From 1622, the earliest descriptions of Rome’s Villa Ludovisi and its Casino dell’Aurora

By Avery Soupios (Rutgers ’24)

Portraits drawn by Ottavio Leoni (1622) of Niccolò Ludovisi (1613-1664) and Isabella Gesualdo (1611-1629), married at ages nine and ten respectively by proxy at Caserta on 1 May 1622. Credit: Accademia Colombaria, Florence

With a Pope on the throne, their first princely title, and decorations for the Casino dell’Aurora in its newly purchased Rome villa complete, the marriage between nine-year-old Niccolò Ludovisi and 10-year-old princess Isabella Gesualdo on 1 May 1622 signified a peak in the Ludovisi family’s political influence and social fortune.

An immensely valuable document for this Bolognese family’s image crafting during the pontificate of Alessandro Ludovisi = Pope Gregory XV (reigned 9 February 1621-8 July 1623) is a long inaccessible book of wedding poems edited by the Bolognese poet and artist Giovanni Luigi Valesio, with only three known copies. The book, entitled Roma felice nelle felicissime nozze degl’ Ill(ustrissi)mi et Ecc(ellentissi)mi Sig(no)ri Don Nicolo Ludovisi, et Donna Isabella Gesualda, Principe, e Principessa di Venosa, was printed in Rome at the Vatican itself, in the Stamperia della Reverenda Apostolica, and is dated 15 August 1622.

Rome felice nelle felicissime nozze is one of at least six separate collections of panegyrics published in 1622 celebrating the marriage of Niccolò Ludovisi, nephew of the Pope and younger brother of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1621-1632), creator of the Villa Ludovisi. Indeed, the editor Valesio on 17 June 1622 had already published a book of his own sonnets celebrating the Papal family, titled La cicala (“The Cricket”), dedicated to Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi.

Frontispiece of Giovanni Luigi Valesio, La cicala (1622), with coat of arms of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, supported by allegorized figures of Truth and Time. Credit: The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 40 via ARTSTOR

The Roma felice composite volume contains contributions by almost two dozen poets, many attested as members of the prominent Roman literary academies of the Fantastici (to which Gregory XV Ludovisi himself belonged) or Umoristi, including important figures such as Girolamo Aleandro, Francesco Balducci, Vincenzo Cesarini, Antonio Guerengo, Marcello Giovanetti, Baldovino di Monte Simoncelli, Pier Francesco Paoli, Giuseppe Teodoli, Ottavio Tronsarelli and Francesco della Valle. The last of these writers in particular explicitly testifies to the magnificence of the Casino in its mythological and political ceiling frescoes.

Frontispiece of Giovanni Luigi Valesio, Roma felice (1622), with Cupid “tying the knot” between Ludovisi and Gesualdo coats of arms. Credit: The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 40 via ARTSTOR

In Valesio’s engraving for the book’s frontispiece, the shield with three stripes represents the Ludovisi, and the lion with fleur-de-lis (which appears twice) is a symbol of the Gesualdo family. The iconography is in some important respects closely related if not identical to imagery in Guercino’s ceiling fresco of the ‘Fama’. Hymen, looking distinctly like Guercino’s ‘Honor’, and a cupid literally tie the knot between the coats of arms of the two families, while the three Graces look on. The winged trumpet player directly refers to Guercino’s figure of Fame. Moreover, the natural imagery reflects the landscapes in the Villa Ludovisi’s gardens, as seen in Guercino’s “Aurora”. The imagery in the engraving by Valesio, like Guercino’s frescoes, borrows the religious and mythological authority that elevates the family’s political power. Guercino goes further in stressing the sunrise of a radiant Papacy and the divine good will bestowed on the family.

Already in 1988, Carolyn H. Wood noted that “Valesio’s anthology is the best single source of panegyrics in which the Ludovisi stemma is the basis for a celebration of a golden age”. But Wood did not go much beyond this general assessment (see her Indian Summer of Bolognese Painting 92 and 157 with 103 n. 21). The Roma felice anthology does not figure in any of the contributions to the new (2022) edited volume Guercino nel Casino Ludovisi (= Storia dell’arte no. 157).

I maintain that by studying these poems (which fill over 200 pages in Valesio’s edition) in connection with other original texts from the family’s archive, we can better understand the iconographic symbolism of the frescoes and how their existence in a public sphere perpetuated important messages regarding the family’s power in Italy.

A word about chronology. On 3 June 1621, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi purchased the Casino dell’Aurora and its vineyard from Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who had owned it since 1596. Soon afterward Ludovisi commissioned multiple prominent painters to complete a series of ceiling frescoes including the Aurora and Fama by Guercino, with frames by Agostino Tassi, and landscapes by Guercino, Domenichino, Paul Bril and Giovanni Battista Viola.

As these works were being completed, the wedding of Isabella Gesualdo, Princess of Venosa, and Niccolò Ludovisi was underway—in multiple locations, but first in Caserta by means of proxy on 1 May 1622. To arrange the marriage, two portraits of Gesualdo were sent to the Ludovisi, which show up in a 1664 inventory of the family at the Villa Ludovisi in Frascati, outside Rome. 

