As legend goes, tossing a coin into the Trevi fountain guarantees a return visit to Rome. When, as a 16-year-old American tourist, Rita Carpenter participated in the ritual and made a wish to one day marry a Roman and live in the Italian capital, little did she know that almost five decades on she would return to marry a prince and home would be a 16th-century villa stuffed with history, including the only ceiling mural ever painted by Caravaggio.
But now Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi is facing the prospect of having to move out of the sprawling Villa Aurora, and the vast treasures it contains are at risk of being closed off to the public.
On 18 January the property goes under the hammer, amid a bitter inheritance feud with the sons of her late husband, Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi. Hidden by high walls close to Via Veneto in central Rome, the villa is being sold with an opening bid of €471m (£393m), which would make it one of the world’s most expensive homes.
“We couldn’t reach an agreement so the judge ruled it had to be auctioned,” said the 73-year-old. “I really haven’t slept much at all.”
The princess is sceptical a petition launched this week urging the Italian government to stump up the cash to buy the property will be successful. Since the site is protected by the ministry of culture, once a bid has been agreed at auction the state will have the chance to buy the property at the same price. “I’d like the state to buy it but I don’t know if it’s a possibility as I don’t know if they have the money, that’s the problem. And I’m not the only heir.”
The lion’s share of the asking price is attributed to Caravaggio’s Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto mural, which the artist painted in 1597 on the ceiling of a small room tucked away on the villa’s first floor. The 2.75-metre-wide mural was commissioned by the villa’s first owner, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, to adorn the ceiling of his alchemy laboratory.
But the Caravaggio is not the only slice of history that Villa Aurora’s new owner will acquire. The property lies on the site of what was once the home of Julius Caesar. Monuments in the front garden include a sculpture by Michelangelo. The building also contains ceilings frescoed by the baroque painter Guercino, who was commissioned by the Ludovisis, a noble family with close ties to the papacy who bought the property from Del Monte in 1621. The spiral staircase leading up to the Caravaggio and the three floors above was designed by the baroque architect Carlo Maderno, who also designed the facade of St Peter’s Basilica.
The 40 or so rooms are packed with relics, including a door that belonged to an ancient Venetian warship, a telescope gifted to the Ludovosi family by Galileo Galilei and a leather box inscribed with a message from Queen Elizabeth II thanking the Ludovisi family for allowing members of the British Red Cross to reside in the villa for two years after the second world war. Villa Aurora has hosted everyone from Tchaikovsky and Henry James, who penned some of his 1909 classic, Italian Hours, in the villa’s garden, to Bette Midler and Madonna.
“This really is a museum,” said Princess Rita.
Villa Aurora was off the radar to the public until 2010, when it opened following a restoration project inspired by the princess after she saw it for the first time in 2003, the year she met Prince Nicolò.
“It was abandoned, there were birds flying through it and I told Nicolò: ‘We have to open the villa, it has to be seen by Italians and other people, they need to understand the beauty and culture of it all,’” she said.
Until the prince’s death in 2018, the villa hosted students of history and small private tour groups. The couple were also behind various charity initiatives. The princess put together a digital archive of 150,000 documents that shed even more light on the history of the villa.
The princess had an intriguing life before she met Nicolò. Described by the Washington Post in 1978 as one of the four most dynamic young women in the city, she was married to the US congressman John Jenrette until their divorce in 1981 after his bribery conviction during the FBI’s Abscam investigation. She acted in several films and miniseries, studied at Harvard Business School, wrote three books and twice posed for Playboy magazine.
She was a property broker in New York when she crossed paths with Nicolò. “He’d read an article about me in Crain’s Business, and then a mutual friend got in touch and said: ‘You must come to Rome, there’s this prince who wants to put a hotel on one of his properties outside the city.’” She was initially dismissive, but eventually flew to Rome and the pair instantly fell in love. A psychic had previously told her she would marry a European and live in Europe. “I’d kind of forgotten about it, but then there he was. He was a brilliant man in every way, and the least important part about him was being a prince.”
In his will, Nicolò gave his wife the right to stay in the property for the rest of her life and, if sold, the proceeds were to be split between her and his sons. However, the sons disputed her right to stay in the villa, immediately prompting a toxic legal wrangle. She fears they will also try to prevent her getting her share of the sale’s proceeds.
“They want the house to themselves, forgetting how kind I’ve been to them or that their father said I made him the happiest he had been in his life. I don’t know what I’ll do afterwards, but I’ve done all I can, I can’t fight any more.”