Stolen letters of the Catholic saint Don Bosco to the Boncompagni Ludovisi (1867-9) recovered & repatriated to Italy: why it matters

By ADBL editor Corey Brennan

At the Villa Aurora in Rome, Tenente Colonnello Guido Barbieri, Comandante il Nucleo Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale di Perugia, restores stolen S Don Bosco letter to HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi. Credit: Umbria Journal (10 August 2021)

On 11 July 2019 the US Embassy in Rome hosted a poignant ceremony that underlined the firm resolve of the Italian and American governments to combat the trade in stolen and illegally exported cultural artifacts. Two objects recovered in the United States took center stage: a second century CE mosaic from Sicily, and a letter dated 30 July 1867 from S Giovanni Bosco (1815-1888) to the Duchess of Sora (later Princess of Piombino), Agnese Borghese Boncompagni Ludovisi (1836-1920). Lewis M. Eisenberg, then US Ambassador to the Italian Republic and San Marino, presided at the occasion.

What led to the recovery of both the ancient mosaic and the 19th century letter, 3 pages long, was a closely coordinated operation between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Comando Carabineri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (= TPC). It was widely reported that a US citizen residing in New York had purchased the letter on eBay, and from there it made its way to an apartment in Los Angeles, where the authorities then found it.

This disturbing story reached some closure on 15 June 2021, when two senior officers of the Carabinieri TPC, Tenente Colonnello Guido Barbieri and Maresciallo Maggiore Alessandro Lamberti, formally restored to HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi the letter to the archive at her home, Rome’s Villa Aurora.

In this post my focus is not on the crime (detected in summer 2016), the identity of the various criminal actors, or the multi-year international collaboration that led to the recovery of the 30 July 1867 Don Bosco letter—as well as of a second more succinct one to Agnese’s husband, Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1832-1911) in the Saint’s hand, dated 20 February 1869. The investigation of course may still be continuing, for all one knows.

Rather my aim here is simply to summarize the background and contents of the two recovered Don Bosco letters, and give some idea of their historical significance. Provenance is not in doubt, as we shall see. Though neither item bears the characteristic stamp of the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi, it can be demonstrated that each properly belongs to the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection, yet almost certainly from a part not found in the Vatican or the Villa Aurora.

The 30 July 1867 letter of S Don Bosco to Agnese Borghese Boncompagni Ludovisi. Credit: US Embassy Rome

Let us first turn to the 30 July 1867 item celebrated at the US Embassy. At the time of writing this letter, Don Bosco is in Torino. He had spent 12-19 January 1867 in Rome, visiting daily with the Boncompagni Ludovisi family at their Villa Ludovisi. Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1856-1935), the eldest son of Rodolfo and Agnese, explains the background to this visit in his book Ricordi di mia madre (1921) p. 183:

“[Don Bosco] came to Rome in 1867; it was the second time he visited here, but this occasion tells more about him. His arrival was related to the appointment of the first Italian Bishops after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy. My mother wanted to meet with him, I also remember that she brought me to him; it was the year of my first communion.” [trans. Carol Cofone, from her forthcoming publication of the 1921 biography]

First page of the recently recovered 30 July 1867 letter by Don Bosco to Agnese Borghese Boncompagni Ludovisi. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

In the present document, Don Bosco is replying to a letter sent or received 24 June 1867 (the Feast of S Giovanni), in which Agnese had sent to him a contribution. He tells of a cholera epidemic at Torino, and says he learned it had broken out in Rome as well. Don Bosco alludes to poor health on the part of Rodolfo, the husband of Agnese. The saint also says that he received a letter from Ugo, the eldest son of Rodolfo and Agnese, who was then aged 12, to which his tutor, Don Cesare Calandretti, had also added remarks.

