New from 1858: In the Villa Aurora, forgotten Gagliardi frescoes illustrating the pontificate of Gregory XIII Boncompagni [Part I]


The Deseret Evening News, 27 February 1904

It’s certainly an unexpected place to learn of a forgotten feature of Rome’s Villa Aurora. Salt Lake City’s Deseret Evening News in February 1904 was one of several American newspapers that ran the same long, illustrated article on the recent successes of the young American Academy in Rome.  “At last, it is put on a footing with the German and French Academies—a long, hard fight”, proclaimed the Utah paper. At that point, the American Academy (founded 1894) was still in rental quarters—but “domiciled in the Casino of the famous Villa Ludovisi”. What is more, the Academy was now “RECOGNIZED BY ROYALTY”, as the Deseret Evening News noted in an all caps subhead to its piece. Indeed, as the paper explains, Italian King Victor Emmanuel III had just viewed the American Academy’s January 1904 public exhibition of the Fellows’ work in architecture, painting and sculpture.

But that’s not the story. What caught the eye of Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi director Corey Brennan was one of the interior photos that accompanied the Deseret Evening News article. It showed the Academy Fellows’ work exhibited in a richly frescoed sala, said to be in the Villa Aurora. But it was a room that he had never seen.

“I had chanced upon that article while in Scranton Pennsylvania of all places”, Brennan recalled. “So I immediately emailed the image to Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi at the Villa Aurora in Rome, who surprisingly couldn’t identify the context in her home either. But a closer look at that fuzzy photo revealed some clues. At upper left there were figures approaching a raised throne. To its right was clearly a portrait of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, founder of the Villa Ludovisi.”


Title page (from proofs) for the book commemorating the Golden Wedding Anniversary of the Prince and Princess of Piombino (31 May 1904). The family held the celebrations at its Villa Aurora, even though the American Academy had been renting it since 1895 (indeed, until 1907). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

After some head-scratching, Brennan turned to another source from 1904, this one from the Boncompagni Ludovisi family archives. It was a souvenir book created for celebrations of 31 May of that year—which marked the 50th wedding anniversary of Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1832-1911) and Agnese Borghese (1836-1920), Prince and Princess of Piombino from 1883. The family’s staff had put together the privately printed work—consisting mostly of photos of the famed 17th century frescoes in the Villa Aurora—to commemorate the couple’s “nozze d’oro“. Professor Giuseppe Tomassetti wrote a brief introduction to the slim volume, on “I Ludovisi e il Guercino”.


The first of the missing Gregory XIII frescoes by Gagliardi—the Japanese embassy of 1585. Photo (1904): Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

That was enough to solve a major part of the mystery. It was immediately clear from an (unlabeled) illustration in the book that the ceiling fresco to the left shows the direct ancestor of the Princes of Piombino, Pope Gregory XIII (= Ugo Boncompagni, 1502-1572-1585), greeting the four young Japanese ambassadors who came to Rome in March 1585. This embassy was in fact the first Japanese embassy to the West.

There is no doubt about the subject matter. A title below the fresco reads: GREGORIVS XIII LEGATOS REGVM JAPONENSIVM IN SOLEMNI CARDINALIVM CONSESSV BENIGNE EXCIPIT. A.D. MDLXXXV. (“In a solemn assembly of Cardinals, Gregory XIII kindly welcomes the envoys of Japanese kings, AD 1585.”) The setting of this depiction is the Sala Regia in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican.


Papal annual medal of 1585, designed by Giovan Federico Bonzagini, showing Gregory XIII on obverse. The reverse legend: “On the part of kings of Japan, the first embassy and obeisance to a Roman Pope, 1585” The audience was on 22 March of that year; Gregory XIII died a few weeks later, on 10 April

The annual papal medal of 1585 commemorated the historic visit, as did a good number of subsequent depictions in larger media. Indeed, for the 1904 golden anniversary celebrations, the couple’s grandson, Prince Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, published an impressive scholarly book on that Japanese embassy and one which followed to Pope Paul V Borghese in 1615. The topic was an important one, for the exclusion of foreigners from most of Japan from 1612 until 1854 greatly enhanced the significance of these first visits. Francesco’s volume ran in a limited edition of (significantly) just 104 copies. He was aged just 17 at the time of its publication.


