Roman Emperor Caligula’s Mosaic Ends Up As New York Coffee Table
A Roman Emperor’s lost mosaic has turned up in a New York City apartment.
The four-and-a-half square foot piece is made up of green and white marble with purple-red porphyry, a type of rock textured with crystals.
The mosaic is said to have been part of an inlaid floor in one of Caligula’s extravagant party ships he commissioned to be made.
Emperor Caligula has often been described as a cruel ruler, and was assassinated in AD 41 after a four-year reign. His ships were sunk in the middle of Lake Nemi, in southeast Rome. There were several attempts to raise the ships from the lake but were ultimately unsuccessful.
In 1895, divers again examined the site where the ships were sunk, and began bringing up relics out of the lake. This is how archaeologists discovered the large mosaic tiles.
Writing in an issue of The Youth’s Companion, archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani revealed the ‘marvelous’ discovery, describing first the framework of wood found, and then the colourful tiles themselves, according to an 1898 New York Times article.
Last of all comes the pavement trodden by imperial feet, made of disks of porphyry and serpentine, not thicker than a silver dollar, framed in in segments and lines of enamel, white and gold, white and red, or white, red, and green. The colors are perfectly brilliant. Fancy the deck of a modern yacht inlayed in enamel.
However, the real grandeur of the extravagant ships was uncovered later, in the 1900s, when fascist dictator Benito Mussolini ordered Lake Nemi to be partially drained. Mussolini was thought to have a fascination with Caligula, and wanted the two ships raised from the lake. So much so, that in the early 1930s Mussolini had a museum built near the lake where ships and their treasures would be kept.
However, the museum was reportedly used as a bomb shelter during World War II and was set on fire by retreating Germans in 1944, destroying most of the objects inside.
Decades later, in 2013, an Italian expert on stone and marble by the name of Dario Del Bufalo was giving a lecture in Manhattan to mark the release of his book Porphyry, which included an image of a mosaic taken from the floor of one of Caligula’s ships.
The mosaic had no burn marks, leading Del Bufalo to believe the tile had either been snuck out of the museum before the fire, or was already in private hands.
After the lecture, Del Bufalo overheard a conversation between a ‘young guy with a strange hat’ and a lady named Helen, he told CBS.
The young man said:
What a beautiful book. Oh, Helen, look, that’s your mosaic.
To which Helen replied, ‘Yeah, that’s my mosaic.’
Shocked, Del Bufalo finished the book signing and went to find the pair. He soon found out that the long lost mosaic was a coffee table in Helen’s home.
Helen, who turned out to be art dealer and gallery owner Helen Fioratti, said that ‘it was an innocent purchase’, and that she and her husband had bought the item from an Italian family in 1960s. ‘It was an innocent purchase, it was our favorite thing, and we had it for 45 years,’ Fioratti told The New York Times in 2017.
Prosecutors from the district attorney’s office in Manhattan, however, say there is evidence suggesting the piece had been stolen from the Nemi museum in Italy, possibly during the second world war.
In September 2017, the mosaic was seized and returned to the Italian government. Del Bufalo said he wanted to make a copy of the table for Fioratti, as he felt ‘very sorry for her’ after the piece was taken, The Guardian reports.
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