NEW from 1854: A self-portrait by Agnese Borghese shortly before her marriage to Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi

By Carol Cofone

Detail from painted bench with joined Boncompagni Ludovisi and Borghese arms. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Agnese Borghese (1836-1920) is arguably one of the most intriguing and certainly best attested women of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family. When she married Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1832-1911) in 1854, she forged a bond between two illustrious noble papal Roman families, the Borghese and the Boncompagni Ludovisi. Historically, they were the families of two rival Popes: Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) and his successor Gregory XV Ludovisi (1621-1623). Agnese united their histories during the latter half of the 19th century—a period of time that saw remarkable transformations take place, specifically the unification of Italy, the establishment of Rome as its capital, and a series of Popes choosing to confine themselves within the Vatican.

We have an in depth understanding of Agnese’s experience of these events thanks to a 1921 memoir, Ricordi di mia Madre, written by her son Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1856-1935). (It has recently been translated into English and will be published soon.) Drawing on his memories, the accounts of other close family and friends and her collection of letters—many written by her, others written to her by notables of both Italian and Catholic church history—Ugo gives us a compelling account of her life and times.

Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi, Ricordi di mia Madre (1921). A translation into English by the author will appear in 2022.

Sometimes even the smallest detail sheds light on another artifact from the extensive archive of the Boncompagni Ludovisi, which †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi have so generously opened to study and scholarship.

For example, in his Ricordi (p22) Ugo writes of his mother, “Great care was taken, much more than was usual at that time in Rome, in her literary education, and she had the best teachers. But the habitual French accent of the Borghese echoed in her writings especially when she was a young woman. She also studied music, harmony, singing and painting. She sang with great grace; and I have a self-portrait that she painted shortly before marrying. Her brilliance made everything easy for her.” [Emphasis mine.]

Amazingly, we still have it.

Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

It came to light in 2017, when it was discovered by ADBL editor T. Corey Brennan in deep storage in the Villa Aurora. The identity of the subject was never in doubt, as the name and date are clearly visible.

But what was not suspected until the detail from Ricordi di mia Madre revealed it, is that the signature is Agnese’s. This evocative image of a young woman, only 28 days before her wedding, is in fact a self-portrait. (It should be noted that self-portraits by noblewomen in any era seem rare, and for an elite Roman woman of the 19th century this is perhaps even unique.)

On the date of the painting, 3 May 1854, Agnese was three days shy of her 18th birthday. Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi in Ricordi di mia Madre (pp 87-88) offers great detail about her wedding later that month:

“On the evening of the 28th there was a solemn reception at the Palazzo Borghese on the occasion of the wedding inscription, in Rome called capitoli [similar to minutes or a summary]. The whole official and aristocratic world took part in it: the notarial deed led, among other things, to the signature of ten Cardinals. On that same day, a few hours before, the Princess Borghese and her husband had been received by the Pope.”

“The wedding [on 31 May] was celebrated with great pomp in the Borghese Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore.”

Stereoscopic view of Borghese Chapel in S Maria Maggiore. Image: Steiglitz-Berlin 1904.

“Cardinal [Lodovico] Altieri, a relative of the Borghese family, blessed the marriage: in fact, Princess Altieri, Donna Livia, her grandmother, was a Borghese. The witnesses were: for my Father—his cousin and then brother-in-law the Duke of Fiano [i.e., Marco Boncompagni Ludovisi Ottoboni], for my mother—her uncle, [Camillo Borghese,] Prince Aldobrandini. Also the citizenry conspicuously took part in that wedding, because then it was…aristocratic. The union between these two prominent Roman families was well accepted, and many certainly remembered that the bride was the daughter of the holy Princess Guendalina [Talbot], whose body they had accompanied to that Basilica fourteen years earlier!”

“My Mother had arrived in the Borghese coach; she departed in the Piombino sedan, driven by the most famous Roman coachman of the time, Ragazzini, and pulled by two horses of our breed, then well known.” [Trans: “The horses bred by Prince Borghese and Prince Piombino are gray in colour and of an average size”: see William Wetmore Story, Roba di Roma. Second edition, Volume 1, 1863.]

“My father, taking his bride’s arm, saw the great throng that crowded the Esquiline piazza, and very quickly ran down the stairs of the Basilica, so that, according to my mother, who often happily recounted this anecdote, no one could appreciate the magnificent lace which adorned her dress.”

The Esquiline facade of S Maria Maggiore, Rome. Detail from photo of James Anderson (ca. 1870).

“With the two servants behind it on foot, the coach went to St. Peter’s, then to the Palazzo Borghese where there was a big breakfast.”

“A detail that, given the habits of today will seem very strange, is that the newlyweds not only did not go on a honeymoon, but that day they found themselves with the Borghese at the Villa and in the late afternoon returned to lunch at the Palazzo Borghese. My grandparents had prepared a temporary home for them in a small house near the Porta Salaria called ‘la Villetta’, which was linked to the Villa Ludovisi.”

The Casino Aurora in its original setting in the Villa Ludovisi, ca. 1885 (colorized 2021). Photo from set of ca. 160. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“They then ate lunch every day with their in-laws at the Aurora; and in those days in Rome in the summer, the aristocracy had lunch at four. A little over thirty years ago, this custom still persists in some families.”

As readers of Ricordi di mia Madre will conclude, Agnese at age eighteen had already gained a lifetime of wisdom. Of all the things she brought to her marriage, perhaps that was the most significant. It may account for the longevity of her marriage, which lasted 68 years. (It was feted in 1904, the occasion of Agnese and Rodolfo’s 50th anniversary, which is recounted here.)

Agnese’s wisdom clearly shines through in her self-portrait. Thus, it validates what Ugo said about her brilliance. 

Indeed, she was an accomplished artist. 

Carol Cofone is Assistant Director of the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi, with special responsibility for its undergraduate internship program, now entering its third year. Her translation of Ugo Boncompagni’s 1921 Ricordi di mia Madre will appear in 2022.


  1. Christopher Maczynski says:

    In 1988 when I was working in Villa Aurora I took a selfie by the portrait of Agnese Borghese. Pitty, I cannot place it here. On YouTube there is my short slideshow:

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