A villa in central Rome is going under the gavel early next year with an extraordinary asset: A large mural by Michelangelo da Caravaggio, the only known ceiling painting attributed to the Baroque genius. If the property comes anywhere close to its $545.8 million guide price, it will set a record for real estate auctions.
Built in the late 16th century as a hunting lodge, the Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi—commonly known as Villa Aurora—is all that remains of a sprawling 89-acre country estate sold off to the city in the late 19th century. Most of the buildings were demolished to make way for Via Veneto, one of Rome’s most iconic roadways, but Villa Aurora remained. It’s now situated between Via Veneto, the Villa Borghese gardens, and Porta Pinciana gate, according to a translated version of the listing, “in one of the most elegant areas of the capital.”
It was first expanded in 1858, and now includes nine bathrooms, a pair of elevators, “and a cavernous basement kitchen,” according to The New York Times, plus nine rooms with ceilings by some of the greatest artists of the 16th and 17th centuries. In another room a 1621 ceiling fresco by fellow Baroque artist Guercino depicting Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, on her chariot gives the home its name.
Carravagio’s mural, painted in 1597, is about 10 feet long and 6 feet wide. It depicts the Roman gods Jupiter, Pluto, and Neptune surrounding a translucent celestial sphere stamped with signs of the zodiac, with the Sun and Earth in the background. The Olympian triumvirate, whose faces were modeled on Caravaggio’s own, are shown with their respective animal avatars: Jupiter and his eagle, Pluto with his three-headed hellhound Cerberus, and Neptune astride a hippocampus, or seahorse. The mural was commissioned by Italian cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the villa’s second owner and a major patron early in Caravaggio’s career. Despite Del Monte’s religious vocation, he was a supporter of the sciences and used the second-floor chamber that housed the mural as his alchemy lab.
According to The Times, the painting allegorizes the theory that the Sun, rather than the Earth, is the center of the universe—a belief the Church considered heresy at the time. (Del Monte was also an ally and patron of Galileo.) The mural alone is worth $360 million, Sapienza University history professor Alessandro Zuccari told The Guardian. The work had actually been painted over during previous renovations and was only rediscovered in 1968. Painted with oils rather than water-based pigments on fresh plaster, it is technically not a fresco, according to The Art Newspaper.
The 30,000-square-foot property is also home to other priceless works, including a rosewood table handed down from Pope Gregory XIII, creator of the Gregorian calendar, and a red velvet throne belonging to Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, who built the estate.
Villa Aurora was the ancestral home of Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, who moved into the house with his wife, the former American actress Rita Jenrette, in 2003. The couple undertook a $10 million restoration of the property and artwork. The house and its treasures have been accessible for private tours since 2010. Ludovisi had previously denied requests to sell, hoping to pass the house down to his children and grandchildren. But his death in 2018 at age 77 spurred an ongoing inheritance dispute that has led to Villa Aurora being auctioned on January 18, 2022. It is unclear whether the Italian government, which has right of first refusal on the sale, will step in and purchase the property, according to The Art Newspaper.