NEMI, Italy — If stones could speak, the mosaic unveiled recently at an archaeological museum just south of Rome would have quite the tale to tell.
It was crafted in the first century for the deck of one of two spectacularly decorated ships on Lake Nemi that the Emperor Caligula commissioned as floating palaces. Recovered from underwater wreckage in 1895, the mosaic was later lost for decades, only to re-emerge several years ago as a coffee table in the living room of a Manhattan antiques dealer.
“If you look at it from an angle, you can still see traces of a ring from a cup bottom,” said Daniela De Angelis, the director of the Museum of the Roman Ships in Nemi, referring to the piece’s modern use. The mosaic has been installed in the museum next to two other marble fragments salvaged from Caligula’s ships, and was put on display on Thursday.
“For us it’s a great satisfaction today to see the mosaic in this museum,” said Maj. Paolo Salvatori of Italy’s elite art theft squad, whose investigations led to the mosaic’s return. “Bringing back cultural artifacts to their original context” is the ultimate goal of the squad, he said, and the recovery of the mosaic reflected cooperation among the squad, Italy’s cultural authorities and law enforcement in the United States.
opulent residential compound on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, a villa on the southwest shore of Lake Nemi and the two ships.
“They were floating palaces,” whose “aquatic luxury” was likely inspired by a renowned barge used by Anthony and Cleopatra on the Nile, said Massimo Osanna, the director general of Italy’s national museums.
Scholars are still unsure whether the ships had a specific purpose, though some have posited that one was used for the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis. In any case, Caligula didn’t skimp on the ships’ décor, which included mosaics on the walls, intricately inlaid marble floors, decorated fountains and marble columns. Bronze figures decorated the beams, headboards and other wooden parts.
2013 presentation in New York of a book by an Italian marble expert, Dario Del Bufalo, on the use of red porphyry in imperial art. He happened to show a photograph of the missing mosaic.
“That’s Helen’s table,” Mr. Del Bufalo recalled one of the attendees exclaiming. Helen turned out to be Helen Costantino Fioratti, president of L’Antiquaire and the Connoisseur, a Manhattan fine art and antiques gallery.
Mr. Del Bufalo said Thursday that he had assisted Italy’s art theft squad in identifying Ms. Fioratti’s mosaic as the section of the marble floor restored by Mr. Borghi. The piece was seized by American authorities in 2017 and returned to Italy. Ms. Fioratti said at the time that she and her husband had bought the mosaic in good faith, in the late 1960s, from a member of an aristocratic family.