New light on the administration of the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi in Rome

By Rebecca Domas (Kutztown University ’21)

Image (detail) of staff outside the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi in the Villa Ludovisi, 1885. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome. 

For more than 250 years the Ludovisi and then the Boncompagni Ludovisi family maintained a private museum on the property of their sprawling Villa on the site of the former Gardens of Sallust, within the historic walls of Rome. Their museum, termed “new” in an inventory of 1641, highlighted some of the most spectacular sculptures collected by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi during the short pontificate of his uncle Gregory XV Ludovisi (1621-1623). Larger pieces acquired by the Cardinal were shown outside throughout the western portion of the grounds of the Villa, some exposed to the elements, others housed under open temple-like structures built according to classical models.

Plan of the Villa Ludovisi, published in G.B. Falda, Li giardini di Roma: con le loro piante alzate e vedute in prospettiva (1670). 

In the year 1670, a plan of the Villa Ludovisi by Giambattista Falda shows a ‘Casino con Galeria di Statue’ (“small building with gallery of statues”), elsewhere designated as the ‘Casino Capponi’, directly to the right of the main gate of the Villa, which was positioned on the enclave’s southern boundary at the distinctive bend of today’s Via Friuli (= Museum I). There the core of the sculptural collection remained even after the dissolution and development of most of the Villa Ludovisi in 1885, indeed until the year 1889, when it migrated a few dozen meters to the southwest, into a newly-constructed ‘Palazzo Piombino’ on the Via Veneto now meant to serve as the main residence for the head of the family (= Museum II). The Museum I building then served for a time as a stables, and later (1948-1951), was converted into a garage to serve the US Embassy in Rome.

View of Via Friuli today, within compound of US Embassy in Rome (ex-Palazzo Piombino). The gap in the wall at left corresponds to the site of the original main gate of the Villa Ludovisi. A garage (visible here with terracotta-colored roof), constructed 1948-1951, occupies the area of the former Museum I. The ancient cryptoporticus once underneath the Museum and used for storage still survives.

However after just 18 months a multi-pronged financial crisis forced the Prince of Piombino to move out and put up his grand palace for rent. Still Museum II continued under the same roof, until eventually (1901) much of the Boncompagni Ludovisi statue collection passed by purchase to the Italian State. Today 104 of those sculptures are splendidly exhibited in the Museo Nazionale Romano at the Palazzo Altemps. And the former Palazzo Piombino on the Via Veneto is now the home of the US Embassy in Rome.

Since the rediscovery in 2010 of major portions of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family archives by HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, our understanding of how the private Museum functioned in especially in the 19th century has improved dramatically. The Princess’ discoveries in her home, the Casino Aurora, has brought to light a wealth of new and significant material—exterior and interior photos of Museum I, new detailed inventories, and significant administrative correspondence between the Museum and various consulates and corporations in Rome which handled group ticket requests, as well as in-house registers that pertain to the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi in both its old and short-lived new locations.

Stereoscopic view (ca. 1860) by Grillet firm of north wall of (1st) Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi at transition between Sale I and II, with Ares Ludovisi at center. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

What is especially exciting is that the guest ledgers and consulate records discovered within the Boncompagni Ludovisi family archive illuminate the identities of visitors and statistics of requests to view the magnificent collections housed within Museum I and Museum II. We can see that expansive interest in the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi spanned across citizens of many nations. And we can trace step-by-step the actual specifics of how individuals overcame the challenges of being administered a ticket to enter the magnificent collections.

Image (ca. 1890, detail) of “Gallery of the Sarcophagi” of the Boncompagni Ludovisi sculptural collection as reinstalled in Palazzo Piombino (= Museum II). Note the Ludovisi Throne at right, placed on top of the Lesser Battle Sarcophagus. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

The Boncompagni Ludovisi books that register ticket issues are of particular interest. They are recorded by the same individual, almost certainly Alessandro Rocchi, the chief administrator of the Boncompagni Ludovisi estate, and span across twenty-three  pages. The records date from 1886 to 1894—pausing for a few brief months in 1889 when the collection was removed from Museum I and reinstalled in Museum II.

