Getting the Royal Treatment at Villa Aurora – Part 1

Some friends joined Laura and me a couple months ago on a private visit to Villa Aurora, also known as the Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi.  Its name refers to its beautiful ceiling fresco, a detail of which is pictured at the top of this post, by Guercino: Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, sweeps across the sky in her chariot.  But the Aurora’s ceiling is a small part of why a visit to Villa Aurora is so magical.

The Aurora ceiling

As a light drizzle was dissipating, finding the villa was made easy by the fact that its land makes up almost the entire street block and is home to a garden with many large trees.  It had been the hunting lodge of the Villa Ludovisi, an enormous, ancient Roman garden.

Having been buzzed in at the gate, we walked up a gently twisting gravel driveway. Everywhere you look is something historic, beautiful, or both.

Entering the villa grounds — a still magnificent garden (a folly of fake rock to the left) with wonderful old trees in the midst of Rome.

 

The dragon crest of the family, displayed on a wall as you enter the villa, above a watering trough with its own historical importance.

 

The quiet beauty of the grounds. Looks just like a painting, doesn’t it?

 

The Vetius monument, displayed in the garden

As you approach it, the villa slowly comes into view as an elegant yet unpretentious building, with no hint of its many treasures.

Villa Aurora

Just outside its entrance sits a statue of a faun to greet you. It is attributed (although such is disputed) to none other than Michelangelo. This particular faun is, ahem, clearly very happy to see you. I mean, that’s not a banana in his pocket, because he is not wearing any trousers.

Villa Aurora’s faun (click for the full image)

This is just the first surprise. You enter the villa through a small chapel, where you are greeted by HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Principessa di Piombino XI. That’s certainly a big name for this tiny blond American, full of both energy and grace, as well as a giant helping of intellectual curiosity — a curiosity she generously shared with us on this special visit. The Principessa discussed the history of the villa while showing us through several of the villa’s great rooms, commenting on a hidden passageway here, a particularly lovely fresco there…

An allegory of Fame, by Guercino

 

Allegory of Fame, detail

We were particularly grateful that she took the time to tell us about a major project she has embarked on — the digital archiving of a trove of papers of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family.  She showed us books that were several hundred years old, with magnificent illustrations with colors so bright as if they were made yesterday; letters from Marie Antoinette and the Empress Maria Theresa; as well as calculations of certain calendar and horoscope events that, in addition to their historical significance, were incredibly beautiful. It’s wonderful the family is making these very rare and absolutely fascinating documents available for scholarship purposes.

Coming up in a later post is the description of when the Principessa took us to see one of the villa’s most valuable — and unusual — treasures. As we approached it, she explained that the villa had been modified many times over the years, and that various frescoes had been lost and later re-discovered. The one we were about to see — the only known ceiling by Baroque “bad boy” Caravaggio — was our greatest surprise of this remarkable day.

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