The Villa Aurora in central Rome is renowned for a Caravaggio ceiling painting with several very nude male Roman gods placing the moon in the heavens, as well as a monumental Guercino fresco cycle depicting dawn (“aurora,” in Latin) borne aloft on clouds by horse-drawn carriage.

A former hunting lodge, or casino, of the aristocratic Boncompagni Ludovisi family, it also has another draw: it could soon be yours! Thanks to an epic family feud, the villa—a 30,000-square-foot fixer-upper dating to the 16th century—is up for auction in a distress sale.*

When H.S.H. Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino, died in 2018 at age 77, he left behind three sons, two ex-wives, one widow, and an inheritance battle so intractable that in September a judge cut a Gordian knot of lawsuits and ordered the villa placed at public auction.

And what a steal it could be! Advertised on a court Web site with a video reminiscent of provincial wedding photography, the house is valued at $534 million—a number set by a court-appointed art historian, who ascribed much of the worth to the Caravaggio, which is the only known work the artist painted on a ceiling. Bidding, however, opens at $399 million, rising in increments of $1.13 million, until the hammer comes down on January 18.

A view of the Caravaggio on the villa’s ceiling.

All of this drama was set in motion by the prince’s Russian second wife in 2015, when, seeking unpaid alimony, she opened foreclosure proceedings on the villa. The auction could still be avoided if the heirs settle the foreclosure and the family pays off some debts on the property (which seems highly unlikely), or if a deep-pocketed buyer emerges at the eleventh hour and the family comes to an agreement to make a deal. (Never say never.) The three sons from the prince’s first marriage appear eager to cash out and move on.

There’s one small problem for them, however: the prince’s widow, Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi—née Rita Carpenter, originally of San Antonio, Texas—who still lives in the villa and is more than loath to leave.

“My big dream is for it to become a museum,” she says by phone from Rome, an ever so slight Texan lilt in her voice. “A national historic monument that reflects the glory of Guercino and Caravaggio.”

Now 72, Princess Rita had many lives before becoming a Roman noblewoman, including one in which she was married to Representative John Jenrette of South Carolina. In 1980 he was convicted of accepting a bribe of $50,000 from an undercover F.B.I. agent posing as an Arab sheikh whom he’d promised to help emigrate to the United States, in what became known as the Abscam scandal. The princess wrote about this in Playboy—“The Liberation of a Congressional Wife”—posing naked to prove the point.

Whatever the princess does she does with gusto. Since meeting Prince Nicolò, in 2002, when she was working in real estate in New York and went to Rome to advise him on a possible hotel deal, she has dedicated herself to the Villa Aurora, allowing in scholars; giving personal guided tours, to help with maintenance costs; and working to digitize a family archive, which includes letters by Marie Antoinette and the future Pope Gregory XIII, a family ancestor who writes how as a cleric he had a little dalliance after the Council of Trent, in the mid–16th century, producing a son.

“My big dream is for it to become a museum,” she says by phone from Rome, an ever so slight Texan lilt in her voice.

The princess says she was blindsided by the auction—which was revealed on a public Web site in September—especially since, under Italian law, widows have “right of use” to their spouse’s home. But because the ownership shares of the villa are in dispute, it has all become complicatissimo. The prince, who was often in financial trouble, donated one-third of the villa each to his two eldest sons, Francesco and Ignazio, before he married Rita—so she and their younger brother, Bante, stand to inherit only the remaining third.

Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi and Rita Jenrette on their wedding day, in 2009. He died at the villa in March 2018 at age 77.

The princess has contested the conditions of her late husband’s donations to Francesco and Ignazio and claims that she is entitled to 50 percent of the prince’s entire estate, not just 50 percent of one-third of the villa. (For their part, the family questions her use of the term “princess.”)

Meanwhile, Bante is suing his brothers to increase his share. And he sees the public auction as the only way out.