Here Don Bosco also says that he had prayed to S Maria Ausiliatrice on behalf of Rodolfo and Ugo. This is a manifestation of the Blessed Virgin Mary that was crucial in the spiritual thought of Bosco; he would dedicate a major sanctuary to her at Valdocco (Torino) in the following year, 1868. He explicitly refers to the building of that church in this letter, and says it will be finished within 1867. Indeed, he promises that “niuno di quelli che prendono parte alla costruzione della chiesa in onore di Maria Ausiliatrice sarà vittima di questi malori, purchè si riponga fiducia in lei.”

He also says that he has recommended the tutor Don Calandretti to the Lord, that he might model all the (young) members of the family in the example of S Luigi (Gonzaga).

The letter closes with the wish that Agnese or her family visit Torino. He also alludes to the possibility of meeting in Senigallia (Ancona), where (as Ugo tells us in Ricordi di mia madre p. 185) the Boncompagni Ludovisi family had once spent time on the beach. Senigallia was the birthplace of the contemporary Pope, Pius IX Mastai Ferretti, and was an important site for Don Bosco. There he founded another church of S Maria Ausiliatrice and a Salesian Institute.

Second and third pages of the recently recovered 30 July 1867 letter by Don Bosco to Agnese Borghese Boncompagni Ludovisi. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Context is key. This letter forms the first of a known series, published in G. B. Lemoyne’s biography of Don Bosco (Memorie biografiche di Don Giovanni Bosco vol. IX [1917] chapter 43), in which the Saint also wrote to the Duke of Sora (after 1883 Prince of Piombino) Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi, the husband of Agnese. The letters that follow are dated to 28 January 1869 (from Rome); 15 February 1869 (thanking the Duke for a contribution toward the Basilica of S Maria Ausiliatrice, and asking him for a much larger contribution to buy and renovate the ancient church of S Caio in Monti for the Salesians); and 20 February 1869 (inquiring again about the possibility of subsidizing the renovation of S Caio). Each of the published letters show the close personal and spiritual connection between the Saint and the Duke and Duchess and their children.

Yet one must remember that all of these letters were written in a time of extreme turmoil, when the forces promoting the unification of Italy had numbered the days of the Papal States. Amazingly, the Papal family Boncompagni Ludovisi stood on both sides of the conflict. In 1861 Pope Pius IX had personally exiled the father of Rodolfo, Antonio Boncompagni Ludovisi (Prince of Piombino 1841-1883), for his conspicuous favor of Vittorio Emanuele II. He remained in Milan until the end of his life.

And the brother of Rodolfo, Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1845-1913), had joined the forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi and played a courageous role in the battles of Mentana and Monterotondo in October 1867, just months after our letter was written. Indeed, he offered the Boncompagni Ludovisi palace in Monterotondo to Garibaldi to serve as his headquarters. Just two weeks after the capture of Rome he was made a member of the Giunta Provvisoria di Governo formed on 3 October 1870. So the 30 July 1867 letter of Don Bosco to Agnese Boncompagni Ludovisi comes at a historical turning point for the history of the Catholic church, of Italy, and the Boncompagni Ludovisi family.

Now for the second recovered letter of Don Bosco, dated 20 February 1869, in this case written from Rome to Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi. This letter is the last of that known series of missives from 1867 and then early 1869 that the Saint wrote to the Boncompagni Ludovisi family.

S Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco (“Don Bosco”) in Rome 1869. Credit: salesianos.edu

The general background to the letters from early 1869? The end of the Papal States was now a mere 18 months away. Meanwhile the Church was preparing for the opening of the First Vatican Council, which would commence in December 1869, and see the discussion of many doctrinal issues, including that of Papal infallibility.

Yet the period in which Don Bosco wrote these later letters to the Boncompagni Ludovisi family, i.e., early 1869, is also of major importance for understanding the personality and aims of the Saint himself. The reason Don Bosco was in Rome at this time was to secure the Vatican’s official approval of the Salesian Congregation. His first attempt, which was unsuccessful, was in 1864. In September 1868, on resubmission of his petition, he received a further negative assessment of the organization and constitutions of the Congregation. In early 1869 the Saint collected many letters of commendation and finally gained Papal approval of the Salesian Congregation—but not its constitutions—on 1 March 1869. 

