Coffee table of the Roman Emperor Caligula

When it came time to clean stains from a mosaic that once decorated a lavish first-century pleasure boat, it wasn’t remnants of the debauched revelries that the murderous, sex-crazed Roman emperor Caligula used to organize on the ship.

Instead, they were remnants of modern daily life in a New York apartment nearly 2,000 years later. But exactly how the mosaic ended up becoming a coffee table in a Park Avenue living room still remains a mystery.

The mosaic is a four-and-a-half square foot geometric piece composed of rich green and white marble and crimson-red porphyry, a type of rock textured with crystals that was often the choice of Roman emperors. It was part of an inlaid floor in one of the gigantic and extravagant party ships commanded by Emperor Caligula, a much despised leader whom history has portrayed as cruel, depraved – and perhaps even a little deranged.

When Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD after only four years of reign, his two ships were sunk where they stood, in the middle of Lake Nemi, a small volcanic lake southeast of Rome.

Over the following centuries, several attempts were made to remove the opulent ships from the lake. Italian Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti first attempted to recover the remains in the mid-15th century, but was unsuccessful. Then, in 1895, divers conducted an extensive survey of the site and began resurfacing remnants of the lake’s mud bottom. This is when archaeologists unearthed some colorful stone mosaic tiles.

“The bridge must have been a marvelous sight to behold, and it surpasses the power of imagination for its strength and elegance…” Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani wrote of the discovery in an issue of The Youth’s Companion, according to an 1898 article in The Youth’s Companion. New York Times. “Finally comes the pavement trodden by imperial feet, made of discs of porphyry and serpentine, no thicker than a silver dollar, framed with segments and lines of enamel, white and gold, white and red, or white, red and green. The colors are perfectly brilliant. Imagine the deck of a modern yacht inlaid with enamel.

Spanning 230 feet and 240 feet long and mostly flat, the wooden ships were clearly built as barges intended to sit in calm waters and not negotiate waves. According to the New York Times in 1908, the ships were topped with silk sails and featured orchards, vineyards, and even bathrooms with running water (“quite unnecessary when you can so easily jump over them”). edge,” according to the Times). To be certain which ship carried such luxurious amenities, the lead pipes were inscribed with Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Caligula’s official name, according to a 1906 issue of Scientific American.


It was not until the 20th century that the full grandeur of the ships was revealed. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was so taken by Caligula – who legend has it turned his palace into a brothel and appointed his horse a high-ranking senator – that he ordered Lake Nemi partially drained so that both ships can be refloated. In the early 1930s, Mussolini commissioned a lakeside museum to house the ships and their treasures once salvaged.

But after remaining submerged for nearly 1,900 years, Caligula’s floating dens of debauchery won’t see land for long. During World War II, the Nazis used the museum as a bomb shelter, and the Nemi Italians claim that the retreating Germans burned the building down in 1944, destroying most of the artifacts there.

Intended to hold idling drinks on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the colorful mosaic tile floor bears no evidence of this fire. Dario Del Bufalo, an Italian expert on ancient marble and stone, told 60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper that this suggests the mosaic had either been removed from the museum before the fire or had been in private hands since Mussolini had it extracted from the lake during the fire. 1930s.

After the Second World War, the mosaic disappeared. Del Bufalo included a photo of it in a book on porphyry he published in 2013, and during a lecture and signing at the Bulgari jewelry store on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, he overheard a conversation outstanding.

“There was a lady with a young man with a strange hat who came to the table,” Del Bufalo said. “And he said to her, ‘What a beautiful book. Oh, Helen, look, it’s your mosaic.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s my mosaic.'”

Shocked by the statement as much by its substance as by its nonchalance, Del Bufalo quickly finished signing books and searched for the two men. He found the young man who told him that yes, it’s Helen’s coffee table at her home on Park Avenue.

The Helen in question is Helen Fioratti, an art dealer who owns a gallery of European antiques and lives in Manhattan. She told The New York Times in 2017 that she and her husband, Nereo Fioratti, a journalist, purchased the piece in good faith from an Italian noble family in the 1960s and had no reason to suspect that they were not the rightful owners of the mosaic. Once the Fiorattis brought the mosaic back to their Park Avenue apartment, they attached it to a base to transform it into a coffee table.

“It was an innocent purchase,” Fioratti told the Times in 2017. “It was our favorite thing, and we had it for 45 years.”

But prosecutors with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office say evidence suggests the mosaic was stolen from the Nemi Museum, also according to the New York Times. In September 2017, they seized the mosaic and returned it to the Italian government.

60 Minutes’ request for comment from Fioratti was not returned.

Del Bufalo told 60 Minutes that he sympathized with Fioratti. “I felt really sorry for her, but I couldn’t do anything else, knowing that my museum in Nemi is missing the best of what has gone through the centuries, the war, a fire, then a dealer Italian art and I could finally return to the museum,” he said. “It’s the only thing I think I should have done.”

After receiving a thorough cleaning to remove any traces of its former life as a host of coffee, tea and occasional flower vases, the mosaic was unveiled and exhibited at the Nemi Roman Ship Museum in 2021.

In the meantime, Del Bufalo had created a convincing replica of the mosaic. He told 60 Minutes that he wanted to make a copy for Fioratti to return to his Park Avenue apartment because, as he explained, “I think it would make my soul feel a little better.”

The video above was originally posted on November 21, 2021 and was produced by Andy Court, Brit McCandless Farmer and Will Croxton. It was edited by Will Croxton.


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