Wondering the tight streets of Rome is a multi-layered experience. There are the coal toned cobbles below your feet, looming doorways and well-loved shops at your shoulders, and overhead are tiered grids of stone trimmed and shuddered windows, with the occasional balcony bannered with laundry.
Rounding the perimeters of these buildings I can usually amuse myself with taking in the character of each corner, but sometimes I glimpse a fountained courtyard through a half open doorway, or look up to see medieval stenciling on ceiling beams through a window above, and I realize I’m actually on the outside looking in.
Who built these houses, or are they palazzos? Do the original families still live there or has it been split into condos? But most importantly, I just want to snoop around and see what a real five hundred year old house looks like that hasn’t been curated for the public. I got my wish when a group of friends found out that a local princess gives tours in English of her husband’s estate for about twenty euro a person. Fees go toward the restoration of the house. Yes, this was happening.
We arrived at Villa Aurora on a hot June evening. Initially, I was confused, this was supposed to be a Renaissance era palazzo, but we were right next to Via Veneto, and I knew most of the buildings in this area, besides the American Embassy, were roughly a century old, which is the European equivalent of new construction. The entrance was just an iron gate with a number on it, beyond the gate we could only see trees. The leader of the group called to have us buzzed in, and the gates opened to reveal a shaded gravel road that wound up a steep hillside. This is not the landscape one expects in the center of Rome. A short hike brought us to the back of a white villa. A person in our group that was familiar with the house pointed out a statue of Pan on the side that is attributed to Michelangelo, just standing on his pedestal like no big deal. The villa itself sits in a sort of meadow, with the gravel road curving around it and ringed by mature trees. We hadn’t even stepped inside and it was already clear that this house that had stood up against time, a time when this area was fields and the rest of Rome was kept at a distance. Only the occasional buzz of a motorino or beep of a car horn was there to remind us that we were actually in the center of modern Rome and not somewhere in the countryside.
But I was most surprised by the Princess herself. Purposely, I hadn’t researched the house or the family because I like to tour places like this without previewing them online. All I really knew about Princess Rita Boncampagni-Ludovisi was her name. And through that name I had pictured a mature woman who was definitely Italian, with a salt and pepper bun, maybe with a cane. I wanted her to look like someone’s Nana, but decided that as a princess in Rome she was probably more on the glamorous side. So I entered the door with my image of an olive skinned well groomed septogenarian in Armani, when I was faced with a petite, polished, smiling blonde from Texas. Serves me right for stereotyping, but it is sort of ironic that my first meeting with royalty also happens to be a fellow Texan.
After our large group had gathered under the ornate ceiling in the foyer, Princess Rita welcomed us, and proceeded to tell us about the history of Villa Aurora, the ancestral home of the Boncampagni-Ludovisi family. A joined family that includes many royal titles, as well as a handful of cardinals, and two popes. At one point they were considered one of the wealthiest families in Europe, but after events like the unification of Italy, and silly purchases like private family railroads, they are still quite well-off but not the financial power house they once were. The sixteenth century house itself is the remains of the Ludovisi Gardens, which was a sprawling estate that included the palace that is now the US Embassy, other buildings, and all of the Via Veneto area. Now this area is known as the Ludovisi neighborhood, in recognition to the family that cared for the land. Only, instead of luxury shopping and five star hotels (which didn’t pop-up until the sale of the land around the turn of the century), the area was a sprawling manicured garden that many contemporaries said were the most beautiful in Rome.
The house itself is a living museum. Busts sit above doorways in the central salon, famous murals vibrantly decorate the ceilings, and ancient Roman relics are set in the walls.
The most celebrated and unusual of the art works was the ceiling mural by Caravaggio that was painted in a small room that the Cardinal Del Monte (the original owner) used to use for alchemy experiments. This is the only mural that Caravaggio ever painted, and he did it to prove that he knew how to do perspective. The painting depicts “Jupiter, Pluto, and Neptune” surrounding a transparent orb. At the time it was considered scandalous because the viewer is looking directly up the nether regions of one of the characters, and was later painted over. It was uncovered in the 1960s and is still a little shocking to look at, but undeniably beautiful.
What was unusual about this tour was the amount of access we had. Princess Rita passed around family photos, invited us to sit on the furniture, and let us handle artifacts like ancient swords (with blood on them) and encouraged us to sit on the family’s Papal chairs. At no point were we told to stand behind a line or put down our cameras.
But my favorite part were the secret passages, ghost stories, and the closet full of priceless letters.
After our tour was officially over Princess Rita asked if we wanted to see the letters that they just discovered in the house a few years ago. We enthusiastically accepted and she put on her white gloves after opening what used to be a sort of liquor closet. She carefully opened a few folders and revealed letters written and signed by Marie Antoinette, her mother Maria Theresa, and King Louis XV. She has dedicated a great deal of her time lately to researching and cataloging the 150,000 pages of documents, along with a handful of other scholars.
After that our extended tour was over, but we left feeling lucky that we had the opportunity to see this side of Rome that up until recently would have only been for friends and family only. If you would like to get a tour of Villa Aurora I would suggest getting in touch with her office and seeing when she plans on doing her next tour. It’s more than worth the twenty euros.