New from 1775: Marie Theresa of Austria, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette congratulate Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi on his elevation to Cardinal

One of the most spectacular finds that the Villa Aurora yielded in summer 2010 was a long series of letters by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France. There are 25 in all, written from Versailles over the period 1775-1787. Thirteen are by Louis XVI, and twelve by Marie Antoinette. Each of these newly discovered letters is addressed to Cardinal Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1743-1790), who after 1777 governed Bologna (then in the Papal States) as Cardinal Legate of Pope Pius VI. Boncompagni Ludovisi eventually rose to the position of Secretary of State for the Vatican in 1785, but resigned after just four years, because of poor health.

Google ChromeScreenSnapz008Letter of 1775 from Louis XVI, addressed to Card. Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

The Archivio Segreto Vaticano possesses just one letter from Louis XVI (also to Cardinal Ignazio) and none from Marie Antoinette in its Fond Boncompagni Ludovisi. So this fresh discovery marks a particularly significant contribution to the study of the relationship of European rulers to the Boncompagni Ludovisi family.

One valuable attribute of this set of letters is that all the items impressively preserve the original folds, seals, and other anti-tampering devices. Each of the letters to Cardinal Ignazio from the court at Versailles is addressed “a mon cousin”—the customary form of address between legitimate sovereign princes. (The Ludovisi and then the Boncompagni Ludovisi were sovereigns of the Principate of Piombino since 1634.)

Google ChromeScreenSnapz009Portrait of Cardinal Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi, with inscription noting his precocious appointments in the administration of the Papal States. From the Archivio Storico, Università di Bologna

Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi found himself created Cardinal at age 32 in the consistory of 17 July 1775. The news however was first published in the consistory of 13 November 1775. He duly received the red hat of a Cardinal three days later.

Here are details from the congratulatory missive of Louis XVI (dated 12 December 1775) to the new Cardinal…

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Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

…and below, details from a decidedly affectionate letter (also of 12 December 1775) to Cardinal Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi by Marie Antoinette:

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Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Pertaining to the same occasion, and also new from the Villa Aurora archives, is a letter from Maria Theresa (1717-1718) of Austria. This empress was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions (1740-1780), and mother of 16 children, including Marie Antoinette. Her congratulatory letter to the new Cardinal Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi is in Latin. Penned in Vienna, it is dated 7 December 1775. The black border on this note reflects the state of mourning she entered after the death of her husband Emperor Francis I in 1765, which lasted until the end of her life.

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Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi was born in Rome on 18 June 1743, and was educated at “La Sapienza”. He was seventh of the nine children of Gaetano Boncompagni (1706-1777) Prince of Piombino IV and Duke of Sora and Arce VII, and Laura Chigi Albani della Rovere (1707-1792). Ignazio’s order of birth will have prompted him to seek an ecclesiastical career, with his activities in the Papal Curia usefully summarized here and here. But there success was assured, thanks in good part to the fact that he had as his 4th great-grandfather Ugo Boncompagni = Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1572-1585). His 3rd great grand-uncle was Alessandro Ludovisi  = Pope Gregory XV (1554-1621-1623).

It also happened that he was the eighth member of his family to reach the Cardinalate. Preceding Ignazio were Ugo Boncompagni (1502-1565-1585, after 1572 Pope Gregory XIII)Filippo Boncompagni (1548-1572-1586); Alessandro Ludovisi (1554-1616-1623, after 1621 Pope Gregory XV); Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1621-1632); Francesco Boncompagni (1592-1621-1641); Giacomo Boncompagni (1652-1695-1731); and Girolamo Boncompagni (1622-1664-1684) .

A turning point in Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi’s life came in 1767, when at age 23 he was named apostolic delegate of the Commission for the Waters of the three Legations of Bologna, Ferrara and Romagna. This was one of the most important administrative posts in the Papal States, and brought with it a massive budget. As water commissioner, Ignazio undertook the systematization of the course of the river Po. He also attempted to reform the tax system in the region, and cut back on the (innumerable) exemptions. An astonishing amount of pamphleteering was generated to attack Ignazio’s measures, and two sustained decades of opposition on the part of the local (and entrenched) landed aristocracy eventually blocked Ignazio’s efforts. He died in 1790 aged 47 at Bagni di Lucca, and was buried in Rome at the Boncompagni Ludovisi family church of S. Ignazio.

There is much more to be said—and we will be saying it here, since the new findings in the Villa Aurora archives are particularly rich on the life and career of this powerful and important late 18th century Cardinal.

Google ChromeScreenSnapz010Engraving of Cardinal Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi, by Antonio Campanella. Collection New York Public Library


  1. […] This is in addition to previously unknown letters from many other European sovereigns, including a full 25 from the French monarchs Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette written in the period […]

  2. […] correspondents ranging from European sovereigns such as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France—25 of their letters from Versailles are in the Villa Aurora archive—to humble […]

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