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