Title page to the precocious work of 17 year old Prince Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi (1886-1955), Le prime due ambasciate dei Giapponesi a Roma (1585-1615); con nuovi documenti (1904)

But back to the Boncompagni Ludovisi staff’s commemorative book of 1904. Another illustration in that work suggests that, in the Villa Aurora, opposite the depiction of the Japanese envoys was a fresco showing Gregory XIII in February 1582 accepting the calendar reforms that bear his name. In that year, October 4th was to be followed by October 15th. The idea was to gain ten days on the calendar that Julius Caesar had instituted in 45 BC.


The second of the missing Gregory XIII frescoes by Gagliardi: the calendar reform of 1582. Photo (1904): Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

The recommendations were some time in coming: Gregory first appointed the calendar commission in 1572. For the ultimate version, this papal commission explicitly credited the Calabrian astronomer Luigi Lilio. He in turn had drawn on earlier authorities. The legend for this fresco alludes to the difficulty of the task: MEMORABILIS EMENDATIO KALENDARII ROMANI TENTATA A PLURIBVS A GREGORIO XIII PERFECTA EST. A.D. MDLXXXII. (“The memorable reform of the Roman calendar, attempted by many, was brought to completion by Gregory XIII. AD 1582.”)


Papal annual medal of 1582 by Lorenzo Fragni, with Pope Gregory XIII on obverse. Reverse: a ram’s head, encircled by a (Boncompagni) dragon, with legend ANNO RESTITVTO, commemorating the Pope’s calendar reforms of that year

For Corey Brennan, a bit of Googling filled out much of the rest of the story. It was Antonio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1808-1883), Prince of Piombino from 1841, who commissioned the pieces. The location? In one of the two new wings to the Villa Aurora that architect Carlo Nicola Carnevali completed in 1858.

The painter? A well-known member of the Virtuosi of the PantheonPietro Gagliardi (1809-1890), one of the more ubiquitous Roman artists of the 19th century. The room also featured a portrait of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (clearly visible in the 1904 newspaper photo), and another of Gregory XIII, both also by Gagliardi. Antonio Urtis collaborated with Gagliardi on the room, contributing elaborate stucco work. It took Gagliardi three years to complete the commission, from 1855 to 1858.

Here is the evidence on the frescoes, from Gaetano MoroniDizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica da S. Pietro sino ai nostri giorni [vol. 99 (1860) p. 240 s.v. Villa], giving most of the key data:

“Ora il palazzino dell’ Aurora mercè nuovo tratto d’edifizio con disegno e direzione del cav. Nicola Carnevali valente architetto romano divenne un palazzo di bello aspetto. Ed ivi fra tante belle sale una è ricoperta da volta di bella figura ne’ cui scomparti ornati di stucchi rappresentanti arabeschi di vario genere dell abile artista Antonio Urtis, si offre all’ ammirazione due quadri a fresco del cav. Pietro Gagliardi esimio pittore romano e figurano: uno il Ricevimento fatto in Roma da Gregorio Xlll Boncompagno degli ambasciatori Giapponesi; l’altro la Correzione del Calendaraio fatta da quel gran Papa. lnoltre l’encomiato dipintore effigiò Gregorio Xlll e il cardinal Ludovisi. Opere tutte ordinate da d[on] Antonio Boncompagno Ludovisi principe di Piombino.”

The room in question (or at least this description of it) was also known to Luigi CàllariLe Ville di Roma (1934) p. 247. Surprisingly, Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi makes no mention of these frescoes in his 1904 volume, dedicated to his grandparents, on the first Japanese embassies to Italy. But other sources of course are bound to show up.


Contemporary portrait [detail] of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1621-1632), now in the Villa Aurora

For the Gregory XIII room, Gagliardi clearly was painting with reference to the 17th century tradition, and sensitive to the Guercino and Agostino Tassi work at the Villa Aurora—at least to judge from the various photos. The quality was almost certainly very high. Though it’s hard to tell from the Deseret Evening News, Gagliardi’s frescoed depiction of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi seems to borrow from a portrait contemporary to the Cardinal, still in the Villa.


Camillo Rusconi’s tomb (1719-1723) for Pope Gregory XIII, depicting his calendar reform. A large Boncompagni dragon is positioned below the scene

For the depiction of the 1582 calendar reform, an obvious source was Gregory XIII’s own spectacular tomb monument in St. Peter’s, that the Milanese sculptor Camillo Rusconi executed in the years 1719-1723. It was the Pope’s second great-grandson, Cardinal Giacomo Boncompagni (1652-1695-1731), who commissioned the monument, to replace the original one by Ciro Ferri and Prospero Antichi.

