World Heritage Strategy Forum recap: address by HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi to Institute for Digital Archaeology conference at Harvard


Harvard University’s Loeb House, principal location for the proceedings of the World Heritage Strategy Forum 2016 (9-11 September)

The 10 September address at Harvard University of HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi to participants at the Institute for Digital Archaeology‘s World Heritage Strategy Forum 2016 made such a splash that we requested to publish the text of her remarks here. Here is the speech as written, with the addition of illustrations and hyperlinks.

“It is such an honor to appear before you, the Monument Men and Women of the 21st Century. You are my heroes and heroines. While others are spreading tyranny, fear and despair—you are fighting back with technology, intellect and hope.

It is stunningly appropriate that we are gathered here on the campus of Harvard University for our World Heritage Strategy Forum. For it was a rather unassuming professor from the Harvard Department of the Classics, Mason Hammond, who in summer 1943 was appointed the first of the Monuments Men.


Professor Mason Hammond as pictured in the faculty section of the 1941 Harvard Class Album

Though just 40 years old and holding the modest rank of Captain, he single-handedly shaped, against all odds, the massively successful work that helped so many of the monuments and cultural treasures of Europe escape what seemed to be certain destruction in World War II.

In 1943 the outlook in Europe for historic monuments, fine arts and archives was bleak indeed. Yet as the French philosopher Gustav Le Bon wrote; “The only religion of mankind is, and always has been, hope.”

I will give you an example of the hope you are bringing to those who have been displaced.

Just before I left Rome, I met with a young Syrian couple. Ameer and Marah, who three months ago made a harrowing escape from Homs. They remained in Homs as long as they could. But finally the barrel bombing, ISIS, and Assad’s army forced them to flee a home they love.

Ameer was describing to me the recent bombing, last week, of Homs, which has forced many of their family members and friends to flee. I brought out my iPad and showed Ameer and Marah the image of the IDA’s 3D reconstruction of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph. I only wish each of you could have seen their reaction. They were stunned and deeply moved. They sat in silence, for a very long time.

I realized that Roger Michel was right, that there is a deep integration of people and their physical environment. It is almost primal; it is our core sense of self, that golden thread which connects each of us, one to another.


IDA founder and Executive Director Roger Michel, Director of Technology Alexy Karenowska, and Syrian expatriates gather in London’s Trafalgar Square at midnight on 19 April 2016 to discuss cultural heritage under Palmyra’s reconstructed arch. Credit: IDA

You have brought hope to Ameer and Marah, who have lost everything, through the IDA’s 3D reconstruction of the Palmyra Arch of Triumph. They were so happy that others, half a world away, cared so much that their touchstone not be utterly destroyed.

As you know my husband Nicolo’ and I live in Rome—indeed in the center, in one of  the last two survivals of the historic Villa Ludovisi. The US Embassy occupies the other section a few blocks away, and has done a wonderful job of curating its part.


Aerial view (perhaps late 1940s) of the modern Rione Ludovisi, here covering the western half of the former Villa Ludovisi. The Villa Aurora is the cross-shaped palace in the wooded enclave at top left; the US Embassy complex can be seen at lower center.

Rome is very much a world capital, with many countries maintaining three embassies in the city—to Italy, to the Holy See, and to the UN mission. Of course, it is the center of the Catholic Church. And Italy is also one of the prime destinations for asylum seekers.

So in truth, we hear many stories like those of Ameer and Marah from Homs—from Syria, but also Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, many other countries.

My church in Rome, the Caravita, every week includes in its congregation religious from all over the world—including many of the worst trouble spots—as well as diplomats, UN employees, international students at pontifical universities, pilgrims, and refugees.

The church is also the umbrella for the Jesuit Service for Refugees, which for now thirty five years, has been serving and defending the rights of those who arrive in Italy fleeing war and violence, often even torture.


Oratory of the Caravita, Rome. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The stories that my husband and I hear week after week, first-hand, eyewitness narratives about human and cultural devastation in so many countries, are deeply distressing.  To the ordinary person the situation must seem hopeless.

