The Roman Empire may have fallen some 1,500 years ago, but the memory of the global kingdom is still alive and well today.
A priceless Roman mosaic that dates to the emperor Caligula — nearly 2,000 years ago — was shockingly used as a coffee table in a Manhattan apartment for nearly 50 years.
In a segment from Sunday’s episode of the CBS show “60 Minutes,” Italian marble expert Dario Del Bufalo explained how he found the rare artifact.
Del Bufalo’s 2013 book, “Porphyry,” covered all about the igneous purple-red rock that Roman emperors used for their art and architecture, and the tome displayed the mosaic in question — which also contained green and white marble — that was used in flooring on Caligula’s ships.
The antiquity was part of a ship that was submerged in Italy’s Lake Nemi during ancient times and was recovered in the 1930s. The mosaics that remained were held in a lakeside museum and, in 1944, the Nazis infiltrated Italy and burned what was left of the ships.
When Del Bufalo was signing copies of his publication in New York in 2013, he overheard a man and a woman say she had the 4½-square-foot mosaic that he wrote about in his book.
“There was a lady with a young guy with a strange hat that came to the table,” Del Bufalo told CBS, and it turned out the woman was gallery owner Helen Fioratti. “And he told her, ‘What a beautiful book. Oh, Helen, look, that’s your mosaic.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s my mosaic.’ ”
Fioratti revealed to the New York Times in 2017 that she and her husband had purchased the ancient artifact in the 1960s from an Italian noble family. The piece was shipped to the US and the two used it as a coffee table in their Park Avenue home.
“It was an innocent purchase,” Fioratti explained to the outlet at the time. “It was our favorite thing and we had it for 45 years.”
Unfortunately, it was previously suggested that the mosaic was at some point stolen from a museum, so it was seized in 2017 and returned to Rome and is now on display at the Museum of the Roman Ships in Nemi.
“I felt very sorry for her,” Del Bufalo said. “But I couldn’t do anything different, knowing that my museum in Nemi is missing the best part that went through the centuries, through the war, through a fire, and then through an Italian art dealer, and finally could go back to the museum.
“That’s the only thing I felt I should have done,” he concluded.
Del Bufalo added that he hopes to make a copy of the table for Fioratti and her husband to keep in their home.
“I think my soul would feel a little better,” he said.
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