It is a high drama that could be torn from an Italian opera: Her Royal Highness Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi had just 30 minutes to leave her art-filled palace in Rome last month amid an ugly feud with her stepsons — all of them princes.
As she gathered her possessions, rattled and sleep-deprived, she rushed to a back entrance of the Casino dell’Aurora and tripped on a flight of marble stairs, breaking two ribs and her clavicle.
But she got up, taking with her the family of Ukrainian refugees she had invited to share the palace, leaving behind the masterpieces by Caravaggio and Michelangelo and the frescoed ceilings which rival the Vatican’s.
Outside, one of the three stepsons held court as he celebrated a victory over the Princess — even though he is a wanted man in the US, accused of being a wife-beater.
But it is not an opera, and the princess is in fact a 73-year-old Texan former Playboy model and businesswoman, who had been granted the 400-year-old home for life by her late husband, Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi.
Now Princess Rita is telling The Post how she has not only lost her home but is essentially penniless, while the palace, one of Rome’s greatest repositories of treasures, lies unoccupied and in legal limbo, with her three stepsons hoping to be given it later this month.
The battle between the princess and her stepsons has been going on for five years, reaching crescendo last month with a judge’s ruling that she should be evicted from a home valued at up to $500 million.
The split is not just between a stepmother and the Princes Bante, 52, Ignazio, 56, and Francesco, 58: it also has an anti-American theme.
“Because she is an American, she cannot do whatever she wants,” said Prince Bante, standing outside the palace gates along with police and court officers on April 20 to watch the eviction proceedings.
But The Post can disclose that one of the princes is wanted in the United States and another is a criminal who has spent time behind bars in two European countries.
Bante, who is married to Delphina Lapham, daughter of the journalist Lewis Lapham, was charged with domestic assault in Newport, RI, accused of shoving his wife to the ground during an argument, according to a 2012 police report obtained by The Post.
When he was handcuffed he told police it was “none of their business” and that they would be “arrested” in Italy, Patch.com reported. Then he fled the US and there is an open warrant for his arrest.
He told The Post by text that he committed no crime. “To be arrested in Italy, you must commit a crime,” he said. “I have never and never will commit a crime. It is known throughout the world that American police are worse than dogs.”
Being wanted did not stop him from saying of his stepmother as she was evicted: “This is our country. We have our police. We have our judges and you need to respect our country…otherwise, you can go back to …where the hell…Texas or the place she’s from.”
His brother, Francesco, 58, a one-time Carabinieri officer, is a convicted fraudster who was jailed in the early 1990s for masterminding a scheme to counterfeit 250,000 credit cards and served another jail term in Austria for tax evasion in 2017. He did not respond to requests for comment.
“It has been very Kafkaesque, and deeply disorienting,” said Princess Rita, now homeless, practically penniless thanks to her assets being frozen, and also ordered by an Italian court to pay her stepsons’ legal bills.
She spoke to The Post from her temporary quarters on the outskirts of Rome — a villa she said was generously loaned to her by another royal, Princess Maria Pia Ruspoli.
“Bante has been very aggressive with me for no reason,” said Princess Rita, who was preparing to leave Italy for yet another temporary residence provided by friends, this time on the outskirts of Paris. “None of it had to happen this way. I’m pretty easy to get along with.”
The three princes each claim they own a portion of the 32,000 square foot Renaissance villa and its surrounding estate, which is the ancestral home of the Boncompagni Ludovisi clan — a family which for hundreds of years produced princes, potentates, and popes, including Gregory XIII, the creator of the modern Gregorian calendar.
But so bitter is the feud over the estate that the three princes even claimed they own a portion of the princess’ 16-year-old Mercedes. And the court seized that too.
“I lost my home of 20 years, my Ukrainian guests were thrown out on the street with no place to go, my dogs are traumatized, and the custodian [judge] would not let me take my car,” the princess said
The refugee family from Kyiv whom she had welcomed to the palace after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year has also been forced into temporary quarters, 37 miles south of Rome. Their cramped apartment is only available for another week, “and then the unknown,” said Masha Bratashevska, 40, a stylist from Kyiv.