But no one in this room tonight is an ordinary person. We cannot give up—we must never give up.

Which brings me to our own touchstone, the Villa Aurora, a designated, National Historic Monument in Italy. It is very humbling to be the caretaker of this Villa, the last private remnant of the Ludovisi Gardens.


The Casino Aurora in Rome (rear facade), after its 2009 restoration

One thing you should know about the Ludovisi is that they had a reputation for being fast workers, with a real “can do” attitude. For instance, the day after his election as Pope in 1621, my husband’s ancestor Gregory XV Ludovisi ordained his nephew as a priest. Just five days later he made him a Cardinal.

Within a few weeks that nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, established the Villa Ludovisi by buying up two of the grandest Renaissance garden properties in Rome. They were adjacent, belonging to two different owners, and they covered the expanse of the ancient Gardens of Sallust. That was the retreat of Julius Caesar, where they say he romanced Cleopatra. It later served as a getaway for a long series of Rome’s emperors.

One property Cardinal Ludovisi bought included a grand palace that belonged to the Orsini, which is now the US Embassy. The other had at its center what was then a little hunting lodge that belonged to Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, the Villa Aurora, which is where we live now.

It has been, for the past four hundred years, handed down to the head of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family. My husband Nicolo’ is the twelfth Prince of Piombino.  The eighth Prince of Piombino expanded the Villa to 40,000 square feet and for the first time made it into a home.

Cardinal Ludovisi’s Gardens eventually extended to a full 89.5 acres—amazingly all within the walls of Rome.  That is the size of New York’s Central Park between 59th and 65th Street.

What is incredible about Ludovico Ludovisi is that in the space of just 18 months, he relandscaped the whole, and filled the gardens and his new palace and villa with one of the greatest collections of art and sculpture that the world had ever seen.


The Villa Ludovisi, as shown in the 1843 case map of Venanzio Monaldini (excerpted detail). The Villa Aurora is seen within the circle at lower left, with preliminary work on the extension of its wings (completed 1858) already begun.

We still have a good bit of it. Of course, all the frescoes he commissioned for the Villa Aurora, and many of the statues he collected—even a statue of Pan for which the Cardinal paid a small fortune, by Michelangelo.  The paintings were dispersed already in the 17th century, with many ending up in the Prado.

Most of you viewed the film this afternoon, and saw what we are up against. It is every challenge you can imagine, ranging from bureaucracy to market forces to the environment. The earthquake of 24 August that caused such destruction and appalling loss of life in central Italy shook our home too, and served as a cruel reminder of the fragility of the past.

We have lost many nights sleep, tossing and turning, worrying about, how will we win this race against time, to save our five hundred year old home?

How do we save a home which is adorned with frescoes by Guercino, Brill, Viola, Domenichino, Pomarancio, Valesio, Zuccari, the only ceiling painting by Caravaggio, a staircase built by Carlo Maderno, who created the façade of St. Peter’s and the Quirinale, and twenty-eight ancient statues, many from the first century BC Gardens of Sallust?


Detail from vestibule fresco of the Casino Aurora, by Federico Zuccari (1543-1609). The female figure holds a floor plan of the Casino, with the famed circular staircase depicted at upper left.

I think however cultural preservation is hard-wired into the Boncompagni Ludovisi. The family has lost so many properties, especially in the last century and a half.

The creation of Rome as capital of a new, united Italy absolutely forced the sale of much of the Villa Ludovisi in the 1880s. What were considered the most beautiful gardens on the planet made way for the hotels, businesses and apartment buildings that today extend from the Via Veneto.

Though the core of the statue collection remained in Rome, some of it disappeared far afield. In fact an ancient ex-Ludovisi statue of Juno that weighs 7 tons and is 13 feet tall showed up five years ago here in the Boston suburbs, unrecognized and neglected outdoors at an estate in Brookline, where it had been for more than a century. Thankfully the MFA found it, bought it, cleaned off the graffiti and is now proudly displaying it.