On 3 June 1622—as we now know thanks to a letter that emerged on in early 2020, and was purchased in 2022 for the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi—the 10 year old newlywed bride wrote to her brother in law Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi to move along plans for her finally to meet her 9 year old husband in Rome. The union took a further two and half months to achieve, culminating in ceremonies in Rome on 15 August (on the Campidoglio) and 30 November 1622 (in the Sistine Chapel).

Letter of 3 June 1622 by Isabella Gesualdo, Princess of Venosa, to her new brother-in-law, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. Purchased on ebay February 2022 by TC Brennan and donated to Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi at Casino dell’Aurora, Rome. Now collection of HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

Valesio’s Roma felice volume shows that Guercino’s Aurora and Fama in the Casino dell’Aurora were fully executed by August 1622, the date of the first meeting in Rome. This confirms what we would otherwise suspect, for Giovanni Battista Viola, who worked alongside Guercino in the Landscape Room of the Casino dell’Aurora, died on 10 August 1622.

By working with family inventories, studying ceiling frescoes in the Villa Aurora, and secondary sources from Italian scholars, I was able to identify and compare repeated imagery to the cover of the book of wedding poems edited by Valesio. I transcribed and translated specific poems within the text as they mentioned the ‘Aurora’ and the ‘Fama’ of the Casino dell’ Aurora, and the Villa Ludovisi gardens. These are the first mentions of these ceiling frescoes by Guercino, and the sensory effect of the gardens.

Most important here was a long ‘Epitalamio’ by the Calabrian poet Francesco della Valle (ca. 1590-1627), 77 eight-line stanzas in length that opens the volume. It is extraordinarily rich in specific detail, revealing e.g., that Gregory XV himself approved the precocious marriage (GREGORIO disse; Nicolo sia sposo); on the occasion of the first meeting of the young couple in Rome fireworks were set off from the Castel Sant’Angelo (vomita fiamme l’Adriana mole); and that meeting was on the Campidoglio (dal Campidoglio fuo Roma s’inchina).

Opening stanza of Calabrian poet Francesco della Valle’s ‘Epitalamio’, in G. L. Valesio (editor), Roma felice (1622). Credit: Google Books.

As for references to the art of the Casino dell’Aurora, the figure of Aurora is mentioned three times in the poem, indeed scattering flowers as in the Guercino fresco (all’ or che và là mattutina Aurora / Spargendo brine, e seminando rose). The fact that the beauty of Isabella Gesualdo as represented in a painting is compared to a “phoenix”—a focal point of Guercino’s “Fama”—strongly implies that della Valle knew the art work, reinforced by his mentions of fama (twice), Virtue (10 times) and Honor (seven times) in the poem. Fully 13 stanzas are devoted to a description of the new garden of the Villa Ludovisi on the Pincio.

The Villa Ludovisi represented the papal family’s establishment of the political influence they were gaining through their new titles and the advantageous union to the Gesualdo family, who brought their own claim to power and their own degree of cultural significance, as Isabella’s grandfather, Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) was a famed composer and notorious murderer. The union of the two children brought together these two families. But the celebrations around this union also displayed the importance of music, art, and poetic testimony in the creation of familial myth and cultural legacy, and communicating political power.

Portrait drawn by Ottavio Leoni (1622) of composer Paolo Quagliati. Credit: Accademia Colombaria, Florence

During this period and following in the Renaissance, music was a signifier of an important event, and with art, formed political myth. La Sfera Armoniosa is a complicated mix of chamber duets and monodies created by the Roman composer Paulo Quagliati for the celebration of the 30 November 1622 ceremony. The work included 25 numbers and a poem from the court of Alfonso II, where Carlo Gesualdo maintained political influence. The author of the libretto for the work was none other than Francesco della Valle, whose outsized contribution to the Roma felice volume we have already seen.

Maestro Lorenzo Tozzi on the first modern performance of Paolo Quagliati, ‘La Sfera Armoniosa’ (1622), interviewed by TC Brennan in the Casino dell’Aurora, 13 August 2013. ‘La Sfera Armoniosa’ was recorded live for the Bongiovanni label on 14 May 2014 in the Auditorio S. Nicolò di Chioggia (Venice), and performed at the Casino dell’Aurora on 6 February 2015, with the sponsorship of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

The combination of art, poetry, music and ritual performance is crucial to understanding how this 1622 wedding brought together these two families of enormous influence. Taken together, the cultural production around this marriage illustrates well the socio-cultural ambitions these families from Bologna and Naples had in an evolving Italian noble society centered on Rome. With this understudied resource and further research, I believe we can further uncover the relationship between social prominence and artistic expression in 17th century Papal Rome.

Avery Soupios (Rutgers ’24) is a junior in the Rutgers Honors College, majoring in Art History with a double minor in Archaeology and Chemistry. In academic year 2021-2022 Avery worked on the artistic program of the Casino dell’Aurora under the auspices of Rutgers’ Aresty Research Center, and presented her work in April 2022 at the annual Aresty Undergraduate Research Symposium. She thanks Professor Brennan for his unwavering support over the course of this project. She also extends her deep gratitude to HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for granting her and other researchers access to the invaluable private family archive.

Detail from the “Aurora” of Guercino (1621), showing a villa in its landscape. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

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