Although a gap is created for the moving of the collection from Museum I to II, the rosters follow a similar format throughout the records. Each page is formatted as follows from left to right:

Roster (detail) for March and early April 1892 of tickets issued for Museum II. Note under 5 April that the Prince of Venosa, Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (uncle of the head of family), required a ticket. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

(1) the year is listed at the top and at times acts as a divider in the center of the records when a year break is found on a single page. The year is followed by the month, generally within the same column as the year on the far left, which when repeated a dash or dot is listed below the initial month recorded.

(2) The second column lists the calendar date. If multiple entities are present for a single date, a dash or dot appears after the initial entry of the date.

(3) The third and largest column lists the requesting entities’ identities

(4) A fourth column registers the requested number of tickets.

(5) The final column remains a mystery as no names, numbers, or markings outside of the repeated dash are recorded here.

The intact guest rosters are a large component to uncovering the inner workings of entering the Museum. However smaller elements like the analysis of a physical ticket of entry provide another piece of the puzzle. Indeed, the ticket of entry reveals complexities within the guest rosters. It is unclear whether the tickets remained the same from Museum I to Museum II (all the examples from the archive are from the later Museum).

Unused ticket (1890s) from Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi. Annotations by the author. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

All the tickets discovered follow a similar format. The header is listed in bold and translates: “Permit to visit the Boncompagni Ludovisi Museum,” followed by several lines to list the requesting entity that prefixes a would-be (male) ticket holder, “Issued to Mr….”—though we shall see that women entered the Museum with roughly the same frequency as men.

The next lines list the Museum’s days and hours of operations: “The Museum is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 9am to 12 noon and from 2pm to 5pm.” The following space would be filled with the date and year of entry.  Importantly, at the bottom one finds that the ticket was“Gratis” [= “Free”].

The bottom right of the ticket reveals a great deal about the guest rosters. The line “Valga per 4 persone entro un mese da oggi,” reads “Valid for 4 people within one month from now”. This is important, since it reveals that the guest rosters do not indicate the physical entry into the museum on the listed day. Rather, it is a record of working hours for the secretary when they would administer the tickets. This discovery accounts for the implications of days listed in the roster that fall outside of the museum’s regular days of operations and the number of visitors entering the museums.

Now, if each ticket accounts for upwards of four guests, the numbers listed in the fourth column of the guest rosters could be multiplied by up to four to symbolize the true number of guests viewing the collections. In other words, the tickets are listed as an open invitation to be used within the administered month.

However procuring a ticket in the first instance required some effort. The very fact that the system to request permission to enter the Boncompagni Ludovisi Museum saw the family’s administration mostly working hand in hand with national embassies and consulates and (sometimes) corporations is noteworthy. It allows us to evaluate the importance of the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection and the role of its art in the cultural landscape of Rome in the later nineteenth century. It also draws our attention to the status of persons who could request tickets directly from the Museum administration—some Italians, as we would expect, but also well-connected foreigners.

Cover letter from British Consulate in Rome to Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi, 2 January 1892. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Among consulates and embassies working with the Museum, one prominent requesting entity is the Consul of Great Britain. One notes that the consulates did not immediately get their guest rosters accepted into the museum. Instead, they had to go through the process of writing a formal letter listing the individuals wanting to visit the collections. But it seems that their requests were promptly accepted and the visitors listed not challenged.

A good example of the steps from receipt of letter to ledger entry to ticket issue is seen in an exchange made between the British consul and the Museum administration in early January of 1894. A letter was written to the Museum on 2 January 1894 to request the entry of twelve individuals by the British consul. The individuals’ names are listed within the letter and are as follows: George Young Wardle, Captain Brownlowe, Mrs. Bowman, Miss Halton, Miss Emily Price, Mr. Simmons, Mrs. F. Perry, Mr. N. Sommerville, Mr. F. Turnbull, Mrs. R. Sinclair, Mrs. Farquharson, and Mr. L. [or D.] Morice. At least the first of these individuals can be immediately identified. Wardle (1836-1910) was an artist and manager of the William Morris textile factory in south London, and an important figure in the Victorian Arts & Crafts movement.

