A Mosaic from Caligula’s ‘Pleasure Boat’ spent 45 years as a coffee table in NYC.
In 2013, an Italian expert on ancient marble and stone called Dario Del Bufalo was signing copies of his book Porphyry in New York when he overheard a most surprising conversation. Two people flicking through the pages of his book had spotted a photo of a Roman mosaic that disappeared toward the end of World War II. Suddenly, one of them exclaimed, “Oh, Helen, look, that’s your mosaic.”
Once part of the elaborate dance floor on one of Roman Emperor Caligula’s pleasure ships, the marble masterpiece was recovered from the depths of Lake Nemi (just south of Rome) in the 1930s, only to vanish the following decade, reports Smithsonian Magazine. Art dealer Helen Fioratti and her husband purchased the mosaic from an aristocratic Italian family in the 1960s and used it as a coffee table in their Manhattan apartment for some 45 years. Now, according to CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” the priceless artifact is back in Italy, where it recently went on display at the Museum of Roman Ships in Nemi.
After over-hearing Fioratti and her friend at the book signing, the scholar reported the incident to the authorities, who seized the mosaic in October 2017 and returned it to the Italian government.
The Fiorattis said they acquired the mosaic “in good faith” and were never prosecuted by the authorities and, in turn, decided not to fight back against the seizure despite believing they had a legitimate claim to the artifact.
Caligula, famous for his violent inclinations and love of wildly decadent amusements, commissioned the mosaic for one of his lavish party boats. As Paul Cooper reported for Discover magazine in 2018, the giant pleasure barges featured gardens, baths and galleries that served as backdrops for the emperor’s lavish floating parties on Lake Nemi. The largest ship measured 240 feet long - roughly the length of three tennis courts.
After Caligula’s assassination in 41 C.E., the vessels were believed to have been sunk to erase any traces of his ghastly reign. They remained in their watery grave until the late 1920s, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had the lake drained. Over the next several years, workers recovered two enormous wrecks, as well as artifacts including the mosaic. Per the New York Times, a May 1944 fire destroyed the museum built to display the finds, all but reducing the emperor’s treasured ships to ash.