Helen Fioratti and her husband, Nereo, acquired the unique mosaic in the 1960s. The couple bought it from an aristocratic Italian family and used it as a key element in their Manhattan apartment for about 45 years. Dario Del Bufalo, who signed copies of his book Porphyry in New York in 2013, is responsible for the discovery of the amazing origin of the mosaic. The writer, who is an expert on ancient marble and stone, heard a conversation between two people commenting on his book. One of the people viewing his work then exclaimed, “Oh, Helen, look, this is your mosaic”, which immediately caught the attention of Dario Del Bufalo, as reported in “Smithsonian Magazine”.
The mosaic, noticed by friend Helen Fioratti, came from the cruise ship of the Roman emperor Caligula and was recovered from the depths of Lake Nemi in the 1930s. The marble masterpiece once again disappeared in the 1940s and, as it turned out, found its way to the US with a family of Italian aristocrats. In a material for CBS News “60 Minutes Overtime”, Dario Del Bufalo revealed that after hearing a conversation between two women, he reported his discovery to the authorities, which took over the mosaic in October 2017 and returned it to the Italian government. Finally, the valuable artifact was taken to the Museum of Roman Ships in Nemi and exhibited to please the eyes of history and art lovers for the first time in years.
“I feel sorry for the Fioratti, but I couldn’t do anything else, knowing that my museum in Nemi lacked the best artifact that had gone through the centuries, through war, through fire, and then through the hands of an Italian art dealer. Finally, he was able to return to the museum. the only thing I felt I should have done, said Dario Del Bufalo in an interview with CBS News.
A couple from Manhattan used a mosaic from Caligula’s ship as a table for years
The Fioratti couple purchased the mosaic in good faith and did not know how the unique item was purchasing. The sale between the couple and the Italian aristocrats was brokered by an Italian police officer who had a history of success in recovering looted artwork, as reported in the New York Times. Helen and Nerero Fioretti in one of the interviews stated that they were originally very pleased with the purchase, which was repeatedly complimented by friends who visited them in Manhattan.
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The mosaic recovered by the Italian authorities comes from one of Caligula’s sumptuous party boats, famous for his love of glamor, entertainment and his temperament. Paul Cooper in 2018 in the magazine “Discover” explained what the flagship ships of the emperor looked like. On the barges, you could find not only impressive cabins, but also gardens, baths and galleries, where the nobles and aristocrats who were awarded in this way by Caligula rested. The mosaic, which was discovered in the USA, comes from the Emperor’s party ship, which sailed on Lake Nemi, 30 km from Rome. Interestingly, the ship measured 73 meters, which is roughly the same as the Airbus A380.
Caligula’s huge ships were likely sunk after his assassination in AD 41 to cover up all traces of his brutal rule. They saw the light of day again only in the 20th century, when Benito Mussolini ordered the enormous lake to be drained, resulting in the recovery of two of them. Artifacts found on ships were exhibited in a museum specially built for the purpose, which, however, was destroyed in a fire in 1944, according to the New York Times.
However, the mosaic found in the USA shows no signs of fire damage and was most likely removed from the museum before the fire broke out, or was never displayed to the public, but passed into the hands of private owners. Investigators have yet to establish how the marble masterpiece came into the possession of an Italian aristocratic family, which sold it to the Fiorattis couple.
“The mosaic shows how important and luxurious the imperial ships were. These boats were like buildings – they were not intended primarily to sail, but to confirm the greatness of the emperor, who through them wanted to show the greatness of his reign over the Roman Empire” – said Mayor of Nemi Alberto Bertucci Paolo Santalucia speaking to the Associated Press.