A luxurious Italian estate featuring the only ceiling ever painted by Baroque artist Caravaggio went up for auction this week, only to receive no bids.
Nestled in the historic heart of Rome, the 16th-century Villa Aurora boasts 30,000 square feet of space, lush gardens, a Michelangelo sculpture, possible buried ancient structures and a fresco of the goddess Aurora by Italian Baroque artist Guercino in its main hall, reports Elisabetta Povoledo for the New York Times.
The crown jewel of the property is its rare ceiling mural. Yet even this one-of-a-kind Caravaggio failed to attract any takers during an online auction held Tuesday, writes Nicole Winfield for the Associated Press (AP). The sale was declared void after nobody bid the minimum price of roughly $400 million; per Italian law, the estate will go up for auction again—at a substantially lower price—in the coming months.
Potential buyers may have been discouraged by the estate’s price tag. (Its court-appraised value is $533 million.) The huge cost is due largely to the Caravaggio, which was valued by Italian scholar Alessandro Zuccari at around $352 million alone. Speaking with the Times, Zuccari says the mural will likely require an additional $11 million in restoration and conservation fees.
Regardless of whether it sells, Zuccari deems the mural “priceless, from a cultural point of view.”
The next auction will take place on April 7, when the house will be offered at a 20 percent discount. Even at this reduced price, the sale of Villa Aurora could make it one of the most expensive homes in the world, reports Crispian Balmer for Reuters.
Caravaggio painted the ceiling mural, titled Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, in 1597 for the home’s first owner, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. The small room that it adorns was once used as an alchemy workshop, per the AP. Fittingly, the dramatic scene features an allegorical representation of the transformation of lead into gold. As Reuters notes, Caravaggio painted the three Roman gods referenced in the work’s title with his own face and body.
Unusually, the artwork is not a fresco, but rather an oil painting on plaster. At some point after its creation, the mural was covered up, only to be rediscovered during renovations in the 1960s.
“It’s a beautiful piece about a mythological theme, which is rare in Caravaggio’s art because he mostly dealt with sacred themes,” art historian Claudio Strinati tells the AP.
The wealthy Ludovisi family purchased Villa Aurora from the cardinal in 1621, reports Caroline Goldstein for Artnet News. It remained in the noble Italian family for 400 years.
Villa Aurora’s ownership became the subject of debate in 2018, when owner Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi died at the age of 77, leaving the estate to his third wife, Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.
Formerly Rita Carpenter, the Texas-born princess had lived with her husband in the villa for nearly two decades. The couple poured money and time into restoring the building to its former glory and curating its vast archive of treasures, including a telescope once owned by Galileo Galilei, as Angela Giuffrida writes for the Guardian.
Ludovisi’s three sons from a previous marriage disputed the princess’ right to continue living in the home. The legal battle that followed ultimately resulted in an Italian judicial order to sell the villa.
Meanwhile, more than 39,000 people have signed a petition asking the Italian government to step in and purchase the villa in the name of preserving local cultural heritage. The state currently only has the option to purchase the estate after an initial outside bid has been made.
In addition to the Caravaggio upstairs, the estate may be home to other hidden treasures. Researchers have detected more frescoes behind false ceilings in the villa, as well as evidence of a “massive” former Roman settlement beneath the foundations, as Rutgers University classics scholar T. Corey Brennan tells the Times.
“If you were able to start digging, you would immediately hit Roman remains,” Brennan adds. “It’s not just what’s there but what is certainly there that excites me.”