In 2013, Dario Del Bufalo, an Italian expert in ancient marble and stone, signed copies of his book Porphyry in New York when he overheard a shocking conversation. Two people browsing the volume had spotted a photo of a Roman mosaic that disappeared towards the end of World War II. Suddenly one of them exclaimed, “Oh, Helena, look, it’s your mosaic. “
Once part of the dance floor on one of Roman Emperor Caligula’s pleasure craft, the marble masterpiece was salvaged from the depths of Lake Nemi in the 1930s, only to disappear the following decade. . Art dealer Helen Fioratti and her husband, Nereo, bought the mosaic from an Italian aristocratic family in the 1960s and used it as a coffee table in their Manhattan apartment for about 45 years. Now, Anderson Cooper reports for CBS News’s “60 Minutes,” the priceless artifact is back in Italy, where it was recently on display at the Roman Ships Museum in Nemi.
In a “60 more minutes” clip, Del Bufalo describes the discovery as a “one in a million” event. After meeting Fioratti and her friend during the book signing, the academic reported the incident to authorities, who seized the mosaic in October 2017 and returned it to the Italian government.
“I felt very sorry for [Fioratti], but I couldn’t do anything different, knowing that my museum in Nemi is missing the best part that has survived the centuries, war, a fire, then an Italian art dealer, and which was finally able to return to the museum, ”Del Bufalo said at“ 60 minutes ”. “It’s the only thing I thought I should have done.”
The Fioratti bought the mosaic “in good faith” as part of a negotiated sale by an Italian police officer known for his success in recovering Nazi-looted artwork, wrote James C. McKinley Jr . for the New York Times in 2017. Authorities never prosecuted the couple, who, in turn, refused to fight the seizure, believing they had a legitimate right to the artefact.
Speaking to Colleen Long and Verena Dobnik of the Associated Press (AP) in 2017, Fioratti called the sale an “innocent purchase”.
“We were very satisfied with it,” she added. “We loved it. We’ve had it for years and years, and people have always complimented us on it.
A ruler known for his violent inclinations and love of exaggerated entertainment, Caligula commissioned the mosaic for one of his lavish party boats. As Paul Cooper reported for Discover magazine in 2018, the huge barges featured gardens, baths and galleries that served as the backdrop to the Emperor’s decadent floating parties on Lake Nemi, about 30 km southeast of Rome. The largest ship was 240 feet long, roughly the same length as an Airbus A380 plane.
“The mosaic is a testament to the importance and luxury of these imperial ships,” Nemi Mayor Alberto Bertucci told Paolo Santalucia and Nicole Winfield of the PA in March, when the work was unveiled at the Museum of Roman Ships . “Those [boats] were like buildings: they were not meant to sail and they 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, ships likely sank to erase all traces of his brutal rule. They remained hidden underwater until the late 1920s, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini emptied the lake. In the following years, workers recovered two huge wrecks, as well as artifacts, including the mosaic. Speak New York Times, a fire in May 1944 destroyed the museum built to display the finds, almost reducing the emperor’s precious ships to ashes.
Manhattan prosecutors suspect the mosaic, which shows no signs of fire damage, was either removed from the museum before the fire or was never on public display, instead remaining private property after its excavation. Investigators have not yet determined when or how the artwork was acquired by the Italian family who sold it to the Fioratti.