How a Mosaic from Caligula’s Party Boat Became a Coffee Table in a New York City Apartment 50 Years Ago

Imag­ine own­ing Caligula’s cof­fee table — or, bet­ter yet, a cof­fee table made from the mosa­ic floor­ing that once cov­ered the infa­mous­ly cru­el Roman Emperor’s par­ty boats. Art deal­er and Man­hat­tan­ite Helen Fio­rat­ti owned such a table for 45 years, but she had no idea what it was until she hap­pened to go to a 2013 book sign­ing by author and Ital­ian stone expert Dario Del Bufa­lo. There, a friend noticed her table in Del Bufalo’s cof­fee table book, Por­phyry, “about the red­dish-pur­ple rock much used by Roman emper­ors,” notes Glo­ria Oladipo at The Guardian. Fio­rat­ti’s hus­band bought the piece from an aris­to­crat­ic Ital­ian fam­i­ly in the 1960s, then affixed it to a base and made into a table. “It was an inno­cent pur­chase,” Fioret­ti told The New York Times in 2017 after Italy’s Nemi muse­um seized the arti­fact and returned it to its home coun­try. Del Bufa­lo agreed, and it pained him to have to take it, but the arti­fact, he says in an inter­view above with Ander­son Coop­er, is price­less.

Caligu­la had two lux­u­ri­ous wood­en ships with elab­o­rate tile floors built to float on Lake Nemi, just a few miles out­side of Rome. “Stretch­ing 230 feet and 240 feet long and most­ly flat,” Brit McCan­d­less Farmer writes for Six­ty Min­utes, it was said they were once “topped with silk sails and fea­tured orchards, vine­yards, and even bath­rooms with run­ning water.” They even boast­ed lead pipes “inscribed Gaius Cae­sar Augus­tus Ger­man­i­cus, Caligula’s offi­cial name, accord­ing to a 1906 issue of Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can.” He was “once the most pow­er­ful man in the world,” says Ander­son Coop­er above, but Caligu­la became renowned for his bru­tal­i­ty, self-indul­gence, and pos­si­ble insan­i­ty. The third Roman emper­or was assas­si­nat­ed four years into his reign by a con­spir­a­cy of Prae­to­ri­ans and sen­a­tors. So hat­ed was he at the time that Romans attempt­ed to “chis­el him out of his­to­ry.” The sink­ing of his par­ty boats was one of many acts of van­dal­ism com­mit­ted against his waste­ful, vio­lent lega­cy.

Inter­est in the plea­sure ships was only piqued again when divers found the wreck­age in 1895. “The deck must have ben a mar­velous sight to behold,” wrote Ital­ian archae­ol­o­gist Rodol­fo Lan­ciani in 1898; “it goes beyond the pow­er of imag­i­na­tion for its strength and ele­gance.” Lan­ciani described in detail “the pave­ment trod­den by impe­r­i­al feet, made of disks of por­phyry and ser­pen­tine… framed in seg­ments and lines of enam­el, white and gold, white and red, or white, red, and green.” But it would be anoth­er few decades before the ships, sub­merged for almost 2,000 years, would see dry land again when Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni, who was obsessed with Caligu­la, ordered Lake Nemi par­tial­ly drained in the 30s and the boats res­ur­rect­ed and housed in a near­by muse­um built for that pur­pose. Then, in 1944, retreat­ing Nazis alleged­ly set fire to the muse­um, after using it as a bomb shel­ter, destroy­ing Caligu­la’s plea­sure cruis­ers. No one knows how Fioret­ti’s mosa­ic made it out of Italy dur­ing this time.

It seems that the Emper­or’s star has been on the rise once more the past few years, since the dis­cov­ery of the mosa­ic and of Caligu­la’s impe­r­i­al plea­sure gar­den, Hor­ti Lami­ani, “the Mar-a-Lago of its day,” Franz Lidz writes at The New York Times. Unearthed in an exca­va­tion between 2006 and 2015, the now-sub­ter­ranean ruins found beneath a “con­demned 19th cen­tu­ry apart­ment com­plex, yield­ed gems, coins, ceram­ics, jew­el­ry, pot­tery, cameo glass, a the­ater mask, seeds of plants such as cit­ron, apri­cot and aca­cia that had been import­ed from Asia, and bones of pea­cocks, deer, lions, bears, and ostrich­es.” The ruins opened to tourists this past spring. As for Mrs. Fio­rat­ti, “I felt very sor­ry for her,” said Del Bufa­lo, “but I could­n’t do any­thing dif­fer­ent, know­ing that my muse­um in Nemi is miss­ing the best part.” He hopes to make a repli­ca to return to her Park Avenue liv­ing room for bev­er­age ser­vice. “I think my soul would feel a lit­tle bet­ter,” he says.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Ancient Rome in 20 Quick Min­utes: A Primer Nar­rat­ed by Bri­an Cox

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 CE: Explore Stun­ning Recre­ations of The Forum, Colos­se­um and Oth­er Mon­u­ments

What Did the Roman Emper­ors Look Like?: See Pho­to­re­al­is­tic Por­traits Cre­at­ed with Machine Learn­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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