For the second time in three months, a historic Rome villa that contains the only fresco ceiling ever painted by the Renaissance master and famed scoundrel Caravaggio has failed to attract a bidder.
More than four centuries after his death at the age of 38, the man known during his lifetime for his fistfights, arrests and lawsuits as much as for producing what would become many of history’s best-known paintings is still causing trouble.
Villa Aurora, a sprawling 2,800 sq meter (more than 30,000 sq ft) property, is the centerpiece of a bitter legal battle between the US-born Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi and the three sons of the princess’s late husband, Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi.
The property first went under the hammer in January with a price tag of €471m (£392m). After attracting no bidders, the sale was reopened on Thursday at €377m, at a 20% discount. But the result was the same.
The next round will take place on 30 June with an asking price of €301m, another 20% cut. If nobody steps up at that price then the princess and the prince’s three sons will have to agree to go even lower. If that does not succeed – and according to Italian news media, it may not – then a judge will decide on the opening price for the fourth round.
According to Beniamino Milioto, the princess’s lawyer, interested parties will have to put down a 10% deposit to qualify to bid, plus proof of enough assets to close the sale and complete a restoration plan said to cost at least €10m.
Milioto said that while there had been multiple informal expressions of interest, including from Microsoft’s Bill Gates, nobody had completed the process of qualifying to bid for either round.
The villa and its property are under the protection of Italy’s ministry of culture, meaning that when a qualifying bid is filed, the Italian state will have a chance to match the price and turn the villa into a cultural site. A petition calling for this to happen has attracted more than 35,000 signatures, a level that requires the cash-strapped Italian government to consider the acquisition. But there is no indication a state purchase is in the works.
Whoever acquires the 40-room villa will become owner of a vast collection of art that goes beyond Caravaggio’s 2.75-metre fresco of the gods Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. Its gardens include a sculpture by Michelangelo, and in the villa are other ceilings featuring frescoes by the baroque master Guercino and a spiral staircase created by the 16th- and 17th-century architect Carlo Maderno, best known for designing the facade of St Peter’s Basilica.
The villa also includes a telescope given to the Ludovisi family by Galileo and a door that was once part of an ancient Venetian warship.
The princess, now 72, was the main force behind a restoration project started in 2003, after the villa had been abandoned. That led to its opening to students and small private groups. But the visits stopped when her husband died four years ago, aged 77.
His will gave the princess rights to live on the property as long as she desired, and it indicated that when sold the proceeds would be split between the princess and three sons from his previous marriage. But her sons have disputed her right to live at Villa Aurora.
The princess had a colorful life before marrying Ludovisi in 2009. She was previously married to a North Carolina congressman, John Jenrette, worked as a model, appeared nude twice in Playboy, and acted in several low-budget films and TV series.