So this last sequence of letters to the Boncompagni Ludovisi family dates to a period of great anxiety for the Saint. The letters also show how Don Bosco openly shared his concerns with them.

The first letter in the 1869 sequence published by Lemoyne is dated to 28 January, where the Saint apologies to Duke Rodolfo for not being found at home on that day; he offers to celebrate Mass for the Boncompagni Ludovisi family at the Villa Ludovisi the next day.

The second published by Lemoyne is a long letter of 15 February 1869, in which the Saint thanks the Duke for a contribution of 100 (gold) franchi toward the Basilica of S Maria Ausiliatrice in Torino, and asks him for a much larger contribution to buy and renovate the ancient church of S Caio in Monti for the Salesians. He estimates the cost of that project to be 50,000 (gold) francs.

Demolition of church of S Caio in 1885, to allow extension of Ministry of Defence building on Via XX Settembre. Credit: info.roma.it

A word of explanation is needed about the church of San Caio in Rome. This was an ancient titular church located in the Monti rione of the city, along the ancient Via Pia (= Via XX Settembre), not far from the Pope’s residence in the Palazzo Quirinale. There had been a convent of Barberine nuns (Carmelites of the Incarnation) connected to the church. Don Bosco was seeking the approval of Pope Pius IX to establish a base in Rome similar to the Oratory of St Francis de Sales he had established in 1851 in Torino. His aim was to create at S Caio a church, a school, and a center for catechetical instruction for boys living in the area. The project receives only a few mentions in the Saint’s voluminous correspondence (none that I can find after July 1869). One suspects that he altogether abandoned the project when the Pope was forced to flee the Quirinale on 20 September 1870. In 1885 the church of S Caio was demolished to make way for an extension of the neighboring building (constructed 1880) housing the Ministry of Defence.

Recently recovered letter of S Don Bosco to Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi dated 20 February 1869. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

This brings us to the present letter of 20 February 1869. It shows that the Duke of Sora had not received Don Bosco’s letter of 15 February, in which he had thanked the Duke for the contribution of 100 franchi toward the building of the new Salesian center of Basilica of S Maria Ausiliatrice and asked him to help still further in the acquisition of S Caio. Here Don Bosco affirms that he had indeed received the money and was executing the Duke’s wish, that he pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary on behalf of the Duchess of Sora. Indeed he says that he remembers her every day as he celebrates Mass.

Don Bosco closes the letter proper with a consolation of the Duchess, emphasizing that he feels great empathy for her worries. (These worries are not specified, but one suspects that they concern in part the fact that the Boncompagni Ludovisi were found on both sides of the liberal revolution in Italy.) The letter includes also a post scriptum inquiring again about the possibility of subsidizing the renovation of S Caio—which is noteworthy since it is clear that Duke Rodolfo had not seen the letter of 15 February in which the initial request was made.

Here is a full transcription of the Saint’s short letter, available to Lemoyne before his death in 1916:

Roma, 20 febbraio [18]69

Carissimo Signor Duca,

La E. V. mandò qui per avere da me qualche risposta che io pensavo già di aver fatta, la ricevuta cioè dei 100 franchi, che Ella offriva affinchè si pregasse in modo particolare la S. Vergine (per) la Signora Duchessa di Lei moglie. La sua volontà fu fedelmente eseguita e nella mia pochezza continuo a fare ogni giorno un memento speciale nella santa Messa. Io provo gran pena per gli affanni che prova questa Signora, ma sono pieno di fiducia che sarà solamente esercizio di pazienza e che non vi saranno cattive conseguenze.

Dio benedica Lei, tutta la sua famiglia e mi creda con gratitudine di V. E.

