Why were we asked you might ask? Because our dear friend and neighbor Corey Brennan, the Mellon Professor in charge of the Humanities here at the Academy, was invited to the historic Villa that night with his wife Antonia and a group he’d been entertaining all week from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Unbeknownst to the hosts, the total head count for dinner was 13. Once the Principessa realized this sfortunata she actually refused to serve dinner until at least one other person was found to join the table and defuse the bad omen. Luckily, Corey knew Gio and I were enjoying a round of negronis back home on the communal terrace of 5b with friends and called us as likely first responders to aid them in their "social emergency" (as he deemed it).
We informed our eight trattoria-bound amici of our once-in-a-lifetime opportunita’ and they cheered us on while we doubled up on Corey & Antonia’s baby sitter, kissed the kids goodnight, threw on our most formal attire and jumped in a cab. Ten minutes later we arrived at our destination and were met by a footman in red jacket and lace-aproned maid at the base of a long candlelit promenade near the Villa Borghese. The priceless moment of the evening for me was when they both nodded to us as we crossed the street and gestured courteously inside as we approached the cherub-topped columns flanking the main gate. I’m not kidding. It was one of those rare moments when I could suspend and savor disbelief to the point where I forgot all about being yelled at for the majority of the afternoon by my four-year-old son (inconsolable apparently because he couldn’t find the right poster of a tank at an Italian military show held at the Circus Maximus hours earlier) and bask in the overwhelming sense of anticipation.
Following our long, magically illuminated stroll up to the imposing 16th-century edifice, we were met by more sartorially impressive staff and greeted beyond the threshold by our much-relieved and simpatico hosts Rita and Nicolo Boncompagni Ludovisi. Naturally, the eleven others waiting in the sitting room were elated to see us.
Soon after exchanging salutations and pleasantries we were interrupted by another red-jacketed staffer proffering a tray of cordials and caviar which we were all too happy to sample before proceeding to the dining room lined with sombre paintings of the Prince's bejoweled ancestors, including Pope Gregory XIII -- the guy responsible for the calendar. I repeat, I am not making any of this up.
The subsequent conversation flowed like the Gewurtztraminer from Alto Adige and the setting was worthy of a Merchant-Ivory production what with all the plaster-cast putti spilling out of the ceiling overhead and four different glasses and eight pieces of flatware assigned to each of us. Thankfully, I didn’t spill my prosecco or mention Napoleon Bonaparte. Turns out, as I would reread the following morning in a Times article written just this past summer about the Villa, “The Little Corporal” had abolished the Ludovisi family’s state holdings in 1801. That seems like only yesterday in Rome time.
Following a round of espressos and more chitchat back in the sumptuous sitting room, the elegant Principessa gave Gio and me a condensed tour as late comers, indulged us all in some group photos in front of the family coat of arms in the foyer and insisted that we come back “any time” as she bid us buona notte. I intend to keep her offer in mind – after all, we did do everyone a huge favor by derailing all that bad juju that was heading their way.
In retrospect, my only missteps were not indulging in seconds of the fresh pasta with lemon cream sauce and failing to leave our number should the Ludovisi's find themselves in a similar bind in the future. If she does ever ring, I hope it's before I open another can of tuna and when the kids aren't screaming.
Post script: For those interested in more background on the Villa Aurora, our generous hosts and their ongoing restoration efforts, check out the The New York Times article and slide show at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/16/greathomesanddestinations/16iht-rerome.html.