An American ex-Playboy model from Texas who married into Italian royalty is set to be kicked out of her home, a $539 million historic Rome villa with the world’s only Caravaggio mural, when it goes under the hammer next week following a bitter inheritance battle with her stepsons.
The Casino dell’Aurora, also known as Villa Ludovisi, has been in the Ludovisi family since the early 1600s.
After Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi died in 2018, the villa became the subject of an inheritance dispute and his third wife, Princess Rita Jenrette Boncompagni Ludovisi and his children from a previous marriage.
In 2021, a judge ordered the villa be put up for auction in January, with its value estimated at 471 million euros ($538 million) and a starting bid set at 353 million euros ($400 million).
The listing on the Rome tribunal’s auction site highlights its many attributes, though it notes that 11 million euros ($12.5 million) in renovations will be necessary to make it comply with current standards.
A ‘monumental property’ on six levels, the listing says it is ‘among the most prestigious architectural and landscape beauties of pre-unification Rome,’ with three garages, the Caravaggio, two roof terraces and a ‘splendid garden with arboreal essences and tall trees, pedestrian paths, stairs and rest areas.’
Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi (far left) and Princess Rita (left and right) are pictured at the Villa Ludovisi. After the prince died in 2018, the villa became the subject of an inheritance dispute between his sons and Rita.
Tucked away in a small room on the second floor, Jupiter, Neptune And Pluto (pictured) is the only ceiling painting by Caravaggio, which is expected to fetch a high price for the villa at auction in January
Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi (center) decided to appear in Playboy magazine, posing in a feather boa in a photoshoot to accompany an article that she’d written, headlined The Liberation of a Congressional Wife
The stunning property — a former hunting lodge on a hilltop site once occupied by Julius Caesar’s palace — has what estate agents might call bags of potential.
But it is also in need of serious renovation: the basic cost of sorting it out is estimated at $12.5 million.
One thing the lucky buyer certainly won’t be doing, however, is getting decorators in to re-paint the ceilings.
For Villa Aurora happens to boast the only surviving ceiling fresco by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Tucked away in a small room on the second floor, Jupiter, Neptune And Pluto was completed by the Baroque artist in 1597 at the behest of the property’s then owner, a cardinal who wanted to jazz up a small room he had decided to use as an alchemy laboratory.
This stunning property — a former hunting lodge on a hilltop site once occupied by Julius Caesar’s palace — has what estate agents might call bags of potential (pictured)
The stunning picture, measuring 10 feet across, shows the three Olympian gods with their characteristic elements: air and sulphur for Jupiter, water and mercury for Neptune, plus earth and salt for Pluto.
The prince’s three sons, Francesco, Ignazio, and Bante have spent years battling their stepmother, Princess Rita, over the fate of the property.
Things concluded with a ruling that Villa Aurora should be sold at auction. She will get half the proceeds.
‘I wanted this house to become a museum, but I am tired of going to court, and the court was fed up with the suing so has ordered the house to be sold. It’s heartbreaking,’ she said in October, adding that her late husband had always resisted selling, despite offers from Bill Gates and an Arab sheikh. ‘To think of this house falling into the wrong hands devastates me.’
Born plain Rita Carpenter, in Texas, she was educated at Harvard and spent much of the 1970s in Washington DC as the wife of John Jenrette, a Democratic congressman from South Carolina. Their marriage hit the buffers in 1980, when he was convicted of accepting a $50,000 bribe, in what became known as the ‘Abscam scandal’.
Rita, pictured left at the Playboy Mansion on April 13, 1981 and right with Hugh Hefner, decided to appear in Playboy magazine, posing topless with a feather boa in a photoshoot to accompany an article that she’d written, headlined The Liberation of a Congressional Wife. Another model is seen on the cover
She subsequently decided to appear in Playboy magazine, posing topless with a feather boa in a photoshoot to accompany an article that she’d written, headlined The Liberation of a Congressional Wife.
