I am devastated to report that my Roman idyll is at an end. I still have at least two more posts I want to write about the wonders I’ve seen, but not today because I’ve been up for what feels like a hundred hours straight and so am going with a new story. It is Rome-related, however.
On Thursday evening, a section of marble opus sectile flooring from a great barge built by the infamous Emperor Caligula was officially returned to Italy. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. confiscated the piece (which was being used as a coffee table in New York City) last month as part of an investigation into antiquities trafficking. The investigation revealed the true origin of the “coffee table” was one of the Ships of Nemi, built around 35 A.D., and that it had been stolen from Italy during World War II. It was made into a table top and acquired by a Park Avenue antiques dealer who kept it for almost five decades without realizing its unique history and inestimable archaeological value.
The Ships of Nemi were the only known examples of Roman ceremonial parade barges, not so much functional ships as massive floating palaces. Caligula’s were decorated with the same luxurious materials and architectural finishes found in an early imperial terrestrial palace: lavish marble inlay floors, statuary, fountains, gardens, heated baths and even a temple to Diana. They were so huge — the largest 73 meters long by 24 meters wide, the smaller 71 x 20 — that they would barely have had any room to maneuver on the surface of the small Lake Nemi. The emperor likely used them as extensions to his lakeside villa, follies harkening back to the pleasure barges of Greece and Egypt of the type enjoyed by his ancestor Marc Anthony during his years at the side of Queen Cleopatra. They may have been used to celebrate the festival of Isidis Navigium, a ritual dedicated to Isis in her role as protector of sailors that took place on March 5th to reopen the navigation season.
After Caligula was assassinated in 41 A.D., the barges were sunk in Lake Nemi and all knowledge of their connection to the emperor was lost. Fishermen pulled up ancient maritime artifacts from the wreck sites for centuries, and their tales of Roman treasure ships wrecked in antiquity lying on the lake bed were widely known in Italy. The first attempts to raise the barges took place in the 15th century when architect Leon Battista Alberti was commissioned by Cardinal Prospero Colonna to recover what was then believed to be a single wreck. Alberti built a floating platform from which he dropped ropes fixed to harpoons. It wasn’t just a failure, it was enormously destructive. The scale of the barges and their depth (about 60 feet below the surface) made getting purchase on the whole structure impossible. The hooks tore up hunks of wood which Alberti studied, learning for the first time that some were sheathed in lead. He also recovered some lead piping whose maker’s marks were erroneously associated with Tiberius and later Trajan, but the project never went any further.
Later attempts to explore the wrecks weren’t salvage operations so much as straight looting expeditions. Pieces of wood were pried off the ships and carved into curios for the tourist trade. Bronze oar locks sculpted into the shape of lions’ heads were sold to antiques collectors. Finally in 1928 a pioneering maritime excavation was initiated to save the Nemi ships from the depredations of time and covetous people. The water level of the lake was lowered to expose the remains of the barges. They looked great, but decay set in immediately as soon as they were exposed to the air. With no means to preserve the delicate wood, experts suspended the project in 1930, resuming only when the government agreed to build a museum on the spot, right over the wrecks. That would keep them safe from the elements.
The Museo delle Navi Romane opened on the shores of Lake Nemi in 1936, a proud Benito Mussolini presiding over the inauguration. Only eight years later, these one-of-a-kind survivals of Roman shipbuilding burned to the ground the night of May 31st, 1944. Allied bombs hit the museum in response to Nazi anti-aircraft artillery. Museum staff also report having seen German troops going through the museum that night with a torch, so it’s possible they burned it down themselves because they sucked so hard. By the time US troops arrived on June 4th, the only artifacts left in the museum were a few of the salvage items recovered from the wrecks before they were raised.
The antiques dealer, Helen Fioratti, said she and her husband, Nereo Fioratti, a journalist, had bought the mosaic in good faith in the late 1960s from a member of an aristocratic family. The sale was brokered, she said, by an Italian police official famed for his success in recovering artwork looted by the Nazis.
“It was an innocent purchase,” Ms. Fioratti said in an interview. “It was our favorite thing and we had it for 45 years.”
Ms. Fioratti, who owns L’Antiquaire and the Connoisseur, a noted gallery for antiques from Europe on East 73rd Street, said she did not intend to fight the seizure because of the expense and time it would take. Still, she said she believes she has a legitimate claim to ownership. “They ought to give me the legion of honor for not fighting it,” she said.
For her part, Ms. Fioratti said she had no papers proving ownership and she could not remember what her husband had paid for the mosaic. She said he had learned about the piece from a friend, who told him the aristocratic family was looking for a buyer.
When the piece arrived at their Park Avenue home, they paid to have a marble frame attached to the square of flooring and then put it on a pedestal in their living room. Over the years, Ms. Fioratti said, curators who visited had told her they were interested in procuring it for their collections. “I could have made a fortune,” she said.
Pardon me while I roll my eyes as far back as humanly possible. Yes, truly, what a martyr you are for buying an ancient artifact with zero history of ownership and a trumped-up fictional background and then liking it so much you didn’t profiteer off your war loot.
It doesn’t look like she’ll be charged for possession of stolen property at this point, even though that is what the search warrant said the authorities were looking for when they seized the piece.