Recovering the remains of a princess: the search in Fascist Rome for the body of Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese

An illustrated essay by Abigail Cosgrove (Kutztown University ’22)

Image (detail) of tomb of Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese in its original location in the church of S Lucia de’ Ginnasi, Rome. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome

On 4 January 1936, a small group in Rome began their search at 9 AM for a tomb in the church of S Lucia de’ Ginnasi. The church was marked for demolition by Mussolini’s regime. The search party was headed by Pietro Ascenzi, the inspector of the Verano cemetery, and Fernando Ceccarelli, the director of funeral services for the city. Prince Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, a former Governor of Rome (1928-1935), accompanied this search. He was joined by Alessandro Rocchi, the head administrator of the Boncompagni Ludovisi estate. This story unfolds from a previously unknown and unpublished dossier of documents, dating to the mid-1930s, from the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi.

Dossier (1935-1936) on the attempt to find the remains of Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese. From the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi in the Casino dell’Aurora. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome

The group’s object? To find a coffin that held the body of Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese (1642-1695), the Prince’s sixth great aunt. Princess Eleonora was commemorated in the church by a massive late Baroque tomb monument. This masterpiece measured 12 feet wide and 12 feet tall, and reflected Eleonora’s large personality. However, it was critical to locate Eleonora’s actual remains before they were destroyed along with the church. Though tirelessly examining the area of S Lucia and its crypt, the men were unable to locate the niche that held the Princess’s body. After a full three days, late in the afternoon of 7 January, Inspector Ascenzi and Prince Boncompagni Ludovisi concluded that there was a chance of the Princess’ remains being located inside the marble monument itself.

Who was Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese? As it happens, Caroline Castiglione and Suzanne Scanlan have recently (2017) written an excellent exposition of her life (see Sources below). Eleonora and her twin brother Gregorio were born in 1642 to Ugo Boncompagni (1614-1676, Duke of Sora from 1628) and Maria Ruffo di Bagnara (1620-1705), who had married the previous year. Eleven siblings would follow. On 22 October 1658, Eleonora married the Prince of Sulmona, Giovanni Battista Borghese, at the age of sixteen. Her new husband was three years her senior.

The connections and wealth of the newlywed couple were extraordinary. The young Borghese prince had close family links to Popes Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) and Gregory XV Ludovisi (1621-1623), a more distant tie to Sixtus V (1585-1590), and a stepfather who was a nephew of Innocent X Pamphili (1644-1655). Giovanni Battista also was the sole heir of the extensive Borghese properties in the Papal States and in the Kingdom of Naples. This inheritance made him the richest of the Roman aristocracy, and one of the richest men in Europe.

Portrait of Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese, attributed to Jacob Ferdinand Voet (1639-ca.1700), Museum of Fine Arts of Nantes. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Eleonora had significant family wealth and property. She also enjoyed a wholly unique status among the established Papal aristocracy: Eleonora was great-great-granddaughter of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (reigned 1572-1585). The pair would have four children, born in rapid succession, each of whom lived to adulthood: Marcantonio (1660), Anna Camilla (1662), Paolo (1663), and Scipione (1666).

The Princess Borghese, like many wealthy women of her era—chief among them her husband’s grandmother Camilla Orsini Borghese (1603-1685)—energetically participated in religious and artistic patronage. Eleonora was passionate about supporting several different convents, and had a particularly deep connection to the nuns of the Tor De’ Specchi, at the base of the Campidoglio in Rome. She formed many deep friendships in this centrally-located and socially prestigious convent, and often spent her free time and holidays there. But what especially marked Eleonora was her free-spirited and independent nature, remarkable for a woman of her time and lofty social station.

In March 1692, Eleonora’s youngest child, Scipione, passed away unexpectedly at age 26. She was overwhelmed with grief, and the tragedy strained her relationship with her husband. Haunted by memories of her son in the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, Eleonora separated from her husband Giovanni Battista. She relocated successively in two convents in Rome, first at the monastery of the Sette Dolori in Trastevere, then in that of the Turchine at S Maria Maggiore. In truth, at this point, the Princess’s relationships with most of her family were far from cordial. Additionally, Eleonora was struggling physically. She suffered from muscular pain and circulatory problems.

Portrait of Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese, by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639–1709). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1692, the sick princess, still at the convent of the Turchine, asked her husband for a change of accommodations. She hoped to move to a well-aired section of the Palazzo Borghese or into one of the family’s country villas. However, her husband wanted her to return to her designated space in the Palazzo. Eleonora was against this proposition. She felt her rooms in the palace were too exposed to the summer heat and would worsen her condition.

What eventually happened shocked contemporary sensibilities. Before she received official permission from the Vatican and without the consent of her husband, Eleonora abruptly departed from the convent of the Turchine. The Princess exited in a procession of five carriages accompanied by a staff of over 20. At first, she stayed in the home of her twin brother and his wife (as of 1681) Ippolita Ludovisi—the Villa Ludovisi in Rome—and then elsewhere in the historical city center. Eleonora was never to be fully forgiven by her husband.

Tomb (1702-1705) of Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese in its original location in the church of S Lucia de’ Ginnasi, Rome. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome

Eleonora died on 29 September 1695, at 53 years old, far from the Borghese palace. In her will, the Discalced Carmelite nuns of Corpus Domini—with their church of S Lucia dei Ginnasi on Via delle Botteghe Oscure— were named Eleonora’s principal heirs. Why? Perhaps because her husband’s grandmother, Camilla Orsini Borghese, had decamped to this convent, also against family wishes, almost 30 years previous, and taken religious vows. In her final will, Eleonora was explicit in her wish to be buried in the Carmelites’ church, and not the Borghese family chapel in the basilica of S Maria Maggiore. For their part, the nuns commissioned a magnificent tomb monument for their patron, executed in the church’s “Chapel of the Crucifix” by the architect Giovanni Battista Contini (a pupil of Bernini) and the sculptor Andrea Fucigna in the years 1702-1705.

