Italy: Villa Aurora - Rome’s best kept secret?

What?
A spectacular 16th century villa chockfull of art that must be one of Rome’s best-kept secrets.

Why visit?
Few people have heard of Villa Aurora, which is basically all that remains of the garden of Villa Ludovisi, once the most magnificent garden in Rome.

But it’s hard to beat Villa Aurora in terms of history and art- from 2000 year old Roman statues to the only known painting that Baroque bad boy Caravaggio executed on a ceiling.

If you’re lucky enough to score a visit here, you’re likely to be given a tour by the Principessa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, whose passionate retelling of the villa’s and family’s history provide a direct connection to several centuries’ worth of art and aristocratic gossip.

Where?
Wedged between the luscious Villa Borghese, the touristy Spanish Steps, and infamous Via Veneto. Map.




WE FIRST HEARD about Villa Aurora five years ago and have been wanting to visit ever since. An article in The New Yorker painted a fascinating picture of what used to be the most famous gardens in Rome, the Ludovisi gardens, the private territory of the Ludovisi family, a noble family that played more than its fair share in Rome’s history.

These days known as the House of Boncompagni-Ludovisi, following a successful aristocratic merger with the equally distinguished Boncompagni family in 1681, the family’s members included two popes, including Gregory XIII, he who gave us the Gregorian calendar. How’s that for a family tree? The family even had its own little country: the Principality of Piombino, an independent (mini-) state until Napoleon came, saw, and conquered it in 1801.

In 1621, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, whose artist pals included A-listers like Bernini and Guercino, purchased the estate in a clever real-estate deal that made this the family’s Roman power base.

A mug shot of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi
Villa Ludovisi was just outside the city centre, just like the Villa Borghese and Villa Pamphili, covering a serious stretch of land. However, the Boncompagni-Ludovisis were less savvy than their aristocratic neighbours. The 1890’s equivalent of a banking sub-prime crisis almost bankrupted the family, and they were forced to sell. Their massive gardens, beloved and praised by the likes of Stendhal and Henry James, were sold off to replenish the family coffers.

The land was purchased by property developers, who built the Via Veneto and its surroundings, and the family’s principal palace, Palazzo Margherita, eventually became the US embassy. Only the street names give away the illustrious history of the area: there’s a Via Boncompagni, and you can park your car in the Ludovisi parking garage… 
A little hunting lodge- all that's left. 
All that remained for the princely family was a little hunting lodge (little, in aristocratic terms, meaning a puny 3000 M2 - 32000 Sqft), a humble shelter in the former gardens, where no one had ever spent the night, until it was all the Ludovisis had left.

These days, the 12th Prince of Piombino, Nicoló Boncompagni-Ludovisi, lives here with his American-born wife, Principessa Rita, who has made it her mission to save the Villa Aurora for posterity. And so, after many years of being out-of-bounds, the Villa is now open to intrepid visitors.

And why, you wonder, would you bother visiting a humble hunting lodge? Well, perhaps because, even if this was only an outsized garden cottage, the Ludovisis did not skimp on the interior decoration. Villa Aurora reads like a Who’s Who of Renaissance artists.


 
















Baroque enfant terrible Carravaggio left his only painting on a ceiling here in the villa. The Princess mentioned she likes to do yoga under it. We’d like to try that too, but know that it involves a rather in-your-face encounter with divine testicles. 
Legend has it Caravaggio painted his own face on the right- as well as his own cojones. 
Caravaggio, up close and personal. 
Amazingly, this painting had been whitewashed and disappeared from view for centuries. Perhaps one of the earlier residents did not appreciate Caravaggio’s close encounter with male genitalia. Or maybe the subject matter wasn’t orthodoxly catholic enough, seemingly supporting the heretic notion that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of the universe. The painting was only rediscovered in the 1980s.

The Villa Aurora derives its name from the stunning ceiling painting by Guercino (another Baroque superstar painter) in the entrance hall, with the goddess Aurora ringing in another day in a stunning exercise in perspective. Guercino was a protégé of Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi, and this connection brought him good fortune, figuratively as well as literally.

It's a brand new day: Aurora arrives in style. 
If you happen to like cherubs (who doesn’t?), the Villa Aurora’s ceilings abound with the cutest, pudgiest, cuddliest flying babies you can imagine. The best ones are by Pomarancio, another world-class painter. 
Pomarancio's gravity-defying cherubs. 
Apart from the stunning interiors, let’s not forget the garden. It’s all that’s left of the fabled Villa Ludovisi. With that in mind, it feels a bit like the Gaulish village of Astérix as it is surrounded on all sides by Roman conquerors, in this case early 20th century apartment blocks rather than legionnaires.

The pedigree of the garden is outstanding: in Roman times this were the private gardens of one Julius Caesar, and they were later known as the Gardens of Sallust. When Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi started work on his Villa, a substantial number of Roman remains were unearthed, some of which still feature as garden ornaments today.
Lastly, for a final name-drop, the garden houses a statue by Michelangelo of the god Pan, who seems positively excited to see you.
So happy to see you! Your place or mine?


Getting there:
Getting there is the easy part. It’s getting inside that requires a bit of work. Being close to the Spanish Steps and the Villa Veneto, the Villa Aurora is easy to reach.

Because all the tours are given by the Princess, who is a treasure trove of knowledge about the house and the family, the only way to visit is to arrange a personal tour. And the only way to book a personal tour is to email Tatiana @ principedipiombino.com, or ring her up at +39 06 483942 (Mon, Wed, Fri 9-13h) and make a reservation. 

Mind you, there is a charge: 
300, which will allow a group of up to 15 people to visit. So the best thing you can do is find as many art-loving friends as possible, and book a tour. It’s your only chance to see these unique works of art- and learn first-hand how, if you don’t manage your investments well, you’ll end up with just a little garden shed to live in… 

Useful links:
The Prince’s website has a good overview of the family history and the Villa’s art.
Lastly, there’s the fascinating The New Yorker article about the Villa and its inhabitants. 

 







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