The ancient marble mosaic, which has now been returned to the Italian government in New York.

Magnificent 2,000-Year-Old Marble Mosaic from Caligula's ‘Orgy Ship’ Ends up as Coffee Table in NYC Apartment

(Read the article on one page)

A valuable piece of mosaic flooring from one of Caligula’s ‘orgy ships’, so-called for the lavish sex parties he hosted on the boats, somehow found its way from the bottom of Lake Nemi to the Upper East Side in New York, and now it's finally heading back home in Italy.

From Rome to New York

The square slab of marble flooring, decorated with a floral motif made of pieces of green and red porphyry, serpentine and molded glass, was discovered at an Italian collector's Park Avenue apartment in New York City. So how did it end up being used as a coffee table in a Manhattan's apartment? Well, there’s a logical explanation to the “mystery.” As NBC News reports , the precious artifact, stolen from Italy's Roman Ship Museum after World War II, was seized by the New York district attorney's office from the collection of Helen Fioratti.

She and husband, Italian journalist Nereo Fioratti, purchased the piece more than 45-years-ago from an aristocratic family that lived on the lake, “It was found in the waters of the lake in the 19th century,” Fioratti told NBC News in a phone interview . While it was unknown to the Fioratti couple how much the Italian family paid for the ancient artifact, they both assumed that it cost them thousands of dollars and was a completely innocent purchase. She explained that when they decided to buy the rare mosaic back in the 1960s, they never considered it was stolen, as they had no reason to question the ownership, “They thought they owned it. We thought they owned it. Everyone thought they owned it," she told NBC News .

Mrs. Fioratti added that she didn’t know how the Italian police learned about the artifact and she speculates that may saw it in a magazine shoot of her apartment, “We had our apartment featured a long time ago in Architectural Digest and I’m sure there was a photograph of the table in front of the sofa,” she said as NBC News reported .

The ancient marble mosaic, which has now been returned to the Italian government in New York. Credit: Yana Paskova / The New York Times

The ancient marble mosaic, which has now been returned to the Italian government in New York. Credit: Yana Paskova / The New York Times

The Long History of the Roman Artifact

The Roman artifact dates back to Caligula's reign, 37-41 AD and came from one of his three ships built at the volcanic Lake Nemi. The mosaic, as well as other ancient objects including two vases, bronzes, coins and manuscripts, were recovered thanks to an investigation carried out by the special art unit of the Carabinieri police led by Fabrizio Parrulli and US authorities.

The 2000-year-old piece of Roman history is extremely significant as it was once dredged from the lake outside Rome after laying underwater for centuries and is one of the few pieces left of Caligula's ships. Described as “floating palaces” by the Museum of Roman Ships, which houses the remains of the ships, they were notable for their luxury and are thought to have been the site of Caligula’s flamboyant ceremonies that lasted for days. The ships were over 70-meter-long and were richly decorated with marble, gold and bronze friezes of animals.

A marble bust of Emperor Caligula

A marble bust of Emperor Caligula

The Fate of Caligula’s Ships

After Caligula was killed, his ships were sunk and remained underwater for centuries, despite efforts since the 19 th century to find the treasures. Benito Mussolini was the first to launch an organized exploration of the lake and two vessels were retrieved between 1928 and 1932. In 1936, the Italian government of Mussolini built a museum, the Museo delle Navi inaugurated in 1940, to display the artwork. However, in 1944 an arson attack at the museum, which had been used as a bomb shelter, damaged many of the artifacts. Only a few decorations survived the fire, while other artifacts were taken away before the war, including the mosaic, according to NBC News . Two models representing the vessels are currently exhibited at the museum in Nemi. The third ship, which according to Suetonius in the Lives of the Caesars was the most luxurious of the three, was never retrieved.

Some of the decorations from Caligula’s Nemi ships: A bronze railing ( CC BY SA 2.0 ), a face (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/ CC BY SA 3.0 ), and brass rings recovered in 1895. These were fitted to the ends of cantilevered beams that supported each rowing position on the seconda nave. ( CC BY SA 3.0)

Some of the decorations from Caligula’s Nemi ships: A bronze railing (  CC BY SA 2.0  ), a face (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/  CC BY SA 3.0  ), and brass rings recovered in 1895. These were fitted to the ends of cantilevered beams that supported each rowing position on the seconda nave. (  CC BY SA 3.0)

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Bigfoot in the Patterson-Gimlin Film.
The anthropological sciences occasionally have to deal with something which has a profound but unexpected impact on our understanding of human origins. Two events are noteworthy, in part because both impacted powerfully upon our concept of human evolution, but also because they were diametric opposites. One was a truth first rejected, and the other was a false contrivance embraced as fact.

Human Origins

Kalash girls with traditional clothing.
The Kalash (known also as the Kalasha) are an indigenous people living in what is today Pakistan. Although Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, with more than 95% of its population being adherents of Islam, the Kalash hold on to their own religious beliefs, along with their own identity, way of life, and language.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article