Famous Italian villa fails to sell for at auction

Detail from Caravaggio's mural
Caravaggio’s mural alone is valued at €310m

A villa in the Italian capital Rome housing the only mural by Caravaggio has failed to sell at auction. Villa Aurora is at the centre of a legal battle between its current occupier, Texas-born Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, and her stepsons.

The villa, which had a starting price of €471m (£394m), was expected to become the most expensive property ever sold but attracted no bids. Another attempt to sell it is expected in April, with the price cut by 20%.

The highlight of the six-storey villa’s many treasures is the wall painting by the 16th and 17th Century artist Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio.

The oil painting, which contains nudity, depicts the gods Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, with the world at its centre and marked by signs of the zodiac. The artist is said to have painted the gods to look like himself.

It is the world’s only surviving Caravaggio mural, itself estimated to have a value of €310m (£259m). It was painted in 1597 after the villa’s first owner commissioned it for his alchemy room. Remarkably, the painting was only discovered in the late 1960s, before which it had been covered up.

However, Villa Aurora got its name from another of the property’s artworks, a fresco painted by the Italian Baroque artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino. The painting depicts the goddess Aurora, or Dawn, on her chariot.

Art-lovers are demanding that the Italian government steps in to buy the villa so that its many treasures can be made available for public viewing. More than 38,000 people have signed a petition calling for the state to intervene.

Italian law does give the state the option to buy the property, but only after the auction has taken place, and for the same price. However, despite the reduced price, the government may still not have the funds to buy it.

Whoever the eventual buyer is, they will take ownership of a dizzying array of historical items, including letters written by Marie Antoinette and a Michelangelo statue in the garden. But there is a catch. The listing for the auction makes it clear that the buyer will be responsible for about €11m (£9.2m) of repairs.

Caravaggio's mural at Villa Aurora
Caravaggio’s mural depicts Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto

The legal battle over the villa’s ownership began after the death in 2018 of Prince Nicolo Ludovisi Boncompagni, who was head of the family which has owned Villa Aurora for generations. The dispute is between his third wife, Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, and his three sons from his first marriage.

Princess Rita says that her late husband’s will gives her the right to live in Villa Aurora for the rest of her life, and that if sold, the proceeds would be split between her and her stepsons.

However, an agreement could not be reached between the parties and a court ruled that an auction should be held. The princess says she would like the villa to be returned to the state.

Princess Rita
Princess Rita says she wants Villa Aurora to go to the state

Princess Rita, born in Texas as Rita Carpenter, has led an interesting life of her own. She worked as an actor and a journalist in the US, before moving into the property business.

She was involved in the sale of the General Motors building in New York to Donald Trump in 1998. But after marrying Prince Nicolo and moving to Italy, she dedicated her life to the restoration of Villa Aurora, which was in a state of disrepair when she first saw it in 2003, she says.

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