Always wanted to live like a Renaissance cardinal? Who doesn’t? The palazzos, the artwork, the scheming, the alchemy. If you happen to be a billionaire and feel like blowing a mountain of money on just one pretty incredible Renaissance-era house, you’re in luck. The Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi in Rome, otherwise known as Villa Aurora and Casino Del Monte, is going to be auctioned off on January. The opening bid is a mere €471 million, or about $546 million at current conversion rates.
As insanely high as that price may seem, there is one very important compensation that accounts for the stratospheric pricing: the former hunting lodge comes with the only ceiling ever painted by Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, which alone has been valued at $360 million. There are also some rare Baroque frescoes, including one of Aurora, goddess of the dawn, from where the villa gets one of its names. And nearly three-quarters of an acre of land in central Rome is not to be sneezed at.
Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte (1549-1627), the house’s original owner, commissioned Caravaggio circa 1597 to decorate his alchemy laboratory. Don’t laugh. Now known as a pseudoscience, alchemy was a respected area of thought in the Renaissance and beyond; many of the brightest scientists of all time, including Isaac Newton, dabbled in alchemy. The painter’s masterwork on the laboratory’s ceiling, called “Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto,” pictured at bottom, is about 9 feet wide. Each god is accompanied by a beast — Jupiter an eagle, Neptune a hippocamp and Pluto with his three-headed dog Cerberus — in an allegorical scene. The faces of the three gods are believed to be based on the artist’s own face, which is pretty cheeky if true.
Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1632) purchased Casino Del Monte in 1621 to become part of his enormous adjacent estate, which included the magnificent, huge Villa Ludovisi. The below etching by Piranesi, drawn in 1748, gives some idea of the size. Casino Del Monte is the small house on the top right, while Villa Ludovisi is on the left.
Ludovisi redesigned the Casino Del Monte — FYI, “casino” just means “house” in Italian — and added frescoes, including one portraying Aurora by the Italian Baroque painter Il Guercino from 1621. Ever since then, the house has also been known as Villa Aurora.
The gardens were designed by Andre Le Notre, the architect of the gardens of Versailles, and the French writer Stendhal said they were some of the most beautiful in the world.
So what happened to all that land? Almost all of the estate was sold off by the Ludovisi family to the Roman city government in the late 19th century, and most of the buildings knocked down to create Via Veneto, one of the best known streets in Rome. Villa Aurora is all that’s left, although the area is still known as the Ludovisi district.
But the Ludovisi family still own Villa Aurora to this day, 400 years after its purchase. However, after the death of its last owner, Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, in 2018, the family has been fighting about the estate — thus, the sale. One important note: whatever the high bid may be, the Italian government has the right to match that price and save the building for the nation. However, given the collapse of the government earlier this year, whether or not it can afford the price is up for debate. Plus, whoever buys the place will be liable for at least $15 million in restoration costs. The art-world bragging rights, however, are priceless.