The only “Fresco” by Caravaggio in the Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi


One of  theCaravaggio-fresco-on-the-ceiling-of-the-casino-Ludovisi many interests of Cardinal Del Monte,  was the alchemical experimentation, which the prelate practiced empirically, with results… not exactly scientifical. It is certain that Del Monte, in contact with Galileo, had a good alchemical equipment, a battery made of stills, mortars and stove, a bit ‘rough, to be used mainly for leisure.

In the house of Porta Pinciana (today Ludovisi), Cardinal Del Monte had set up an alchemic cabinet. It should have been very important for him as in 1597 he assigned Caravaggio,  who had already demonstrated his talent, the task to paint the ceiling.

The small alchemic cabinet, the size of a closet, is in a corridor on the first floor, a short passage right outside the elevator;  few art historians mentioned in the past the unique decoration of the ceiling, the only known fresco of Caravaggio, forgotten perhaps because of the poor state of preservation, despite the mention in ancient sources (Mentioned in the biography of Bellori in 1672, the most detailed about Caravaggio)

Only after the restoration, completed in 1990, the powerful figures above the heads of people walking in the corridor,  have regained their full identity. There are three mythological gods: Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, around a celestial sphere that symbolizes the cosmos, within which you can see four signs of the zodiac and two luminous globes.

The three are represented in poses prospectively bold, as only a great painter could do. Pluto stands on clouds holding close the three-headed Cerberus, showing a kind of “domestic” look.
Neptune rides a webbed feet sea horse. Jupiter rides an eagle, swathed in a white foamy garment reminding the one of the musician angel in the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (Doria Pamphili Gallery – Rome); Pluto and Neptune are naked.

This extraordinary piece of art is painted in oil, not “fresco”, which fully coincides with the technique of Caravaggio, who never used the technique of “good fresco”. (painting on fresh plaster at right grade of humidity to absorb the piCaravaggio fresco - the sphere with zodiac signsgments. The plaster containing live mortar to capture the color pigments and fix it inside the wall)
According to the expert Mina Gregori, in the features of Pluto,  Neptune and perhaps even  Jupiter (hard to see as his face is partly covered), Caravaggio represented himself. The three deities who embody the elements of air, fire, water , part of the alchemic subject of the painting, are Caravaggio’s self-portraits.

To obtain the acrobatic upside down effect, Caravaggio stood on a mirror, posing naked in different poses, not hiding anything, the sex visible especially in the stout Pluto. In the nineteenth century, the nudities were hidden under cloths , removed with the restoration in 1990.