Another blow to the family came in 1889. It was then that a newly confident and somewhat vindictive Comune of Rome seized a spectacular 16th century Boncompagni Ludovisi palace on Piazza Colonna, leveled it, and then left it as a vacant lot for 25 years.


Palazzo Piombino al Corso, in Piazza Colonna, as seen in 1880. It was expropriated from the Boncompagni Ludovisi and demolished in 1889.

In WW II bombers significantly damaged another former family property at Frascati, built by my husband’s 10th great grandfather, who himself was son of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni.

My husband’s family never could bear to part with the Villa Aurora. But in the 1890s, to meet crushing financial obligations that followed a bank collapse, they had to rent it out to the just-formed American Academy in Rome.

John Russell Pope, the architect of the Jefferson Memorial, lived in the Villa Aurora, as well as the famed painter George W. Breck, who did the murals in St. Paul’s inside the Walls of Rome. In fact, his daughter was born there and now his granddaughter spends every Christmas with us.


American Academy in Rome Fellows with Director George Breck (seated) at the Villa Aurora, 1905.

Another challenge came in 1935, when my husband’s beloved grandfather Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, a officer and decorated hero in World War I, resigned from his post as Governor of Rome. Mussolini replaced him with a Fascist hard-liner and considered him persona non grata. He had to go into hiding, and at great risk to himself aided the Italian partisans and the Allies, helping materially with plans for the invasion of Italy.

Hitler placed a shoot-to-kill order on Francesco’s head. And there was every expectation that the Nazis would take over the Villa Aurora, as they had the neighboring hotels on Via Veneto.

Meanwhile his cousin Boncompagno worked closely with the OSS in this country, especially regarding landing points for the Allied invasion. There are 600 pages of documents in the National Archives in Washington that detail his efforts.

Fortunately Rome was liberated before there could be a confiscation. Afterward, Francesco promptly turned over our Villa to the British Red Cross, where they remained even after the end of war.


Then in 1947 Francesco, shocked by the horror of the two World Wars he had experienced, gifted the bulk of the Boncompagni Ludovisi archives—that go back to the tenth century, when my husband’s family first came to Italy with the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II—to the Vatican Secret Archive. It took them 60 years to inventory what he gave them, about 2 million pages of documents.

So it is a small miracle that the Villa Aurora even exists.

Oftentimes, I marvel when I sit beneath Guercino’s Aurora and imagine Bernini playing cards with Ludovico Ludovisi. Or Galileo gazing at the stars from our roof observatory, the highest point in Rome, where he left two of his telescopes.


The cupola of the Casino Aurora, which from ca. 1570 up through the early 20th century was counted as the highest point in Rome within the city walls.

Or Vittoria Archilei, the leading soprano of her day, singing solo a cappella in the Aurora room in 1602. It shocked her audience. Up until that time, everyone sang polyphonically, together to God.  Her performance inspired Cavalieri to write the first opera, in 1606.

I am in awe every, single day when I think of the people who have graced our home, Tchaikowsky, Hawthorne, Stendahl, La Notre, Goethe—or more recently, Woody Allen and Madonna.

Gogol, after he finished Dead Souls, walked around our garden smoking a cigar. Henry James wrote portions of Italian Hours under a great Lebanese cedar in our back garden.

One problem with the Villa Aurora is that we keep on finding unknown treasures. For example, our Caravaggio was rediscovered only in 1968. It had been painted over, with black paint no less.

It was just six years ago that I made a startling discovery in a dark storage area of our basement.  There was a trunk containing the cream of the Boncompagni Ludovisi archives, that Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi had wanted to keep for the family.

In all, with more searching, I found 150,000 pages of documents representing about 10% of the original family archives. The first 25 pages I fished out were 13 letters of Louis XVI and 12 of Marie Antoinette. The general state of preservation of these materials is outstanding, since this was always a private collection and not a “service” archive.


