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

2,000-Year-Old Mosaic from Caligula's ‘Orgy Ship’ Goes from Coffee Table to Returned Relic

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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 returned home in Italy.

From Rome to New York and Back Again

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 reported in 2017, 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 before 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 they may have seen 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 .

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)

Now, after years of experts working to remove the tea and coffee stains from the ancient mosaic, it has finally been repatriated. Now, its gone from the privacy of a NYC apartment to being on display at the Museum of Roman Ships. Caligula’s mosaic overlooks the shore of Lake Nemi, the location where the emperor once walked on it himself.

After the mosaic was unveiled at the museum, Italy's Director General of National Museums, Massimo Osanna, told the Telegraph that it is “fundamental to bring archaeological artefacts like these back to their original contexts” and said “I’m very happy that it has finally been restored to where it came from.”

The Long History of the Roman Mosaic

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.

Roman emperor Caligula. ( Bobbex/Adobe Stock)

The ships were over 70 meters long (229.66 ft.) and were richly decorated with marble, gold, and bronze friezes of animals. Alberto Bertucci, mayor of Nemi, said at the mosaic’s unveiling that the city is proud to welcome the artifact back home and explained,

“The mosaic testifies how important and luxurious these imperial ships were. These ships were like buildings: They were not supposed to sail and they confirm the greatness of this emperor who wanted to show the greatness of his rule of the Roman empire through these ships.”

One of Caligula’s Ships is Still Missing!

After Caligula was killed, his ships were sunk and remained underwater for centuries, despite efforts since the 19th 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 .

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 )

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. A recent sonar survey found no trace of the third ship, however, Nemi town council member Emiliano Belmonte told the Telegraph ,

“Centuries ago there was a rockslide on that side of the lake, which means that the legendary third ship could be underneath it. The sonar wouldn’t have been able to penetrate beneath the rock. There are clues that there is something there. It’s not over yet. These ships display the incredible engineering feats that the Romans were capable of. We’re considering different methods of exploring the lake. The mystery remains.”

Top image: The ancient Roman marble mosaic which has now been returned to Italy. Credit: Yana Paskova / The New York Times

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Updated on March 19, 2021.

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