Rita is pictured on the cover of Playboy in 1984, three years after she first appeared in the magazine back in 1981
In it, she accused her former spouse of serious infidelity and claimed that once, during a break from an all-night session of Congress, she and Jenrette had ‘made love on the marble steps that overlook the monuments’ in front of the U.S. Capitol.
The revelation made global headlines, and an autobiography, My Capitol Secrets, came out later that year. It was billed as the true story of ‘the lady who blew the lid off Washington.’
Inside, she detailed ‘the endless parties, drop-your-clothes-at-the-door orgies, alcoholic bashes, the cocaine, the call girls — and call boys’ she had encountered during her time in politics. Naturally, the book became a bestseller.
Rita next moved to Los Angeles to capitalize on her notoriety by pursuing a Hollywood career.
She appeared on, among other things, an episode of the TV drama Fantasy Island as a character called Nurse Heavenly, and in a film entitled Zombie Island Massacre.
Rita appeared in Playboy again in 1984, this time on the cover.
After the acting jobs dried up, she moved to New York to try her hand as a TV news reporter.
Later, during the 1990s, she became an estate agent. Her biggest deal involved the 1998 sale of the General Motors Building to Donald Trump, who promptly installed his name in 4 ft-high gold letters above the front door.
Rita’s life changed once again in 2003, when she was telephoned out of the blue and asked to work as broker on a potential development deal involving Prince Nicolo.
The Casino Boncompagni Ludovisi also known as Casino dell’Aurora, will be up for auction next week. Pictured is the room of the countries, with the side panels painted by Guercino, Paul Bril, Domenichino, Gian Battista Viola
‘They called me and said, ‘We have this prince who would like to develop a hotel on his property,’ she later told New Yorker magazine.
‘I said, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sakes! Everybody in New York calls themselves count or prince or whatever — they’re not.”
Eventually, she agreed to go to Rome and soon realized that her client was the real deal. The Prince, for his part, fell in love at first sight.
The property — which dates back to 1570 — also contains a statue of Pan attributed to Michelangelo on its gravel drive, while the entrance hall is dominated by a huge ceiling painting by Guercino, another baroque artist (pictured)
‘It was probably written in the stars,’ he later recalled. ‘I said, in the clumsiest way one can even imagine, ‘Well, you are not ugly.’ She’s beautiful, of course, but she’s as beautiful inside. She’s candid like a child but shrewd like a fox!’
The couple, who married in 2009, spent more around $13 million preserving their property, and each month would invite visitors on paid tours of the home and gardens, which would culminate in their being invited for tea.
Their 15-year relationship was, however, the cause of friction with his sons that appears never to have been resolved.
‘When they were small, you would’ve eaten them up,’ the Prince once told an interviewer, regarding his three boys. ‘When they grew up, you sort of regret that you didn’t.’
Now, it is, of course, ending with the sale of the historic family seat.
‘I hope whoever buys this house loves it as much as I have,’ Princess Rita said last year.
The best chance Princess Rita has of preventing Villa Aurora from falling into the hands of a free-spending oligarch, Arab sheikh or flashy vulgarian is for the Italian government — which will conduct the sale on January 18 — to decide to buy it.
It can do that thanks to a preservation order, which gives the State the option to buy historic properties and artworks, provided they can match the closing bid.
‘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,’ says Alessandro Zuccari, a history professor at Sapienza University in Rome, who oversaw the valuation of the mural on behalf of the authorities.
‘It’s a place that’s unique in the world… The state will have the right to buy it; the problem will be whether it can pay such a high price.’
For the past few months, she is enjoying her final moments with the treasures.
‘Sometimes I go up there and I take my yoga mat and I do my yoga beneath the Caravaggio, because it’s very relaxing,’ she told the Associated Press in December. ‘And now, knowing I’ll be leaving I guess when that auction happens, I treasure every moment. I treasure every moment, every memory.’