The screenplay synopsis practically writes itself: US-born widow of an Italian prince (or something like one) finds herself at the center of a battle over the inheritance of a Roman estate and the priceless Caravaggio it contains. A modern-day rags-to-riches-to-rags saga of Gothic proportions.
Key players are the late Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi’s children from his first marriage and his American third wife, the former Rita Carpenter Jenrette, whom he married in 2009. Boncompagni Ludovisi, a descendant of Roman nobility, used the title of “Prince,” though the Italian monarchy has not existed since the 1940s.
Since her husband’s death in 2018, “Princess” Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi has been embroiled in the bitter dispute, which came to a dramatic head on Thursday when she was forcibly evicted from her home, commonly referred to as Villa Ludovisi or Villa Aurora.
A house with a history
The 16th-century-built manor is located just off the ritzy Via Veneto — the iconic boulevard made famous by Federico Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita.
The property, which has been in the Ludovisi family since the early 17th century, contains the only known ceiling painted by Caravaggio (1571-1610). The oil-on-plaster mural depicting Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune is not very big, measuring a mere 2.75 meters (9 feet) wide.
The property sits on the site of what was once the home of Julius Caesar. There’s a garden sculpture by Michelangelo, frescoes by Guercino, and a spiral staircase by Carlo Maderno, the Baroque architect credited with designing the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica.
While the treasures are not regularly accessible to the public, over the years Boncompagni Ludovisi has opened the villa for occasional guided visits and fundraisers for various charitable and political causes.
A tale as old as time — and a Battle Royale
Nicolo and Rita met in Rome through mutual friends in 2003, and quickly fell in love. Boncompagni Ludovisi recalled the first time she saw the abandoned villa, birds flying around inside. She convinced her then-husband-to-be to consider refurbishing the home and eventually opening it to the public. She said the two worked tirelessly to bring the villa back to its former glory.
In his will, the prince gave his wife the right to live in the property until her death. If sold, the profits would be split between her and his sons.
Here’s the beef: The Ludovisi children say that their grandfather, Don Gregorio Boncompagni Ludovisi, always intended to leave the property to them. They also accuse their father of abuse and say he mismanaged his fortune. Following the prince’s death in 2018, the heirs began legal proceedings to gain control of the home.
In January, an eviction order was granted. At that same time, the court instructed the property to be auctioned off at an initial price of €471 million ($517 million). With no takers, the price was dropped to €145 million ($160 million) and will continue to be lowered incrementally until a buyer can be found.
In her ruling, Judge Miriam Iappelli charged the widow with failing to maintain and conserve the home and its precious artifacts. The last straw for the magistrate may have been the reported collapse of an exterior wall of the home, resulting in the closure of an adjacent street.
Last week the clock ran out on the princess, who was escorted out of the villa by police. In a statement she released to the Associated Press last week, Boncompagni Ludovisi wrote, “What a brutal ending to my beautiful life with my beloved Nicolo.”