Anyone who has seen the excellent movie starring George Clooney, Monuments Men (based on the eponymous book), knows that the Allies spent time and money searching for stolen works of art during and after WWII. A visit to the Castelli Romani region just 30 km outside Rome allows you into the playground of Emperors and Popes (sometimes one and the same), Cardinals and Commoners to enjoy the fresh summer air where an extraordinary piece of history was restored.
Today, Italy’s Special Carabinieri Unit are famous the world over for their amazing success in sniffing out world class pieces, stolen by tomb raiders or nefarious antiques dealers. But when it came to Emperor Caligula’s party barges, the Germans didn’t cart off the precious bronzes and jewel-encrusted decorations, they simply set the boats ablaze, or so most scholars think.
The emporors and their entourage enjoyed their holidays in the Castelli Romani with heaps of excellent porchetta (spit-roasted pork) sandwiches downed with Frascati white wines and the volcanic lakes of Albano and Nemi. The Lago di Nemi is famous for its strawberry festival and lovely setting. Once called ‘Diana’s Mirror’, its smooth, shiny surface covered the secrets of Caligula below.
For millennia, locals in the Castelli Romani knew about the storied boats resting 30 meters below the surface. Of course, tales of the wild parties thrown on the slave-powered barge would have been legend. The largest of the two would sport a deck the equivalent of five tennis courts, with the boat itself spanning a building’s 20 stories if laid flat across the water. In tow, a smaller boat without oars, carried Caligula’s private palace to steal away from the bacchanals into the ultimate houseboat. The lake is quite small, so it’s pretty certain that the over-the-top houseboats would have been the talk of the town.
But it wasn’t just the Germans who wrought the boats’ destruction. Romans had perfected the ultimate technique in Cancel Culture. After all, how does one espunge the record of a particularly nefarious demagogue? ´Damnatio memoriae´, meaning to condemn their very memory - destroying their very palaces, statues, and in the case of Caligula, party barges and all. The boats were swiftly sunk - jewels, bronzes, mosaics and all - to the bottom of Lake Nemi.
Over the centuries, the rich and powerful tried to explore or raise the boats in the lakes of the Castelli Romani. Or perhaps just cash in on the finds lying there for the taking. Cardinal Colonna, in the 1400s, sent Genovese divers down for the job. They resurfaced with some lead tubes allowing to date the shipwrecks. In 1535, divers using a diving bell brought back loads of wood “enough for two mules” from the bottom, a technique used again in 1827. By 1895, mosaic flooring, porphyry tiles and even a bronze lion’s head were brought to light. In 1928, the lake was drained and the boats were lifted out of their watery grave. But their presence on the shore (where now a vast naval museum rests) would not last for long.
During WWII, some of the most precious bronzes fortunately had been stashed away into museum vaults in Rome for safe keeping. But in 1944, the impressive wooden ships went fully up in smoke. Some think at the hands of German troops leaving Italy, others, by the hand of locals who were after the (conveniently melted) bronze surfaces therein.
Which leads us back to the recent recovery of a coffee table in Manhattan. Owned by an antiques dealer, the piece has recently been returned to Italy, as part of the intrepid campaign by Italy’s Art Theft Carabinieri squad. And so it now can be viewed right near where it was once part of a Caligula cruise ship from 40AD in Nemi’s Naval Museum in Italy’s Castelli Romani region.