First paragraphs of will of Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese, written in her own hand on 21 May 1695; a codicil dated to 4 September of the same year follows; she would die on 29 September 1695. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome

Let us now skip forward 230 years, to Fascist Italy. Benito Mussolini attempted to reconstruct many aspects of Rome. He encouraged the demolition of even centuries-old landmarks, to widen the streets and isolate select ancient monuments deemed of special cultural significance. Unfortunately, many historic sites and neighborhoods were destroyed in this process, and tens of thousands of ordinary Romans were displaced, their means of livelihood often also eradicated. The church of S Lucia de’ Ginnasi was no exception to this policy, with its tomb that commemorated Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese being just one of several important monuments within its walls.

Prince Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi understandably wanted to save his ancestor Eleonora’s monument from being destroyed with the rest of the church of S Lucia de’ Ginnasi. Therefore, the ex-Governor forcefully expressed his desire for the monument to be relocated to a different church and communicated this idea to the Director of Fine Arts by letter.

Article on the destruction of the church of S Lucia de’ Ginnasi in Rome. From L’Illustrazione Vaticana VIII no. 6 (1-16 March 1937)

In this letter, Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi stated that before the total demolition of the church, Eleonora’s monument must be dismantled. This was especially important because he believed there were remains of the Princess inside. He also requested that the monument be rebuilt in the church of S Ignazio. The church was built primarily by the Ludovisi and was the final resting place of Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi (reigned 1621-1623) and his nephew Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1621-1632), as well as many other family members through the Napoleonic era.

Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi submitted this idea to the decision of Professor Antonio Muñoz in the Office of Antiquities and Fine Arts, which he trusted to safely relocate the monument. However, there was one condition: that no expenses be attributed to the Prince. If the monument ended up in a warehouse and not a church, the Prince threatened to take it back into direct possession. Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi added that he would be grateful for relevant updates on the process, especially if the actual sarcophagus of the long-deceased princess was discovered.

The Verano Inspector and the Office of Fine Arts successfully performed the dismantling (and later, rebuilding) of the monument. However, they had no luck in finding the mortal remains of Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese. Her tomb monument was relocated not in S Ignazio but in the comparatively remote 13th-century church of S Alessio on the Aventine Hill. It is not readily clear how that choice, made by the Office of Fine Arts, came about. One factor may have been that the Boncompagni Ludovisi had a special connection with a school for blind children located at S Alessio since 1929. Other links are not apparent.

Tomb of Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese as it stands today in the church of S Alessio on the Aventine in Rome. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is a startling epilogue. On 6 October 1937, workers of a construction firm, the Impresa Castelli, were intent on digging in the area where the church of S Lucia had formerly stood. At this site, a lead sarcophagus was found. On the lid, there was carved in relief a dragon—the ancient heraldic symbol of the Boncompagni family. Furthermore, on the lid there was a plate with a fragmented inscription. It read: BONC[OMP]AGNI.

The incredible discovery of Eleonora’s remains was witnessed by the Verano inspector Pietro Ascenzi, plus principals of the construction firm: the site manager Carlo Bonfiglio, the engineer Giuseppe Prandelli, and the surveyor Aldo Petrelli. And on 21 February 1938 the bones of Eleonora, now encased in a new lead box, were deposited beneath the pavement of S Alessio.

And so came to a close a remarkable story, reconstructed from unpublished documents, that intertwines a family saga from the highest ranks of old Papal Rome, the monumental remembrance of noblewomen in early modern Italy, an individual’s advocacy for his ancestor’s monument and remains, all against the background of urban planning and destructive interventions in the Fascist era.

Document from the Archivio Boncomoagni Ludovisi dated 5 June 1936, showing that the search for the remains of Princess Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese extended to the Borghese family crypt in S Maria Maggiore, without success. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome


Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi (Villa Aurora) prot. 592 no. 27A [unpublished dossier]

Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi, Vita della Venerabile Camilla Orsini Borghese (Rome: Libreria Salesiana, 1931)

Caroline Castiglione, Accounting for Affection: Mothering and Politics in Early Modern Rome (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Caroline Castiglione and Suzanne Scanlan, “Death Did Not Become Her: Unconventional Women and the Problem of Female Commemoration in Early Modern Rome”, Early Modern Women 11.2 (2017) 59-93

Giuseppe Felici, Ugo Boncompagni, IV Duca di Sora (1614-1676). Unpublished manuscript, Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi (ca. 1949?)

Abigail Cosgrove is a senior majoring in Art History and minoring in History at Kutztown University. She is a spring 2022 intern for the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi. Abigail is from Scranton, PA. She writes: “I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. T. Corey Brennan (Rutgers) for introducing me to the topic of Eleonora Boncompagni Borghese. His encouragement and help throughout the process of writing this article are deeply appreciated. I also want to extend a thank you to HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for giving interns access to materials from her private archive. Last, I am grateful to Dr. Pierette Kulpa (Kutztown) for connecting me with this opportunity and for her continued academic advisement.”

Giuseppe Vasi (1710-1782), view of Santa Lucia alle Botteghe Oscure, Rome ca. 1785. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


  1. Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi says:

    Excellent research

  2. Abigail Cosgrove says:

    Thank you!

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