Obbl.mo servitore

Sac. Gio. Bosco.

P. S. – Il miracolo per la casa di S. Cajo si fa?

As promised, a word about provenance. Until at least the 1940s, both these stolen letters surely will have resided in the private Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi that in its developed form was located in the family’s Palazzo at Via della Scrofa, 39 in Rome. The relevant rooms for the archive occupied approximately 100 square meters. In 1947, Prince Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi (1886-1955) made a gift of most (80-90%) but not all of these materials to the Archivio Segreto Vaticano. A full inventory started at the Vatican only in 2001 and was published in five large volumes in 2008, edited by dott. Gianni Venditti. No materials from S Giovanni Bosco are found in that inventory.

Msgr Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi and his father Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino, at La Quiete (Foligno) in 1907. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

It seems likely that Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi retained the present letter and others in its series in the Saint’s hand, because of their unusual importance for the family history. His own father, Monsignor Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi (who after losing two wives took Holy Orders and served as Vice-Camerlengo of the Church from 1921 to his death in 1935), had a special connection to the Saint, who several times refers to “piccolo Ugo” in his correspondence.

Monsignor Ugo also was a conspicuous celebrant in the rite of canonization of Don Bosco in Saint Peter’s Basilica on Easter Sunday 1 April 1934. And on the next day, Monday 2 April 1934, Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, as Governor of Rome, presided over civil honors to the new Saint in the Sala ‘Giulio Cesare’ of the Campidoglio, with Don Pietro Ricaldone (principal Rector of the Salesians) and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri (Vatican Secretary of State and Cardinal Protector of the Salesians) at his side.

The archival materials that Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi did not give to the Vatican now reside in two different places, in an archive at the Villa Aurora in Rome established in 2010 by Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi (now completely digitized, and showing no Don Bosco material), and at another site not under her control.

What is perfectly clear is that these letters, and especially the letter of 30 July 1867, were a prized possession of Agnese Boncompagni Ludovisi. It was the only one she had in Don Bosco’s hand. As her son Ugo writes in 1921 (Ricordi di mia madre p. 184):

“Among the papers jealously guarded by Mammà I find several letters from Don Bosco, but, except for one, they are all directed to my Father. I offer this letter, because, in my thought, it also helps to make my Mother understood.” [trans. Carol Cofone]. (A transcription follows in the 1921 text of that letter.)

Agnese Borghese Boncompagni Ludovisi, Princess of Piombino, at La Quiete (Foligno) ca. 1910. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

We also read in Lemoyne’s biography of Don Bosco (volume IX [1917] chapter 43) the following notice, relating to events after the death of Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi in December 1911 [translated by the author]:

“His noble wife Donna Agnese, daughter of Prince Borghese Boncompagni [sic], Princess of Piombino, and at the time of the Venerable [i.e., Don Bosco], Duchess of Sora, did a reckoning of the papers belonging to her estimable late husband, and found five letters from Don Bosco and some pages of memories on their visit to Villa Ludovisi. And she drew up a copy of everything, had it authenticated by the Episcopal Curia of Foligno, and sent it to the Oratory of Torino; complaining that [her husband] the Prince must have received not a few other letters from Don Bosco, but unfortunately they must have been destroyed or lost before the Venerable’s death [i.e., in 1888].”

Lemoyne continues: “The letter which she joined to the documents bears the date —La Quiete, Foligno 3 September 1912.” [This was the residence of Agnese and her husband after 1891.] ‘Tell the Venerable’ —she said among other things—’to obtain salvation for me, also to find my most pious husband, whom I want to hope is in Paradise’. To her husband’s papers she also added in writing her own memories, which concern the interactions that Don Bosco had with them in 1867”.

One last question. So where are these other four letters of Saint Don Bosco to Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi? Still in Italy, and recoverable, one hopes.

Signature of S Giovanni Bosco on recently recovered 20 February 1869 letter. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

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