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An epic inheritance fight will soon cost a Texas-born princess her 16th-century villa

The Villa Aurora, a palace in Rome housing the only mural by Caravaggio and at the center of a messy legal battle between a Texas-born princess and the sons of her late husband, an Italian prince, will go up for auction on Jan. 18, 2022.
Laurent Emmanuel
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AFP via Getty Images
The Villa Aurora, a palace in Rome housing the only mural by Caravaggio and at the center of a messy legal battle between a Texas-born princess and the sons of her late husband, an Italian prince, will go up for auction on Jan. 18, 2022.

ROME — For centuries, Rome has been an art lovers' paradise, drawing tourists, historians and all manner of cultural connoisseur. But almost none of them has ever laid eyes on a majestic site just steps away from the central Via Veneto. It's a sprawling 16th century villa filled with masterpieces from antiquity to the Renaissance, and it's never been open to the public.

The property and its vast holdings are now at the center of an inheritance battle between a Texas-born princess and her stepsons. And on Tuesday, it goes up for auction.

The listing on the court website includes a video — with an incongruous musical background — that highlights the six-level monumental property and its breathtaking views of Rome. The starting price is $534 million – with bidding rising in increments of more than $1 million.

Until some 20 years ago, the Villa Aurora was virtually inaccessible — chest-high weeds prevented would-be visiting scholars from even getting through the high entrance gate. Now, it's an easy walk up a twisting gravel path to lush green gardens dotted with Roman and Greek busts and a statue of the Greek god Pan attributed to Michelangelo.

The sprawling Villa Aurora is filled with masterpieces from antiquity to the Renaissance, and it's never been open to the public.
/ Princess Rita Boncompagni-Ludovisi
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Princess Rita Boncompagni-Ludovisi
The sprawling Villa Aurora is filled with masterpieces from antiquity to the Renaissance, and it's never been open to the public.

In past centuries, it had some notable visitors: Galileo, Goethe, Stendhal, Gogol, Tchaikovsky and Henry James.

At the top of the hill stands the 30,000 square foot Villa Aurora. Built in 1570, it's recently undergone some restoration.

"We started working on it little by little," says its current occupant, Princess Rita Boncompagni-Ludovisi. "We did the exterior and we did a new roof and we did so many different things that made it livable."

Before her life in Italy, the princess once scandalized Washington, D.C.

The princess is the widow of his Serene Highness Prince Nicolò Boncompagni-Ludovisi, who died in 2018. Born Rita Carpenter in Texas 72 years ago, she's had a colorful and wide-ranging life.

Once married to Representative John Jenrette of South Carolina — convicted in 1980 for accepting a bribe in the Abscam scandal — Rita Jenrette herself scandalized Washington: not only did she write about it in Playboy, she also posed for the magazine wearing a feather boa. She later worked as an actress and real estate broker — her biggest deal was selling the General Motors building to Donald Trump in 1998.

For the last 19 years, Princess Rita has dedicated herself to the Villa Aurora, raising revenue through private tours and making it accessible to scholars.

Princess Rita Boncompagni-Ludovisi appears in a photo with her late husband, his Serene Highness Prince Nicolo' Boncompagni-Ludovisi, who died in 2018.
Sylvia Poggioli / NPR
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Sylvia Poggioli
Princess Rita Boncompagni-Ludovisi appears in a photo with her late husband, his Serene Highness Prince Nicolo' Boncompagni-Ludovisi, who died in 2018.

"It was really a journey of love," says the princess. "Basically, we sacrificed everything, my husband and I did, for this house and for his family."

She's also made major discoveries. T. Corey Brennan, a professor of classics at Rutgers who has worked closely with the princess at the villa, recalls when in 2010 she found an old chest stuffed with letters.

"The first 25 pieces of paper we fished out were 12 new letters of Marie Antoinette and 13 of Louis XVI. And we just kept on going," he adds. "Louis XIV, Pope Gregory XIII, Pope Gregory XV. It just didn't stop and it hasn't stopped."

The precious archives have since been digitized.

The villa is a treasure trove of Western art

After the princess' husband's death four years ago, a lien was put on the property. The prince's sons by a previous marriage contested their father's will, which the princess says left 50% of the villa's value to her and granted her the right to use it for life. After years of vicious disputes, an Italian court ruled in September that the villa will be auctioned.

Whoever ends up buying the Villa Aurora will become the owner of some of the most extraordinary works of Western art, like the frescoed ceiling that gives the villa its name — Aurora, which means "dawn," by the mannerist master Guercino.

"This is Aurora there in the center," Princess Rita explains, "and she's bringing dawn into the night."

According to the princess, the fresco symbolizes the idea that the Ludovisi family heralded a new age.

The princess and her late husband had experts from Oxford University and Indiana University survey the gardens. "They found Julius Caesar's villa," says the princess, "where he romanced Cleopatra because this is the highest hill in Rome."

The villa takes its name — Aurora — from one of its frescoed ceilings, painted by the mannerist master Guercino. According to the princess, the fresco symbolizes the idea that the Ludovisi family heralded a new age.
/ Princess Rita Boncompagni-Ludovisi
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Princess Rita Boncompagni-Ludovisi
The villa takes its name — Aurora — from one of its frescoed ceilings, painted by the mannerist master Guercino. According to the princess, the fresco symbolizes the idea that the Ludovisi family heralded a new age.

Professor Brennan says the survey revealed that the Roman ruins underground are massive and actually dwarf the villa's footprint.

Our tour continues through room after grandiose room of frescoes and paintings of family members — including the pope who gave his name to the Gregorian calendar. A ride up an elevator built in the 1850's takes us into a small foyer with the only known ceiling mural painted by the baroque master Caravaggio.

The princess describes the scene of three gods of antiquity: "Jupiter, Neptune- he's coming out of the ocean riding the seahorse — and there is Pluto."

Seen from below, the foreshortened nude figures create a dramatic perspective – the gods appear to be standing on the ceiling as Jupiter positions the earth among the clouds. For Princess Rita, it's the perfect place for meditation.

" I have in the past put my yoga mat here, and do my yoga beneath it. Because you discover different things all the time. Oh, it's wonderful, it's wonderful."

The villa is thought to have more undiscovered gems

But now the villa that's been in the Boncompagni-Ludovisi family for 400 years is to be sold. The princess is hoping an angel will come along — like a Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk — but she's a realist.

"You have to have a billionaire; a millionaire is not enough for this. It needs someone with deep pockets, (who) doesn't care if you have to spend ten thousand on a water leak or something."

Ideally, Princess Rita would like the villa to become a museum. By Italian law, the state has the right to step in after a final bid is accepted. But Professor Brennan says that's unlikely.

The main gate of the Villa Aurora in Rome.
Laurent Emmanuel / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The main gate of the Villa Aurora in Rome.

"The very high asking price, which is north of 500 million U.S. dollars, really makes it impossible for the Italian state to match an offer and buy it."

And Brennan stresses that the villa contains many gems yet to be revealed.

"I guarantee the next owner there's going to be enormous discoveries. It's going to be transformational, I think, for the history of both ancient art and also early modern art." (Modern, in the context of Rome's long history, starts in the nineteen century.)

The danger, Brennan says, is that under new ownership, the artistic treasures of the Villa Aurora may become off limits to the rest of the world, as secret as the villa itself has been for the public.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 17, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that researchers from the University of Georgia helped to survey the gardens at Rome's Villa Aurora. The researchers were from Indiana University.