As it happens, the Villa Aurora boasts a large 19th century oil-on-canvas painting attributed to Pietro Gagliardi, apparently folded to fit into a ceiling frame, which in fact removes some major figures from view. As we shall see in Part III of this blog, it must depict the reception of the Japanese Embassy.


Detail of large oil-on-canvas painting attributed to Pietro Gagliardi (1809-1890) showing a dramatic scene from the life of Gregory XIII, now in the Villa Aurora. It can be demonstrated that this shows the reception of the 1585 Japanese embassy. Photo: Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi

The 1585 Japanese embassy has just this year (2013) received a new edition, edited by Derek Massarella, of an essential text, the 1590 De Missione Legatorvm Iaponensium ad Romanum curiam. Massarella explains the background. “In 1582 Alessandro Valignano, the Visitor to the Jesuit mission in the East Indies, sent four Japanese boys, two of whom represented important Christian daimyo [i.e., powerful feudal rulers] in western Japan, to Europe. The boys left Japan on 20 February 1582 and disembarked in Lisbon on 11 August 1584.”

“They then travelled”, continues Massarella, “through Portugal, Spain and Italy as far as Rome, the highpoint of their journey, before returning to Lisbon to begin the long voyage home on 13 April 1586. They reached Nagasaki on 21 July 1590…During their travels in Europe they had audiences and less formal meetings with Philip II, king of Spain and Portugal, and with popes Gregory XIII and Sixtus V, and were received by many of the most important political, ecclesiastical and social figures in the places they visited. Until the arrival of the embassy in Europe, the Euro-Japanese encounter had been almost exclusively one way: Europeans going to Japan.”

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Pope Gregory XIII’s audience with the Japanese envoys in March 1585. Engraving by Abraham van Diepenbeeck, in Cornelius Hazart, Kerckelycke historie van de gheheele wereldt I (1667). Image: Google Books

Massarella explains the motives for the journey: “The embassy was an integral part of Valignano’s strategy for advancing the Jesuit mission in Japan. The boys chosen were intended to personify Jesuit success in Japan, raise awareness of Japan in Europe amongst the clerical and secular elites, and demonstrate conclusively that what the Jesuits had been writing about Japan since their arrival there in 1549 was not a fabrication. The embassy was further intended to impress upon the boys the glory, unity, stability and splendour of Christian Europe, so that they might report favourably about their experiences on their return, and counter what Valignano believed were the negative impressions of Europe left by Portuguese merchants and seamen in Japan.”

Alessandro Valignano later ordained the four envoys as the first Japanese Jesuit fathers. One of the four, Father Julian Nakaura, died a martyr by torture in Nagasaki in 1633. He received beatification on 24 November 2008.


1850 (Spanish?) depiction of Japanese Ambassadors Prostrate at the Feet of Pope Gregory Xiii in 1585

Gagliardi’s fresco of a mitre-clad Gregory XIII and the Japanese embassy focuses on the warm welcome the pontiff is offering the four youths, and in this respect departs from other images that show the envoys’ prostration and the like before the Pope. Gagliardi’s depiction is in fact significant just by reason of its date. The artist started it just a few short years after American admiral Matthew C. Perry had forcibly opened Japan to the West in the years 1852-1854.

But precisely where are those frescoes depicting the life of Gregory XIII? At some point after 1904, they apparently found themselves covered in plaster, and hence have escaped the notice of everyone—until now. For the story of the discovery of the frescoes’ context, speculation as to motives for the cover-up, future prospects, and other links of the Boncompagni Ludovisi to Japan, stay tuned for Part II of this blog piece!


Christopher Clavius SJ, Kalendarium Gregorianum perpetuum cum privilegio summi Pontificis et aliorum Principum (Rome, 1582). This essay was annexed to the Papal Bull of 24 February 1581


  1. […] Our last installment examined the evidence for frescoes that Pietro Gagliardi (1809-1890) executed in one of the 19th century wings of the Villa Aurora. The first clue that caught the eye of Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi director Corey Brennan? A grainy photograph that ran in several American newspapers in the winter of 1904. […]

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