New from ca. 1570-1621: Decorated ceiling of ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ in the Casino Aurora rediscovered (Part I of many)

Detail from newly-revealed upper walls of the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ in the Casino Aurora, Rome. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

By ADBL editor Corey Brennan

You don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to.

In 1904, historian and archaeologist Giuseppe Tomassetti (1848-1911) composed an overview of the Casino Aurora and its art, for a privately published book dedicated to Prince Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi and Princess Agnese (Borghese) Boncompagni Ludovisi on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. You can read Carol Cofone‘s masterly narration of that celebration here, here and here.

Tomassetti in his essay of course makes note of the two great frescoes by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri = Guercino (1591-1666) in the Casino Aurora—the Aurora (with its lunettes of Day and Night) and the Fama—as well as his contribution to the famous Landscape Room on the Casino’s ground floor. Each of those Guercino works were commissioned by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1621-1632) when he first created his Villa Ludovisi in 1621.

Tomassetti in his narrative then adds that Guercino also painted “a Satyr in the vault of an upper room.” The reference to this fourth Guercino painting in the Casino Aurora seems unique.

GUERCINO_SATYR

Reference to an otherwise unknown Guercino “Satyr” in the Casino Aurora, by Prof. G. Tomassetti in private 1904 publication produced by the household staff of the Boncompagni Ludovisi. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

In February 2014 ADBL head Corey Brennan brought this notice to the attention of Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi and ADBL board member Anthony Majanlahti. Each suggested that a possible location for the missing “Satyr” might be in the original southeastern wing of the Piano Nobile of the Casino Aurora, an area known in early descriptions and inventories as the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’, i.e., the “Room of the Day-bed”. That ‘Sala’ today is divided into two rooms, neither in everyday use, each with an early-to-mid 20th century drop ceiling.

Plan (mid-1890s) of the southeastern portion of the piano nobile of the Casino Aurora. From left, ‘Sala da pranzo’, decorated by Pietro Gagliardi, and transitional room (each constructed 1855-1858); and at right, the ex-‘Sala del Lettuccio’ (constructed ca. 1570). Credit: Archives of American Art

Now, by the later nineteenth century, the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ had taken on a wholly different character—as a room dedicated to billiards. An inventory of 2 January 1872, which the Boncompagni Ludovisi prepared prior to renting the Casino Aurora for a year to King Vittorio Emanuele II, has much to say about the billiard table and especially an intricate iron lamp that hung from “the middle of the vault” of the ceiling to provide illumination for the players. But on the artistic program of the room, the inventory is largely silent (ASV Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi prot. 614 no. 153 = no. 45 Venditti).

The ‘Sala del Bigliardo’ in the Casino Aurora described in ASV Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi prot. 614 no. 153 = no. 45 Venditti (January 1872) as transcribed in C. Benocci, Villa Ludovisi (2010) p. 539

As it happens, Henry James visited this billiard room the very next year, and briefly wrote up his impressions. This is the entry that appeared in James’ “From a Roman Note-Book”, dated 27 April 1873: Here the billiard-table is old-fashioned, perhaps a trifle crooked; but you have Guercino above your head, and Guercino, after all, is almost as good as Guido [sc. Reni].” The essay with this observation was republished in Henry James’ 1875 Transatlantic Sketches (and in that volume’s 1883 truncated reissue as Foreign Parts) and the 1909 Italian Hours.

It will take more than a bit of archival work to assemble all the descriptions of that room in family inventories, and to see whether notice of a ceiling painting by Guercino crops up elsewhere for this space. Preliminary research in this area has not yielded much. For instance, an inventory from 19 February 1908 (Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi prot. 621B no. 102) notes in the center of its ceiling a “well painted quadro“, but without further details or an attribution.

Description of walls and ceiling of ex-‘Sala del Lettuccio’ in Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi prot. 621B no. 102 (1908). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

So what, if anything, can be seen of that “vault” in the ex-‘Sala del Lettuccio’? On 5 and 7 July 2017 Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi and Corey Brennan were able to feed a small GoPro video camera through a preexisting hole in the (very high) modern plaster ceiling of one of the two relevant rooms, and take some images of a portion of the original upper walls and ceiling beams (which lay another meter above) in low-light conditions.

What came into view was an extensive, intricate and highly colorful decorative scheme—and a 20th century intervention that covered the ceiling proper with corrugated boards. No vault is visible, or indeed anything beyond the corrugated boards. So the supposed Guercino ‘Satyr’ remains a mystery, for now. The relevant cultural authorities have been notified, and it will be task of conservators to undertake future work on this space.

Newly-revealed upper walls and ceiling beams of the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ in the Casino Aurora, Rome. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

Images of this new discovery—clearly consequential, even without the alleged Guercino—are collected in a video just below. It follows just one year after the revelation of a long-hidden mid-19th century fresco cycle in a nearby section of the Piano Nobile of the Casino Aurora.

How was this ceiling found? Anthony Majanlahti wrote in 2014 in response to Brennan, speaking of the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’: “the Guercino-era Casino dell’Aurora did not have its two nineteenth-century wings [i.e., north and south] or its extensions over the front and rear [i.e., east and west, added in 1855-1858]…there is really no other likely place for such a satyr and it is exciting to think that it might still be there.”

12036016

Johann Wilhelm Baur, Villa Ludovisi, Casina Aurora (1636). View is of the “core” Casino from E by SE; the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ can be seen on second floor (Piano Nobile) at left, with three of the room’s four windows visible.

Majanlahti later added that this area is the only place on the first two floors of the “core” Casino Aurora where the original (i.e., ca. 1570-1632) ceiling decorations are unknown or unaccounted for. The penultimate piece of the puzzle had fallen in place in 1968, when Caravaggio’s “Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto” (1597) was revealed to be lurking under subsequent coats of paint in the alchemical laboratory (later known as the ‘Stanza dei Metalli’) on the Piano Nobile of the original north wing—exactly where Giovan Pietro Bellori in 1672 had said it would be.

