New views of original decoration (ca. 1570s) of the ‘Stanza del Letto’ of Rome’s Villa Aurora

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

By ADBL editor Corey Brennan

[Revised and expanded from an original post of 6 June 2016, with addition of images taken in July 2017 and January 2019.]

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), nephew of Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi (reigned 1621-1623), when he first created his Villa Ludovisi in 1622.

Guercino’s famed figure of “Night” (1622) high up in a lunette of the NE wall in the ground floor sala of the Villa Aurora is dozing over a book that has the date “1858” at the top of a page of abstracted letters. It is natural to suppose that the painter Pietro Gagliardi (who was active in the VA 1855-8) couldn’t resist adding his brush to the masterpiece. Thanks to Tatiana Caltabellotta of the Amministrazione Boncompagni Ludovisi for pointing out the detail.

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 HSH 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 alternately as (1623, 1633) the ‘Stanza del Letto’, i.e., the “Room of the Bed”, or (1641, 1665) the ‘Stanza del Cam(m)ino’, i.e., the “Room of the Fireplace”.

Plan of original core of the Villa Aurora (ground floor and piano nobile), with ‘Stanza del Letto’ at left. From Eva-Bettina Krems, “Die ‘magnifica modestia’ der Ludovisi auf dem Monte Pincio in Rom”, Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft 29 (2002) 105-163, at 126

It’s tempting to identify the bed in question with Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi’s famous “jeweled bed” (lettiera delle gioie), which receives its own chapter of description and discussion in G. Felici, Villa Ludovisi in Roma (1952) 155-163. Stefanie Walker (in Display of Art in the Roman Palace, 1550-1750, ed. G. Feigenbaum [2014] 161) describes the bed as “a display piece with no connection to functionality”, regarded in the late 17th century as being worth 200,000 scudi. An inventory of the Villa Ludovisi for 1733 describes the Casino Aurora itself as “Palazzetto dove stava la lettiera” (ABV prot. 612 no 94 c. 343v).

And where did it go? The Jesuits of Rome’s Collegio Romano laid claim to the jeweled bed as part of their inheritance from Cardinal Ludovisi, and after an exceptionally long and bitter legal tussle, in 1734 won their case over the bed, which they used to finance the Ludovisi side chapel in the church of S Ignazio.

However Felici argues on the basis of 17th century inventories that there is no good reason to place the famous “jeweled bed”—which was still unfinished at the time of Cardinal Ludovisi’s death in 1632—in our room. Rather, before its removal from the Villa Aurora, it was long displayed in the main Sala of the piano nobile, under Guercino’s Fama.

The original ‘Stanza del Letto’ 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, before division of the main elements into smaller units. From left, ‘Sala da pranzo’, decorated by Pietro Gagliardi, and transitional room (each constructed 1855-1858); and at right, the ex-‘Sala del Letto’ (part of the original Villa Aurora, and so constructed ca. 1570). Measurements in feet. Credit: Archives of American Art

Plan (21st c.) of SE wing of Villa Aurora, showing modern subdivisions of units. The ex-‘Stanza del Letto’ is at right, divided into halves, with two different levels of drop ceiling. Measurements in meters. Image courtesy of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi

Now, by the later nineteenth century, the ‘Sala del Letto’ 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-‘Stanza del Letto’ 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 Letto’? 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 (high: 4.35m = 14′ 3″) 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 (2017) upper walls and ceiling beams of the ‘Stanza del Letto’ 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. The initial discovery occurred 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.

Newly-revealed upper walls and ceiling beams of the ‘Stanza del Letto’ in the Casino Aurora, Rome, with (at left) wide views, and (at right) corresponding close-ups of the four figurative scenes that are at the center of each upper wall. Images taken in January 2019; collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

How was this ceiling found? Anthony Majanlahti wrote in 2014 in response to Brennan, speaking of the ‘Sala del Letto’: “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 ‘Stanza del Letto’ 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 NW wing—exactly where Giovan Pietro Bellori in 1672 had said it would be.

We know a bit about Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi‘s ‘Stanza del Letto’ in the Casino Aurora, which was positioned directly next to the large stanza with Guercino’s Fama.

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 ‘Stanza del Letto’ and two of its four windows.

In particular, we have a good notion of the decorative and framed art that this ‘Letto’ room held in the years 1621-1632. In addition to the famed jeweled bed (on which see above), the walls of the ‘Stanza del Letto’ must have been stacked high with paintings. The 1623 inventory of the Casino Aurora lists the works of 17 artists for that room alone (with no specific mention of the artistic program for the ceiling). These included works, most with religious themes, with the Carracci —the brothers Annibale and Agostino and their cousin Ludovico—prominently featured. 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 ‘Stanza del Letto’ are found at nos. 86-102.

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 ‘Stanza del Letto’ 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 ‘Stanza del Letto’? 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 1622. 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 ‘Stanza del Letto’, adduced by Anthony Majanlahti

Warmest thanks, as always, to †HSH Prince Nicolo’ Boncompagni Ludovisi and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Prince and Princess of Piombino XI, 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.

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

Details (images taken in 2017, 2019) of newly-revealed upper walls of the ‘Stanza del Letto’ in the Casino Aurora, Rome.Of course the question remains: what is behind that corrugated board that covers the ceiling? Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

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