2021 marks the 400th anniversary of the historic papacy of Gregory XV Ludovisi. Get ready for what’s in store

By ADBL Editor Corey Brennan

View of Guercino’s Aurora (1622), in the Casino Aurora. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome. Design: Alexis Greber (Kutztown ’21)

The year was 1947, and HSH Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi was just six years old when his grandfather Francesco gave the bulk of their noble family’s sprawling archive to the Vatican. Enclosed in 31 massive shelving units whose footprint alone occupied ca. 100 square meters, the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi filled four large rooms in a family palace on Rome’s Via della Scrofa.

Sketches of early 20th century disposition of the archive at Rome’s Via della Scrofa. Source: G. Venditti (ed.), Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi: Inventario vol. I (2008) p. xix

The contents? In short, almost a millennium of family and indeed European history. Its holdings are of crucial importance especially for documenting the family’s two Popes, Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585) and Gregory XV Ludovisi (1621-1623), as well as the history of Rome’s famed Villa Ludovisi, founded in 1621 by Gregory XV’s cardinal nephew, Ludovico Ludovisi. The whole was organized and annotated by a long series of highly learned family archivists. The last of these was Giuseppe Felici, who continued his efforts through the harrowing events of World War II. Yet after arrival at what is now known as the Vatican Apostolic Archive, the Boncompagni Ludovisi documents took more than 60 years to receive a proper inventory, which a team led by Gianni Venditti published in 2008 in five corpulent volumes.

From the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi at the Casino Aurora: Registry of vineyards at the Villa Sora (Frascati) by surveyor Antonio Giuliani (1691). Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Two years later came a genuine plot twist. In September 2010, the wife of Prince Nicolò, HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, discovered in their newly restored home, Rome’s Casino Aurora, an “orphaned” cache from the archive. The unexpected find consisted of over 100,000 pages dating back to the 1400s, organized in about 2400 labelled folders. In addition, the Princess recovered an unpublished documentary history of outstanding figures of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family, written by archivist Giuseppe Felici in 48 typescript volumes.

Today all of these recovered documents are fully digitized, thanks to a dynamic collaboration that Prince Nicolò (whom we sadly lost in 2018) and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi developed with Rutgers University—New Brunswick. Generous support came from Rutgers—NB’s School of Arts & Sciences, and its Office of the Chancellor (especially during the 2014-17 term of Inaugural Chancellor Richard L. Edwards).

To highlight these spectacular archival finds, there is of course this website, as well as our new (since October 2020) partner platform with Google Arts & Culture, and also a YouTube channel. The next phase of the project will focus on a way to share the 350 gigabytes of newly scanned material, with at least basic metadata.

Detail of home page of Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi partner site with Google Arts & Culture. The Archive is one of just over 2000 cultural institutions from 80 countries to be featured on the platform.

There’s clearly a lot of Boncompagni Ludovisi history to process. And on 5 February 2021 an international roster of established and emerging scholars will be making a start, in the form of a virtual conference: Religion, Culture, & Politics in the Papacy of Gregory XV Ludovisi (1621-1623). This one-day event, hosted by Kutztown University of Pennsylvania with the patrocinio of the American Academy in Rome and the Rutgers Department of Classics, is meant to anticipate the 400th anniversary of the election of Alessandro Ludovisi as Pope on 9 February 1621. The event is co-organized by the author and Professor Pierette Kulpa (Department of Art, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania).

Confirmed participants for the 5 February virtual conference include: Salvatore Andrea APICELLA (Lumière Technology, Ponthierry), Ivica ČAIROVIĆ (Univ. Belgrade), Gloria CAMESASCA (Sondrio), Martina CATALDO (Univ. Bologna at Ravenna), Carol COFONE (Red Bank NJ), Pascal COTTE (Lumière Technology, Ponthierry), Laura GARCÍA SÁNCHEZ (Univ. Barcelona), Barbara GHELFI (Univ. Bologna at Ravenna), Jacqueline GIZ (Rutgers Univ.), Isabel HESLIN (Lehigh Univ.), Sonia ISIDORI (Boston Coll.), Christine KONDOLEON (MFA Boston), Pierette KULPA (Kutztown Univ.), Claudia LA MALFA (American Univ. of Rome), Denis LARIONOV (Belarusian State Univ.), Anthony MAJANLAHTI (Rome), Carlo MARINO (Rome), Chiara MATTEUCCI (Univ. Bologna at Ravenna), Raffaella MORSELLI (Univ. Teramo), Martin RASPE (Bibliotheca Hertziana, Rome), Pasquale STENTA (Univ. Bologna at Ravenna), David STONE (Univ. Delaware) [discussant], and Daniel M. UNGER (Ben-Gurion Univ.). HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi will deliver both opening remarks and the keynote address from Rome. For the full conference schedule and registration, please visit ludovisi.org.

