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ITALY’S government is under pressure to block the sale of a 16th century Roman villa that comes complete with a Caravaggio.

The Casino dell’Aurora is scheduled to be auctioned on Jan. 18, with its value estimated about €471 million ($533 million).

It’s a hefty price-tag even for a 2,800 square meter villa on a 6,000 square meter lot close to the Via Veneto, and reflects a unique feature: the only known ceiling mural by the Italian master, estimated to be worth at least €300 million alone.

Italian politicians, academics and regular citizens have appealed to Prime Minister Mario Draghi to scrap the auction. An online petition urging the government to use European funds to protect “what belongs to Italy” reached more than 32,000 signatures within days. 

Under Italian law, the government has a 60-day window to exercise its right of first refusal after a sale agreement to private investors.

Italy’s culture ministry has written to Draghi and Finance Minister Daniele Franco to inquire about the potential availability of funds for a state bid, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Also known as the Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, the estate was built in 1570, initially as a hunting lodge, and has been in the Ludovisi family since the early 1600s. Among the visitors over the years was author Henry James, who described the villa and its sweeping views in his 1909 memoir, “Italian Hours.”

After the 2018 death of Prince Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi, the property became the subject of an inheritance fight between Ludovisi’s three sons from his first marriage and his third wife, Texan-born Rita Jenrette Boncompagni Ludovisi. 

Ludovisi’s widow was previously married to John Jenrette, a US congressman jailed in the 1980s as part of the bribery scandal known as Abscam.

An Italian court recently ordered that the villa, with its private gardens, roof terraces and artistic treasures, be put up for auction. Any buyer will need to spend another €11 million or so for restoration.

“The astronomic asking price doesn’t reflect the fact that this property is bound by the state, and will need to be open to visitors,” art historian and academic Tomaso Montanari wrote in the magazine Emergenza Cultura. “The government should come up with a fairer evaluation, pay [off] the heirs, and keep the property in public hands.”

Limited public access has been available to the villa under current ownership.

Giacomo di Thiene, president of the Italian Historic Houses Association, said there should be “guarantees about the future use of property” to make sure it stays “culturally relevant, connected with the rest of the community.”

The pending sale reflects a lack of interest by Italy’s local administrations and central government in support of cultural assets, Mr. Di Thiene said in an interview.

“If we manage to help the automotive industry, we should also find a way to introduce some fiscal relief to allow private owners to maintain and restore their historic properties, which sometimes keep entire areas alive,” he said.

In addition to the 2.75-meter wide oil-on-plaster Caravaggio, called “Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto,” the six-level property features works ranging from marble Roman sarcophagi to rare frescoes, including one in the main reception hall by Italian baroque painter Guercino of the Roman goddess Aurora, which gives the villa its name.

The real estate publication Real Deal estimates the price could rival the 2015 sale of Hong Kong’s Ho Tung Gardens for HK$5.1 billion ($654 million), believed to be the priciest residential property sale in history. — Bloomberg