“The escamotage is to make a judicial division, to put the building into auction so that the new owner can throw”—and here he used a not very nice word—“back to where she comes from and we can get our building back,” Bante says, growing animated on the phone. His wife, Delphina, the daughter of the publisher Lewis Lapham, then hops on the line. “She does not want to leave that house,” she says of Rita. “They’re going to have to drag her out in cuffs.”

The family’s behavior makes Rita indignant. “The worst they can dig up about me is that I was a Playboy centerfold. That isn’t the end of the world! So was, what’s her name, Cindy Crawford,” Rita says. “Of course, I was a congressman’s wife, so that did make it kind of outrageous.”

Paging Jeff Bezos

Long before the princess arrived, the villa had a rich history. Galileo tested his telescope on Boncompagni Ludovisi land nearby. Henry James visited the villa’s garden when it was a spot on the Grand Tour. The villa itself stands on what remains of a larger Boncompagni Ludovisi plot that the family began selling off in the 19th century. Some of that land became Via Veneto, where one former family palazzo is now the United States Embassy in Italy.

The Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, as seen from its garden.

Several prospective buyers have come by to see the Villa Aurora, the princess says, but she won’t name names. “I am not allowed to say. I had to sign a statement,” she says. “But I would say some of the most important people in the world.”

She’s hoping for a big spender.

“If Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk would stop looking at the moon and start looking at the Earth a bit, maybe one of them would come and say, ‘Let’s save this beautiful place,’” she says. “And perhaps even let me live here in one of the rooms, and continue giving the tours and the things I love so much, and continuing to work on the archives. That’s the very best scenario.”

“Throw [her] back to where she comes from and we can get our building back.”

But then there are other complications. Because the villa contains artworks considered valuable to national patrimony, Italy’s Ministry of Culture has the right to step in and buy it after a final private bid has been accepted. (The trouble is that the price would be a large chunk of the ministry’s budget.) Potential prospective buyers should also have infinite patience for Italian red tape, as the villa is bound by strict Italian historic-preservation norms.

T. Corey Brennan, a classics professor at Rutgers University who has been digitizing the family’s archives for more than a decade, defends the princess. “I take a pretty hard line in favor of Rita because I’ve seen the massive amount of investment, both monetarily and time,” he says. He believes in her vision that the property should become a museum. “There are a lot of fears, including on my part, that the type of person who can afford to buy a property like this would not open it up again, and at the very least the next generation will not get inside,” he says.

One of the fresco paintings in the interior.

Raffaella Morselli, a Guercino scholar who has studied the villa in detail, believes a public-private partnership would be the best solution—a private museum with parts open to the public, like Buckingham Palace. But an arrangement of that kind is not common in Italy. “There’s not much trust between the state and private owners,” Morselli says.

Nothing is expected to happen anytime soon, including a final sale at auction. Even after—or if—the villa is sold, it could take years for a final ruling on the inheritance shares, given the slow speed of the Italian justice system. In the meantime, the villa, with historic plumbing as well as historic art, risks falling into disrepair. Just after Christmas in December 2020, officials from the culture ministry found a leak and water damage in the villa. The princess says she immediately found a plumber—not easy in Rome over the holidays—and had it repaired. “You’d have to be not a millionaire but a billionaire” to maintain the villa as a private home, she says.

For now, the princess remains in the villa with a small household staff. She is contesting a court order requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in occupancy fees, and faces eviction. She doesn’t sleep much, and sends text messages at all hours. She says she’s worried for her safety. Most of all, she says, she misses the prince and their life together. “The happiest years of my life,” she says. A love marriage. A meeting of minds. “He spoke seven languages fluently.” He had intellectual interests, but always wound up handling the family real estate. “Like Al Pacino in the third Godfather,” she says, “they kept trying to pull him back in.”

And when the stress of the legal fight and missing her husband become too much, well, there’s always the Caravaggio ceiling. “I take my yoga mat,” she says. “And at the end, when I’m relaxing, I’m in awe and wonder.”

Rachel Donadio is a Paris-based journalist, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, and a former Rome bureau chief for The New York Times