Visitors requested by British Consulate in Rome to Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi, 2 January 1892; numbers on top are the annotations of the Museum administration. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

So the letter provides the specific identities of the ticket issues recorded on 3 January 1894 in the guest ledgers. The record shows that the ticket numbers N. 221 to 232 were administered to the British Consul to enter the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi. Here is the important point. The exact date of the successful guests physically entering the museum remains a mystery, since the ticket reveals that the entry was good for a whole month.

Visitors requested by Bank Maquay, Hooker to Alessandro Rocchi of the Boncompagni Ludovisi administration, with Rocchi’s annotation of series of tickets issued, 2 November 1893. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Another frequent requesting name among the ledgers is the bank Maquay Hooker, which was a corporation that housed their own art collections and galleries. The bank’s collections were situated relatively close to the western end of the Villa Ludovisi, and shows the company’s interest in art culture within Italy. The corporation name recurs in the guest ledgers, which shows the system of admission to foreigners operating in a similar fashion to consulates. A letter from 2 November 1893 shows requested entry for twelve individuals (hard to identify) under the bank’s name: Miss Jones, Miss Dine, Mr. Allis, Col. Adams, Mr. Mason, Dr. Robbins, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Bassett, Mr. Osgood, Mr. Field, Mr. Nevin, and Miss Orr. The request is listed in the guest ledgers for 4 November 1893 where the tickets N. 51-62 are allotted to the Bank Maquay Hooker.

After the analysis of the yearly entries in the guest ledgers for 1886, 1887 and parts of 1888 in addition to consulate letters, the following attributes leap to the eye. The majority of tickets being administered were to consulates, embassies, and legations—and thus to foreigners. However individual requests are scattered through the guest ledgers and offer a productive line of research. It emerges that even Boncompagni Ludovisi family members had to request a ticket to enter the Museum, as Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi, Prince of Venosa and uncle to the then head of family, did in early April 1892.

The single largest ticket request spotted so far was by the Consul of France who was granted 100 tickets on 18 October 1887—which as we have seen, would allow up to 400 guests to enter the Museum. It seems worth suggesting that this large group wanted to see something new in the Museum—specifically, the “Ludovisi Throne”, discovered on a Sunday in summer 1887, somewhere under the present-day south sidewalk of the Via Sicilia (the precise date and location was cloaked in secrecy), about 400 meters from the Museum. (On the purposefully vague details of its discovery, see K. J. Hartswick, The Gardens of Sallust [2004] p119.) If true, this gives us a valuable data point for the early and mysterious history of this famous classical Greek sculptural relief.

The Ludovisi Throne, photographed soon after discovery in 1887. From the Boncompagni Ludovisi family’s own photographic album (late 1880s-early 1890s) of their chief museum holdings. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Again, it must be emphasized that the numbers listed in the Museum rosters must be lower—perhaps significantly—than the true number of physical guests to the museum. For example, the total tickets administered in the year 1887 is estimated to be 1,483. However when taking into account that an individual ticket is valid for up to four guests, the total of physical visitors to the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi could be anywhere up to almost 6000 guests for the year. This would mean at least 40 visitors per day, assuming about 144 operating days for the Museum per year. (The Museum seems to have been closed in August.)

Indeed, the administration of tickets for up to four guests poses not just statistical quandaries, but also questions about the flexibility of entry into the museum. So the ticket remains valid for one month. However does the piece of paper remain valid for multiple visits within the month, or (more probably) is collected at the door and so acts as a one-time pass? The question at present remains unknown. But like so many of the pieces to the larger puzzle of the administrative history of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family, it is a stimulus to further research to help gain a deeper understanding of the operations of an unusually important 19th century Rome cultural institution.

About the author: Rebecca Domas is a senior at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, majoring in Art History with a minor in Library Science. A member of the internship class (summer 2021) of the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi, this is Rebecca’s first research project which has been published. She hopes to continue her research in art history and archival work during her graduate studies. She would like to thank Dr. T Corey Brennan for his guidance in the research and publication of her piece. She would also like to thank HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for allowing her to work with the Boncompagni Ludovisi family archive.

Image by the Grillet firm (ca. 1860) of (1st) Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi Sala II, south wall. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.


  1. Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi says:

    Thank you, Rebecca. You did such a beautiful job illuminating the popularity of Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi.

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