We know a bit about Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi‘s ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ in the Casino Aurora, which was positioned directly next to the large stanza with Guercino’s Fama, and to which (somehow) a loggia was apparently once attached.

SILVESTRE_1650_DETAIL

Detail of Israel Silvestre, Vuë du Palais et Jardin du Cardinal Ludouise (1650). The view is of the original Casino Aurora from the SE; on the second floor (Piano Nobile), at center, one can see the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ and two of its four windows.

In particular, we have a good notion of the decorative and framed art that this ‘Lettuccio’ room held in the years 1621-1632. First, it must have had a ‘Lettuccio’, or decorative wooden day bed that in the era was characteristic of collectors’ studies. As Lisa Jane Neal Tice explains in her 2009 Rutgers dissertation on late 16th / early 17th century garden casini, the lettuccio was a fashionable and versatile piece of furniture that could function simultaneously as resting place and art exhibition space. “It contained a chest below its covers to facilitate the storage of objects. In addition, it could also serve as a cabinet, specifically as a base on which objects, such as works of sculpture, could be displayed.”

Bottega_tosco-umbra,_lettuccio,_xv-xvi_sec_(restaurato_nel_XIX_sec)

A type of lettuccio, this one of Tuscan / Umbrian make, 15th-16th centuries. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Second, the walls of the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ must have been stacked high with paintings. The 1623 inventory of the Casino Aurora lists the works of 19 artists for that room alone (with no specific mention of the artistic program for the ceiling). These included works ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Agostino Carracci. Carolyn Wood provides a complete annotated list in her invaluable 1992 article, “The Ludovisi Collection of Paintings in 1623”.

SDL_3

Carolyn Wood, “The Ludovisi Collection of Paintings in 1623”, Burlington Magazine 134 no. 1073 (August 1992) p. 518. Inventory lists for the holdings of the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ are found at nos. 66-85.

And what about this room’s later incarnation? For the 1872 inventory (see above), Anthony Majanlahti offers the following translation for the relevant bit about the ceiling: “In the middle of the vault [volta] there is hung an iron rod at the end of which there is another iron rod in the form of a bow [ie, a bow for arrows], at whose ends there are two metal dragons from the mouths of which hang the metal chains that support the two lampshades and lightbulbs over the billiard table”. Majanlahti adds: “volta” here seems to mean “vault” but might more generically mean “ceiling”, used rather laxly as a synonym for “soffitto”.

And for the 1908 inventory, Majanlahti translates: “Ceiling and walls painted in coffers, in Pompeian style in good condition with a well-painted picture in the centre”. He continues, “the ‘Pompeian style’ can be read here merely as grotteschi, i.e., an imitation of ancient Roman painting widespread in the sixteenth century and afterward, rather than what we know as the ‘Pompeian style’, of eighteenth-century origin. The big question in this inventory is what ‘quadro‘ means in this context. I would argue that if the ceiling is *not* vaulted, but coffered, then we can imagine that there was a painting (‘quadro‘) inserted into the ceiling, painted on something flat, like a wood panel or (more likely, for Guercino) a canvas.”

Newly-revealed upper walls and ceiling beams of the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ in the Casino Aurora, Rome. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

So what is the story on the just-rediscovered upper wall and ceiling beam artwork of the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’? The first impression one gets is that we are in the realm of the earliest incarnation of the Casino Aurora after its construction ca. 1570, a full two generations before its purchase and transformation by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi in 1621. And at present there is no trace of the evasive Guercino. But stay tuned—we of course will be setting out all (or at least many) of the possibilities for this exciting new discovery right here at VillaLudovisi.org

From the Palazzo Altemps, Rome: comparanda for the (evidently late 16th century) decorative scheme of the Casino Aurora’s ‘Sala del Lettuccio’, adduced by Anthony Majanlahti

Warmest thanks, as always, to Prince Nicolo’ Boncompagni Ludovisi and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Prince and Princess of Piombino XII, for their long and steadfast encouragement of the research that led to this and other findings.

Special thanks of course to ADBL board member Anthony Majanlahti, whose detailed research helped secure this finding; and also to art historian and ADBL board member Prof. Claudia La Malfa for her willingness over many years to share her expertise as these investigations proceeded. Tatiana Caltabellotta (Amministrazione Boncompagni Ludovisi) generously provided technical support at all stages of discovery.

Detail of newly-revealed upper walls of the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ in the Casino Aurora, Rome. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

Errors in fact or interpretation on the ‘Sala del Lettucio’ and indeed on any other subject you may read on this blog are the fault of ADBL head and weblog editor Corey Brennan alone.

pianta casino CXVIII rooms and floors named

Floor plans of the Casino Aurora ca. 1800, executed by Gaudenzio Honorati, with annotations by Anthony Majanlahti. The Piano Nobile is at upper right; and there the ‘Sala del Lettuccio’ is the short wing at left, marked in red. Guercino’s Fama is painted on the vault of the large central room on that floor. Warm thanks to Anthony Majanlahti 

Comments

  1. Karen Manchester says:

    ANOTHER great discovery! You must be having a blast. Hard work, I know, but you’re finding truly remarkable things.

    Karen

    On Thu, Jun 16, 2016 at 10:42 AM, Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi wrote:

    > villaludovisi posted: ” You don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to. > In 1904, historian and archaeologist Giuseppe Tomassetti (1848-1911) > composed an overview of the Casino Aurora and its art, for a privately > published book dedicated to Prince Rodolfo Boncompagni Lu” >

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