Bulldozers under Casino Ludovisi, the site that houses Caravaggio's only mural painting at risk

Rome's Casino Ludovisi, inside which is Caravaggio's only mural painting, is at risk for the construction of an underground parking lot.

The Casino Ludovisi is one of Rome’s most treasured sites: the 16th-century building was part of the Villa Ludovisi complex, the splendid mansion, destroyed during the late 19th-century building expansion that led to the opening of Via Veneto, which was built beginning in 1621 at the behest of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi and whose park went on to incorporate a number of pre-existing buildings. These include the celebrated Casino, today the only surviving piece of the villa, a 16th-century construction that belonged to Caravaggio ’s great patron (Milan, 1571 - Porto Ercole, 1610), Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (Venice, 1549 - Rome, 1626), who resided there. The cardinal himself had the Lombard painter decorate the ceiling of one of the Casino’s rooms with an oil on wall depicting Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto: this is the only known wall painting by Caravaggio. But this is not the only masterpiece that Casino Ludovisi houses: one of its rooms is in fact decorated with the famous Aurora by Guercino (Cento, 1591 - Bologna, 1666), moreover the author of other paintings in the building. A fresco so distinctive that the building is often also called "Casino dell’Aurora."

This intact historical-artistic ecosystem is now being jeopardized by the construction of a 250-space parking lot, which will necessitate heavy excavations in the subsoil of the area on which Casino Ludovisi stands. The idea of building a parking lot is owed, among other things, to a descendant of Ludovico Ludovisi, Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, owner of the area, who passed away in March: in collaboration with engineer Giovanni Farrocco and ambassador Umberto Vattani (the latter now no longer involved in the operation) he planned to build a three-story parking lot that would serve as a prelude to a possible future shopping center. Having obtained permits for construction from the City of Rome and the Archaeological Superintendence in May 2017, the construction site is expected to start soon. The Superintendency had at first opposed the project, but eventually the Council of State, after a rigmarole that began with Boncompagni Ludovisi’s appeal to the Tar, while confirming the Superintendency’s negative opinion, granted to consider whether solutions were possible that would protect both the economic interests of the area’s owners and the reasons for protection. In the end, the Superintendence granted clearance, in exchange for a restoration of the Casino (assessed as in need of work, including to consolidate its static hold) to be carried out with part of the proceeds of the operation.

In the meantime, protests were heard from associations committed to the preservation of cultural heritage. In particular, FAI - Fondo Ambiente Italiano and Italia Nostra ask that the bulldozers be stopped and point out that the Casino does not need structural work (it will need it, if anything, should the excavations start) and that the only need is to intervene on the Guercino frescoes, which instead need some work to improve their state of conservation. “No consolidation work is needed on the building, only restoration of the frescoes,” in fact, FAI regional president Valeria Grilli explained in a post on her Facebook profile, adding, “All a pretext? An exchange, barter ? I give you the parking lot and you restore my frescoes? Is this a new art bonus formula? We don’t agree with these procedures and we want to see clearly about the various steps that the permits took. These buildings of such value should really be protected in toto by the state, they are part of our heritage!” Speaking to the newspaper Repubblica, Vanna Mannucci, vice-president of Italia Nostra in Rome, recalls some precedents: “a Constitutional Court ruling blocked the hypothesis of a parking lot under a historic villa in Genoa, establishing the prevalence of the cultural good and making literature. And a few years ago, Superintendent Ruggero Martines immediately blocked the request of some Torlonia heirs who, on Via di Villa Albani, would display family works to the public in exchange for permission for a garage.”

FAI and Italia Nostra have already let it be known that they will seek to block the project, on the grounds that the parking garage, in addition to insisting on an area already served by two large car parking garages (the one at Villa Borghese’s Galoppatoio and Parking Ludovisi), threatens a historical asset given the fragility of Rome’s subsoil, which in the Villa Borghese-Via Veneto area has already been excavated for a long time to allow the construction of other underground parking lots.

Pictured: Caravaggio, Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto (1597; oil on wall, 300 x 180 cm; Rome, Casino Ludovisi)

Bulldozers under Casino Ludovisi, the site that houses Caravaggio's only mural painting at risk
Bulldozers under Casino Ludovisi, the site that houses Caravaggio's only mural painting at risk

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