A $546 Million Roman Villa With the Only Ceiling Mural Caravaggio Ever Painted Just Flopped at Auction

Villa Aurora is at the center of a family legal dispute.

Caravaggio, Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. Collection of the Villa Aurora.
Caravaggio, Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto (ca. 1597). Collection of the Villa Aurora.

A Roman home with the only ceiling mural ever painted by Caravaggio didn’t draw a single bidder today at a court-ordered auction.

The estate, known as Villa Aurora, had a price tag of €471 million ($546 million) and could have become the most expensive residential property sold at auction. But instead of a flurry of international bidders, the sale was met with crickets.

The fate of the villa, known also as the Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, will now be decided at another auction on April 7, when it will go back up for sale for 20 percent cheaper than originally intended, according to the Milan-based publication Corriere.

Historian Alessandro Zuccari, who was hired to appraise the mural—which depicts Roman gods Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto with their respective animals—described it as “an extraordinary work” and valued it at $360 million, with additional costs for restoration coming in at $12.75 million.

Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, who first owned the property as a hunting retreat, commissioned the Caravaggio mural in 1597, though it was covered up and only rediscovered in the 1960s during renovations.

The Ludovisi family bought the property, once part of a massive 89-acre estate, from the cardinal in 1621 and commissioned the other in situ ceiling fresco, a mural depicting the goddess Aurora by Italian Baroque artist Guercino.

The villa contains a tremendous amount of history in addition to its famed frescoes: it is built on land where Julius Caesar once lived; boasts a sculpture by Michelangelo and a spiral staircase designed by architect Carlo Maderno, who designed the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica; and a telescope that Galileo Galilei gifted the Ludovosi family.

The wedding photo of Princess Rita and Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi at Villa Aurora in Rome. Photo by Marco Mancini, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The wedding photo of Princess Rita and Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi at Villa Aurora in Rome. Photo by Marco Mancini, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The sale stems from an inheritance dispute between Texas-born Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, the third wife of the late Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi, and her three stepchildren from the Prince’s first marriage.

The princess has lived in the villa for the past 20 years, and before her husband’s death in 2018, the couple opened the property to the public.

The prince’s will specified that Rita be allowed to live on the property until her death, and if it was ever sold, for the proceeds to be split between her and his three sons. But his children have mounted a legal battle challenging her right to stay.

“They want the house to themselves, forgetting how kind I’ve been to them or that their father said I made him the happiest he had been in his life” she told the Guardian.

A petition with more than 38,000 signatures is urging the government to step in and purchase the property to keep it in public hands, but as it stands now, the state only has the right of first refusal after an initial offer is made.

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