Through Google Arts & Culture’s Gallery View feature, users can virtually ‘walk through’ the garden or the principal interior spaces of the Casino Aurora, using the same controls as Google Street View or by clicking on the gallery’s floorplan.

It’s fair to say that, at present, the history of no other Roman noble family is receiving such sustained academic attention. The rich material in the ‘Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi’ has already inspired about a dozen and half year-long student projects at Rutgers, most under the umbrella of the Aresty Undergraduate Research program. A summer internship program for undergraduate students debuted in 2020, and drew participants from Rutgers as well as Edinburgh, Kutztown and Lehigh Universities; the program will continue in 2021 and (one hopes) beyond.

‘Walk through’ Gallery view of Casino Aurora rear facade and garden, via Google Arts & Culture

Rutgers student videographers have travelled to Rome twice to document Boncompagni Ludovisi history and patronage. Prince Nicolò and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi worked with these students, this writer and ADBL board member Anthony Majanlahti to create a Rutgers online course entitled “Papal Rome and its People”, largely filmed in and around the Casino Aurora. They also enabled Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences to produce a student-directed feature film “The Princess of Piombino”. The film had its premiere screening at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum in September 2016, in the context of the Institute for Digital Archaeology‘s World Heritage Strategy Forum. Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi attended, answered audience questions, and also appeared as the conference’s principal keynote speaker.

The work of sifting through centuries of Boncompagni Ludovisi history naturally has brought surprises. For instance, a set of photographs from 1904 led to the rediscovery in June 2016 of an entire 19th century fresco cycle in the Casino Aurora, long hidden under a false ceiling. The first glimpses of this ceiling received blanket coverage in the Japanese national and regional press, and featured in a 2019 Milan MUDEC exhibition. In July 2017 a second hidden ceiling emerged, in this case dating back to ca. 1570, the earliest stratum of the Casino’s construction. A series of four small Mannerist paintings was revealed on the upper walls, evidently the original decoration of an important room in the Casino known as the ‘Sala del Letto’. In November 2019, Carole Raddato (whose stunning photographs of Roman antiquity have now found an institutional home at the American Academy in Rome) convincingly identified a fine Roman-era head as a portrait of Lucius Aelius Caesar, the emperor Hadrian’s first chosen heir—one of just a handful known.

An ultra-rare portrait head of Aelius Caesar, as identified by Carole Raddato, from the collection of †HSH Principe Nicolò and HSH Principessa Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi. Image: Laboratorio diagnostico per i Beni Culturali of the University of Bologna at Ravenna

Indeed, the span of just a few months in late 2019 and early 2020 saw some dramatic developments. These included a campaign to photograph the mural art of the Casino Aurora—including Caravaggio‘s only ceiling painting—in extreme detail by specialists from the Laboratorio diagnostico per i Beni Culturali of the University of Bologna at Ravenna, led by Professor Barbara Ghelfi and Dottoressa Chiara Matteucci, as part of a project Guercino: Oltre il colore. Furthermore, a collaboration between Professor Bernard Frischer (Indiana University, and ADBL board member) and Geostudi Astier SRL (Livorno) resulted in a comprehensive non-invasive underground survey of the Casino Aurora and its grounds, and the creation of a 3D model that sheds much new light on the Roman-era origins of this area, and its later development through the 17th century and beyond. Meanwhile, back in the States, a team of undergraduate students at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Professor Pierette Kulpa transcribed an unusually valuable contemporary (ca. 1633) MS biography of cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi by his personal secretary Lucantonio Giunti.

Detail of Guercino’s Fama (1622) on the Piano Nobile of the Casino Aurora, during the November 2019 photographic campaign conducted by the Laboratorio diagnostico per i Beni Culturali of the University of Bologna at Ravenna. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Which brings us back to the 5 February 2021 Kutztown-sponsored conference “Religion, Politics & Culture in the Papacy of Gregory XV Ludovisi (1621-1623)“. There is good reason that this Bolognese Pope’s reign is widely counted as one of the most consequential short pontificates in the history of the Church. Before his death after just 29 months as Pope (8 July 1623), Ludovisi registered an impressively broad series of accomplishments that invite renewed attention, analysis and critique. Our virtual event aims to offer an opportunity to assess recent contributions on Gregory XV and his cultural world, to share fresh research and analysis, and to reappraise the Ludovisi papacy’s immediate impact and later relevance. Again, for the full conference schedule and (free) registration, please visit ludovisi.org. Hope to see you there!

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