“All of our acquaintances are trying to help us find something to rent for several months, but to no avail,” she told The Post.
Now, in order to get to school, her youngest children, Elisabetta, 7, and Vlad, 8, must leave at 5 am to make the trip by train to central Rome and their old school near the palace. “The children still go to the local school,” she said. “Stability, at least in some way, is extremely important now.”
Bratashevska’s eldest son, now 17, has returned to Ukraine to live with his father. Bullied at school while he was in Italy, Alessandro desperately missed his father, who was forced to stay in Ukraine because of a decree that men over the age of 18 must remain in the country.
“Thanks to Rita, this place became a second home for us, where we were able to calm down and restore normal life, especially the children,” said Bratashevska, “The news of the eviction was absolutely stunning and shocking for us.”
After the eviction, the youngest children returned to the villa last month to collect the clothes and toys they’d left behind, then locked themselves in a room and refused to leave, Princess Rita told The Post.
“Every time Vlad sees me he hands me coins,” said Princess Rita. “He said he wants to help me. It’s been such a brutal ending to a beautiful story.”
Born Rita Carpenter in San Antonio in November 1949, the princess’s father C. Hunt Carpenter was an insurance tycoon-turned natural gas millionaire. After a privileged upbringing, she became a Republican party official — then in 1976 married Democratic South Carolina Congressman John Jenrette.
But he was a serial cheat, so she wrote the best-selling tell-all “My Capitol Secrets,” posed nude in Playboy in 1981, and divorced him just before he was convicted of bribery. That led to a rollicking career that included acting, modeling, and reporting for “A Current Affair” before she turned to real estate.
She met Prince Nicolò in the early aughts when one of his friends asked her to serve as his broker for a hotel he wanted to develop on his property. In 2009 she became his third wife; the prince’s mother, Benedetta Barberini Colonna di Sciarra, was his first.
A few years later, she underwent surgery for a brain tumor. Despite the health scare and what she acknowledges were tensions in the Boncompagni Ludovisi clan, “we had a wonderful life together,” she said, devoting their time to renovating the villa and documenting its treasures.
There is a Caravaggio fresco on one of the ceilings, works by Italian Baroque master Guercino and a sculpture recently attributed to Michelangelo in the gardens.
The villa, a former hunting lodge, sits on the former home of Julius Cesar and was a de rigueur stop for visiting artists and writers to Rome in the nineteenth century, including Henry James, who wrote part of his “Italian Hours” in the villa in the 1870s.
To honor the novelist, whose work she recites from memory, Princess Rita named one of her white bichons frisés “Henry James.” (The others are George Washington, Milord, and Gioia, Italian for “joy”)
Since 2010, Princess Rita has worked with Corey Brennan, a classics professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey to digitize more than 150,000 historical documents, including letters from guillotined French queen Marie Antoinette, found among the Ludovisi family archives.
“It’s almost unbelievable the things we’ve found,” said Brennan, who collaborated with the princess on “Villa Ludovisi: A Biography,” a book that chronicles the estate’s treasures and history, which is scheduled to be released in 2024.
But when the prince died in 2018, there was open warfare, and claims by the princes that she had recently allowed damage to the property — which Brennan said was minimal — and was charging for tours of the estate.
The sons’ complaints led a court in Rome to issue an eviction notice in January, which was finally enforced with police arriving outside the palace gates on April 20.
Shortly after the eviction, with the locks changed and security cameras off, “unknown people” went through and ripped panels away to expose a safe, according to a photo seen by The Post. It’s not clear if anything was stolen, the princess said, although she did notice that her hairdryer was missing when she returned to collect her belongings.
Now, she has six lawyers, she told The Post, and they are scheduled to be back in court at the end of the month to fight the eviction at a hearing where the princes hope to take full control of the building. The US embassy in Rome has offered their aid, she said.
“The reason Rita was so unprepared for her own situation is that she spent all of her time worrying about the Ukrainians and where they were going to go,” Brennan told The Post.
“Princess Rita has become a real Guardian Angel of our family,” said Bratashevska. “I know how much Rita has done for this villa…It is very painful that such injustice exists.”