By The Abode Team
A sprawling villa in Rome containing the only ceiling mural ever painted by the Italian master Caravaggio is being put up for sale for almost €500m. The 2.75-metre wide painting Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte in the 16th century to adorn the ceiling in his alchemy laboratory at Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora. The villa was once set within the sprawling country retreat Villa Ludovisi named after the nobleman Ludovico Ludovisi to whom Del Monte sold the property in 1620. The Villa Ludovisi was once described by the French writer Stendhal as possessing some of the most beautiful gardens in the world. Villa Aurora, surrounded by high walls close to Via Veneto in central Rome, is all that remains of the retreat.
Del Monte bought property, which he restructured before commissioning Caravaggio to paint the mural in his lab, which was only a very small room,” said Alessandro Zuccari, a history professor at Sapienza University in Rome who oversaw the valuation of the mural. “It’s an extraordinary work which was difficult to put a price on, seeing as it was the only mural ever done by Caravaggio and so we had nothing to compare it to.” Zuccari valued the mural, painted by Caravaggio when he was in his 20s, at no less than €310m. The entire property will go on auction on 18 January with an opening bid of €471m. Del Monte, one of Caravaggio's most significant early patrons, created the painting in 1597 and it depicts the three titular gods, each identified by their respective beasts (Jupiter's eagle, Neptune's hippocamp and Pluto's three-headed dog Cerberus), in an allegorical scene related to the cardinal's interest in alchemy. Caravaggio modelled each of the god's faces of his own. Because the work was executed in oil paint rather than water-based pigments on fresh plaster, it is not a fresco, as is occasionally reported, but a ceiling painting.
The building also contains rooms frescoed by the baroque painter Guercino, who was commissioned by the Ludovisi family, a noble family with close ties to the papacy who bought the property from Del Monte.
Almost all of the estate was sold off by Ludovisi family to the Rome city government in the late 19th century, with most of the buildings destroyed to make way for the major thoroughfare Via Veneto, leaving Villa Aurora as its final vestige.
The sale of Villa Aurora comes after a lengthy inheritance dispute after the death of its owner, Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, in 2018.
“There are other rooms decorated spectacularly but the most important works are by Caravaggio and Guercino,” said Zuccari. “It’s a place that’s unique in the world.” The property is filled with other antiques, although dozens of ancient statues are now hosted at the National Roman Museum after being bought by the Italian state.
Because 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. Whoever buys the property will have to spend another €11m in restoration costs. Villa Aurora has been off the beaten track for most tourists. Until 2019 it was only possible to visit the villa and its gardens by booking a private tour, held once a month.