Built by Caligula and smuggled to the US, a long-lost Roman mosaic finally returns to Italy

Neither the fall of a Roman emperor nor World War Two could destroy it. But for the past 70 years, one of Italy’s ancient treasures was feared lost to the world.

Built by Caligula and smuggled to the US, a long-lost Roman mosaic finally returns to Italy
One of Caligula's ships, recovered from Lake Nemi in 1928. Photo: Museo della scienza e della tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci

A mosaic from one of Emperor Caligula’s ships will return to Italy after it was rediscovered in an art collector’s New York apartment, where it was being used as a coffee table. 

Italy’s “Art Squad” – a special unit of the military police charged with protecting the country’s cultural heritage – traced the long-lost mosaic to an Italian collector living on Park Avenue, US and Italian authorities announced on Friday.

The same investigation also tracked down vases, coins, bronzes and other antiquities that had been taken to the US illegally.

A section of mosaic floor excavated from the ships of Nemi. Photo via the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

The 2,000-year-old mosaic has not been seen publicly since the 1940s, when it was removed from the Naval Museum at Lake Nemi, south-east of Rome.

Made of green and red porphyry, serpentine and glass, it once decorated the marble floor of one of the extravagant ships that pleasure-loving Emperor Caligula built to sail on Lake Nemi during his reign in the 1st century AD.

The ships – which were either used for religious ceremonies or orgies, depending on who you believe – were lavishly decorated with gold, ivory and marble and fitted with baths, heating and running water.

They sank after Caligula’s fall and remained underwater until the early 1930s, when dictator Benito Mussolini ordered engineers to drain Lake Nemi and recover the ships.

A bronze from one of the Nemi ships at Rome's Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/Wikimedia Commons.

Two boats were retrieved and put on display in a purpose-built museum. But during World War Two, amid fighting between German and American forces in May 1944, the museum burned down.

The ships were destroyed but investigators now believe that some artefacts, including the mosaic fragments, had already been looted. It may be thanks to the theft that they survived.

It’s not clear how the mosaic made its way to the US. According to The Telegraph, by the 1960s it was in the possession of an Italian antiques dealer in New York, who said she bought it from an aristocratic family and was unaware of its origins. She and her husband reportedly used it as a coffee table for decades.

The mosaic will now be returned to the museum in Nemi, which was rebuilt after the war and today houses models of the lost ships.

Also returning to Italy are a wine vessel discovered in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and a fish plate that turned up at a Christie’s auction, both from the 4th century BC.

Once the American “owners” of the artefacts learned that they were stolen, they returned them willingly, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office


Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.