Family at war over priceless Italian palace

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Princess Rita with Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi at Villa Aurora. (PHOTO: Wikipedia)
Princess Rita with Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi at Villa Aurora. (PHOTO: Wikipedia)

Playboy bunny, bestselling author, actress, wife of a corrupt American politician – nobody can possibly describe her life as boring.

But two decades ago she put all this behind her when she became Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi after being swept off her feet by a distinguished Italian prince.

Marrying Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi opened many doors to her – including those to a magnificent villa which is now at the heart of a bitter inheritance battle.

Nicolò died in 2018 aged 77 and Rita (72) has been at war with his sons over the awe-inspiring Ludovisi residence in Rome ever since. Within the walls of Villa Aurora there are art and artefacts that make it one of the most valuable properties in the world!

Gracing one ceiling is the only mural ever painted by 16th century Italian master Caravaggio. And it’s this valuable piece that’s driving up the property’s selling price.

Princess Rita maintains that her late husband’s will gives her life rights to stay in the villa and, if it’s sold, the money must be divided between her and his three sons from his first marriage.

But his children are contesting the will and, because they have failed to reach an agreement with their stepmom, an Italian court has now ruled that the villa must be put on auction.

Palace, Italy, courts
The villa Aurora boasts art and artefacts that make it one of the most valuable properties in the world. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

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The first auction was planned for January this year but the astronomical starting price €471 million (about R8,19 billion) scared off potential bidders.

Another auction is scheduled for April and the starting price will be slightly lower this time. If the house is sold, Rita will have to leave her Italian palace.

Losing the house is going to be hard – especially because she’s apparently concerned about what would happen to the villa’s priceless art and cultural riches. Before his death, she and Nicolò ran appointment-only tours for the public.

“I really wanted the home to become a museum but I’m tired of going to court. It’s heartbreaking,” she said in October.

Nicolò had always been opposed to selling the villa, though he’d had offers from the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

“To think of this house falling into the wrong hands devastates me,” his wife says.

Palace, Italy, courts
The villa is jam-packed with historic items collected over generations and includes everything from letters written by Marie Antoinette to a telescope gifted to the family by Galileo Galilei. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/ Reuters)

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Long before becoming Italian royalty, Rita, who was born on a Texan cattle ranch, had social standing as the wife of politician John Jenrette, a member of the South Carolina house of representatives.

His political career was short-lived, however, when he got caught in an FBI anti-corruption operation in the late 1970s, accepting a $50 000 (then R44 500) bribe from an agent posing as an Arab sheik.

But if anything, Rita is a survivor. She divorced John in 1981 and shortly thereafter appeared in Playboy magazine in an article titled The Liberation of a Congressional Wife. In the article she described how she and John had “made love on the marble staircase” of the United States Congress during a particularly long congressional session. She also revealed how he’d frequently cheated on her.

Rita followed this up with an autobiography, also published in 1981. My Capitol Secrets, which became an instant best-seller, reveals the “endless partying, drunken debauchery, cocaine and prostitutes” she encountered in her time as a politician’s wife.

She then went on to do a stint in Hollywood, appearing in the movie Zombie Island Massacre and in the TV show Fantasy Island, as a character called Nurse Heavenly.

Rita appeared in Playboy again in 1984, this time on the cover.

When the acting jobs dried up, she made a living as a TV anchor in New York. In the 1990s she became an estate agent, helping to sell the General Motors building to Donald Trump.

Palace, Italy, courts
Villa Aurora’s ceiling painting by Italian master Caravaggio, titled Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/AFP)

A surprise phone call in 2003 from a mutual friend would lead to an introduction that would eventually see her becoming a princess. Prince Nicolò had read about her in a business magazine and wanted her to advise him on a hotel development he was planning for one of his properties.

She was sceptical at first because “in New York everyone tells you they’re a prince or a duke”, she said in TV interviews. But she did eventually fly to Rome after Nicolò called her himself. And that’s when they realised they were meant for each other.

Rita recalled a psychic had once told her she’d marry a European man and live in Europe.

“I’d kind of forgotten about it, but then there he was. He was a brilliant man in every way, and the least important part about him was being a prince. This man stirred something deep inside me – it was wonderful.”

Palace, Italy, courts
The Villa is also a major tourist attraction. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/ AFP).

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Nicolò was a direct descendant of Pope Gregory XIII, from one of Italy’s wealthiest noble families and, though Rome is the home of several princes, many considered him “the prince”, royal experts say.

“It was probably destined to be,” he said on TV about meeting Rita. “She’s gorgeous, of course, but just as beautiful on the inside. She’s open-hearted like a child, but also sly as a fox. Her beauty and intelligence bowled me over.”

The couple wed in May 2009.

In the years that followed, the restoration of Villa Aurora became Rita’s passion project. As a tourist in her teens, she’d dreamt of marrying an Italian man and living in Rome with its wealth of art and culture, she’s said.

But the toxic legal battle with her stepsons has turned her fairytale into a nightmare. Rita fears they’ll try to prevent her from getting her share of the selling price.

“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 says. “I don’t know what I’ll do afterwards, but I’ve done all I can.”

Villa Aurora: a palace filled with treasure

Situated in the heart of Rome, Villa Aurora has five storeys and 40 rooms. It dates from 1570 and its first owner was Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, who sold it to the Ludovisi family in 1621.

The villa is jam-packed with historic items collected over generations and includes everything from letters written by France’s last queen, Marie Antoinette, to a telescope gifted to the family by Galileo Galilei.

There’s a Michelangelo in the garden and Baroque artist Guercino painted an enormous fresco of the goddess Aurora in the entrance hall.

But by far the most priceless item in the villa is the Caravaggio fresco which depicts the Roman gods Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto with the globe between them.

It doesn’t hold pride of place in the villa but instead fills the ceiling of a pokey room one of Nicolò’s ancestors used as a kind of laboratory – almost as an afterthought.  

And yet despite this, the oil painting by one of the greatest artists of the 16th century is valued at an eye-watering €310 million (R5,4 billion).

“Let’s say you’re buying a Caravaggio with a house thrown in,” Princess Rita says.


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