A new document from 1594: Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II invests Jacopo VII Appiani as Prince of Piombino and Marchese of Populonia. The Ludovisi succeeded to these titles in 1634. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Five years ago two separate Italian ministries started simultaneous excavations in our back garden. Of course they immediately found Roman-era remains from Caesar’s time in the Gardens of Sallust, plus even a medieval cemetery. Then the squabbling between the two groups became so intense that nothing happened for a year, and we had a gaping hole that was an eyesore and a hazard. Luckily it has since been backfilled to await a proper excavation, ideally by just one team.

Just this summer Professor Corey Brennan uncovered an entire fresco cycle hidden behind a false ceiling in what had been the principal dining room of the Villa Aurora, showing scenes from the life of Gregory XIII Boncompagni, including his introduction of the Gregorian calendar and his greeting the first Japanese embassy to the West. Every newspaper in Japan covered the story.

And we have another false ceiling in an older part of the Villa that we haven’t fully probed yet.

So what do we do, with the world treasures that we have, and the ones that we are still finding, all in a private home?

In short, we are using the example of the Institute for Digital Archaeology by working with several teams, especially from the Classics department in Rutgers Universityto digitize everything that concerns the Villa Aurora—our documents, our sculptures, our paintings, the Villa building itself.

I am afraid that if we are not careful, they will get carried away and digitize our dogs!

Here is some of what we are doing.

With Rutgers, we are scanning and then disseminating electronically the greatest portion possible of our new archival finds to scholars for study and publication. My husband and I hope that by providing the Boncompagni Ludovisi archive in essentially an “open source” format will serve as a pioneering example for other family archives in Italy and elsewhere.

Corey Brennan and I are also co-authoring a book on the larger cultural importance of the Villa Ludovisi. The book is based on an unpublished photo survey of the Villa that an ancestor, Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi, oversaw in 1885.


View from the top of the Casino Aurora, looking east in the Villa Ludovisi toward today’s Via Veneto, 1885. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

We created an online course, based at Rutgers, entitled “Papal Rome and its People”, that covers the Papacy from medieval times to the very present, and seeks to place the Villa Ludovisi and the Boncompagni Ludovisi in their social context. It was all filmed on site in Rome. In putting together the course, the Rutgers team—all students—documented every horizontal and vertical surface of the Villa. Nicolo’ and I did a number of interviews on film that preserve at least some of the oral history of the family. There’s quite a lot of it, none of it ever told before!

Plus of course we created a feature film, The Princess of Piombino, that you saw today. The producers and directors hope that this is a compelling and innovative way to convey preservation issues to a wider public.

Starting just this July, we started working with the Virtual World Heritage Lab at Indiana University. They are making a complete digital model of the Villa Aurora.

The goal here is to preserve a digital record of the Villa, and increase visibility of the material inside to the public. The Indiana team, led by Kelly McClinton, will eventually digitally put the ancient sculpture from the Ludovisi Collection into its seventeenth-century context. The first results are spectacular.

Please whenever your path leads you to Rome, then do contact me so I can give you a tour of our home and introduce you to my wonderful husband.

I feel the two of us have fought the good fight. I think I finally understand what that brilliant philosopher, Joseph Campbell meant when he said, “Follow your bliss”.

I believe, as R. Buckminster Fuller said, in Spaceship Earth, we are bound by our humanity, and we realize our humanity through iconic symbols, whether it is the Arch of Triumph, in Palmyra or the Buddhas, in Afghanistan. It is primal in all human beings to connect with our origins; it gives us a core sense of self, where we come from and where we are going.

I do really believe, as the IDA gains ever more exposure, that this group can transform our world. When ISIS, the Taliban and other jihadists realize that whatever they destroy can be rebuilt, then the madness may end. All the visuals they put out on the Internet to attract young people will diminish, in appeal.

The monsters would like to destroy the identity of their vanquished, but through the IDA the defeated will rise again. Their symbols and hope restored. You are all doing great work, and let us leave this Strategy Forum energized to do even more.”


HSH Principessa Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi with Dr Alexy Karenowska (Oxford University), Director of Technology of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, at Harvard’s Loeb House 9 September 2016

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