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From a ship at the bottom of a lake to a New York living room, the improbable journey of a Caligula mosaic


Decorative element of an imperial boat dedicated to Diana, the pavement was stolen from the Roman museum of Nemi before its fire in 1944. Its rediscovery in 2013 was completely fortuitous.

Caligula had probably not counted on such a posterity. Licentious, strange, even mad, according to some historians, the Roman Emperor (AD 12-41) left behind the remains of two gigantic pleasure ships, discovered in the 1930s at the bottom of the Lake Nemi, about twenty kilometers from Rome. Little remains today of these august naval constructions destroyed in 1944 in a fire: an anchor, some decorations and various pieces saved from destruction. Exhibited at the Museum of Roman Ships in Nemi, these objects were joined this year by a long lost vestige of the Caligulian collections: a mosaic with geometric decoration. She had strayed far from the Lazio countryside, in the chic living room of a New York collector.Where she fulfilled the worthy office of an aperitif table.

Read alsoThe imperial gardens of Caligula are reborn in a new Roman museum

Rarely, bowls of appetizers and digestive glasses have been able to enjoy the seat of such a low table.

Many centuries before enlivening the American feasts, the work had been finely carved, at the beginning of the 1st century, assembled with green and opaline marbles, then encrusted with serpentine as well as porphyry, the taste of which was beginning to spread then. among the Roman elites.

The whole formed part of the pavement of one of the two luxurious ships that Caligula had built on Lake Nemi and dedicated to Diana.

From Rome to New York

This antique decor features patterns and techniques that can be dated to the reign of Caligula, a real treasure for specialists.

"The mosaic presents a very modern style, very different from what existed until then"

, thus underlined for a program of the American television channel CBS Dario Del Bufalo, the Italian expert in ancient marbles at the origin of the rediscovery. . The story is as fortuitous as it is surprising, since the mosaic would never have been found without the chance of a meeting that occurred in 2013. During a dedication session organized in New York, as part of the promotion of a book he had just published on porphyry, Dario Del Bufalo hears a man exclaim,

“What a wonderful book. Oh, Helen, look, but it'sis your mosaic! ”

And the woman who accompanied him, to nod:

"It is indeed my mosaic."

The blood of the Italian specialist only turns.

Were these strangers in possession of the part in question?

Detail of the ornamentation and arrangement of the tesserae of the Roman mosaic.

CBS screenshot

Considered lost in the fire of 1944, the mosaic was photographed in the 1960s, during a quick visit to the art market in Rome. Lost to follow-up since, she could be anywhere. Dario Del Bufalo thus carries out his small investigation and finds the trace of New Yorkers. The collector and gallery owner Helen Fioratti was indeed in possession of the ancient vestige. Purchased by her husband from Italian aristocrats, the room had been transformed into an antique table.

“It was an innocent purchase

, pleaded the gallery owner to the

New York Times

in 2017 

, without being able to remember the purchase price.

We kept it for 45 years, it was our favorite object. "

Read also Etruscan women, "emancipated matrons" of ancient Italy

In the eyes of American justice, however, the mosaic was a stolen object, for which the owner could not produce any proof of purchase. During an investigation carried out for four years, with the support of Dario Del Bufalo, the American prosecutors in charge of the case determined that the remains of the Roman pavement must have been stolen from the Italian museum before the fire of 1944. Finally seized in September 2017, the mosaic was returned to the Italian authorities the following month. Not without a touch of bitterness on the part of its owner.

"I could have made a fortune,"

she assured the

New York Times

four years ago


noting that many people had offered to buy her the object in the past.

"I had a lot of pain for her

," Dario Del Bufalo told CBS.

However, I could not do nothing, knowing that my museum in Nemi was deprived of this exceptional work which has survived the centuries, war, fire, before going through an Italian art dealer. "

According to CBS, the mosaic only entered the galleries of the Nemi Museum in recent months, after a few years spent in the hands of Italian specialists.

And restorers, who had to clean the ancient stones of a few spots, contemporary vestiges of New York feasts.

Source: lefigaro

All news articles on 2021-12-04

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