In 2013, Dario Del Bufalo, an Italian expert on ancient marble and stone, signed copies of his book porphyry in New York when he overheard a shocking conversation. Two people leafing through the volume had discovered a photo of a Roman mosaic that disappeared towards the end of World War II. Suddenly one of them called out, “Oh Helen, look, this is your mosaic.”
Once part of the dance floor on one of the Pleasure boats, the marble masterpiece was recovered from the depths of Lake Nemi in the 1930s, only to disappear in the following decade. Art dealer Helen Fioratti and her husband Nereo bought the mosaic from a noble Italian family in the 1960s and used it as a coffee table in their Manhattan apartment for 45 years. Anderson Cooper now reports for CBS News’ “60 minutesâThe priceless artifact is back in Italy where it was recently on the screen In the Roman Ships Museum in Nemi.
In a clip from “60 minutes of overtime“, Del Bufalo describes the discovery as a” one in a million “event. After the scientist met Fioratti and her friend at the book signing, she reported the incident to the authorities, who confiscated the mosaic in October 2017 and returned it to the Italian government.
âI was very sorry [Fioratti], but I couldn’t do anything else because I knew that my museum in Nemi lacks the best that has gone through the centuries, through the war, through a fire, and then through an Italian art dealer and finally back to the museum, ârelates Del Bufalo â60 minutesâ. “That’s the only thing I should have done.”
The Fiorattis bought the mosaic “in good faith” in a sale brokered by an Italian police officer known for his success in recovering Nazi-looted art, wrote James C. McKinley Jr. for the New York Times in 2017. Authorities never prosecuted the couple, who in turn refused to object to the confiscation despite believing they had a legitimate claim to the artifact.
In conversation with Colleen Long and Verena Dobnik from the Associated press (AP) In 2017, Fioratti described the sale as “an innocent purchase”.
“We were very happy with it,” she added. “We loved it. We had it for years and people always complimented us for it.”
Caligula, a ruler known for his violent tendencies and love of excessive amusement, commissioned the mosaic for one of his lavish party boats. As Paul Cooper reported for Discover magazine In 2018, the giant barges offered gardens, baths, and galleries that served as the backdrop for the emperor’s decadent floating parties on Lake Nemi, about 30 kilometers southeast of Rome. The largest ship was 240 feet long – roughly the size of an Airbus A380 airplane.
“The mosaic testifies to how important and luxurious these imperial ships were,” said the mayor of Nemi, Alberto Bertucci AP‘s Paolo Santalucia and Nicole Winfield in March when the artwork was unveiled at the Museum of Roman Ships. “These [boats] were like buildings: They shouldn’t sail and confirm the greatness of this emperor, who wanted to show the greatness of his rule over the Roman Empire through these ships. “
After Caligula’s assassination in AD 41, the ships were likely sunk to erase all traces of his brutal rule. They remained hidden underwater until the late 1920s when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini let the lake drain. Over the next several years, workers recovered two huge wrecks and artifacts including the mosaic. Per New York Times, a fire in May 1944 destroyed the museum built to display the finds and reduced the emperor’s prized ships to almost ashes.
Manhattan prosecutors suspect that the mosaic, which shows no signs of fire damage, was either removed from the museum before the fire or was never on public display, but remained in private hands after the excavation. When and how the work of art was acquired by the Italian family who sold it to the Fiorattis, the investigators have not yet established.