary in charge of the sale.
Besides Caravaggio’s fresco – “Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto”, which he painted for the villa’s first owner, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, in 1597 – the villa has ceiling frescoes by other Baroque masters, including Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino. . Its fresco in the main hall of the Roman goddess of dawn, “Aurora”, gave the villa its name.
The villa has been owned by the Boncompagni Ludovisi family for 400 years. But an inheritance dispute between the widow of Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, who died in 2018 at the age of 77, and his three sons from his first marriage caused a court order to sell.
Any buyer would need very deep pockets because the villa requires at least 10 million euros for restoration work, said Alessandro Zuccari, a professor at the University of Rome appointed by the Rome court to oversee the inheritance dispute to establish the monetary value of the villa. “I told the magistrate that it was priceless, from a cultural point of view; she told me I had to come up with a number,” he said.
Most of the value of the villa rests on the fresco by Caravaggio, valued at 310 million euros. Professor Zuccari said the overall price was justified because of the villa’s “tremendous cultural value”.
“What building in the world has a Caravaggio mural next to a Guercino mural?” He asked. The villa also includes works by other famous 17th century artists and ancient Roman statuary.
Thousands of people have visited the auction website, where a video provides an extensive gallery of images of the property’s art.
Meanwhile, an online petition signed by nearly 39,000 people has called on Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini to use European Union funds to buy the villa at the asking price. The department also has the right to match any offers for the villa, should a buyer come forward.
Princess Rita Boncompani Ludovisi, the US-born third wife of the late Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, who lived in the villa for the better part of two decades, said she had mixed feelings about the failure of the auction. “I had hoped for some sort of resolution today,” she said, adding that she had agreed to leave.
As caretaker of the villa, she made it available to scholars and arranged tours and personalized dinners to help pay for its upkeep. She and her late husband “put everything into Villa Aurora,” she said.
T. Corey Brennan, a classics professor at Rutgers University who has worked on the Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive for more than a decade, said there is much left to discover in the villa.
In recent years frescoes have been detected behind false ceilings and drop ceilings in the villa, and have yet to be fully uncovered and restored, Prof Brennan said.
And a “comprehensive underground survey of the villa”, carried out with non-invasive ground-penetrating radar and other techniques, shows that it rests on massive remains that dwarf the size of the villa.
“If you could start digging, you would immediately hit Roman remains,” he said. “It’s not just what’s out there, but what’s definitely out there that excites me.”
The villa will return to the block on April 7, its cost reduced by 20% to just 377 million euros.
“We are continuing,” Princess Rita said in a phone interview. “Here we are.”