Caligula's Ship

24 November - 17 December 2022


Stubel Gallery

24 November – 17 December 2022

Curator – Yovo Panchev


The exhibition may contain remnants of notions about hypothetical and real places, events, and artefacts, related to all the unsuccessful attempts of reviving the past in the name of the future.


                                                                                                                         Kamen Startchev



The Story of Nemi


An article in Discovery magazine describes a case where history demonstrated its commitment to keeping its secrets, resisted succumbing to the dismantling of facts and the rationalization of the modern age. It is an important facet of history, which rarely shows such opposition in the face of the modern urge to understand and find answers to everything, even when it means distilling everything to utter hopelessness. Here's what the article says on the subject:

For centuries the medieval fisherman who sailed in the placid water of Lake Nemi, 19 miles south of Rome, knew a secret. It was said that the rotting timbers of a gigantic ancient shipwreck lurked below the water’s quiet surface. But the lake was tiny, with an area of only 0,6 square miles. And with no other body of water   connected to it, what could a vessel of that size be doing there? Still, the stories about the gigantic ships persisted. They couldn’t have known then, but at the bottom of this tiny lake were two of the most unique artifacts ever to be uncovered from the ancient world. Their story would span millennia, bridging the eccentricities of Rome’s most notorious Emperor and one of the twentieth century’s most reviled rulers — only to be lost forever in the fires of war.

In 1446, a young Cardinal and nephew of the Pope named Prospero Colonna, decided to probe for himself the rumours of an unlikely shipwreck at the bottom of Lake Nemi. He sailed out onto the lake, and sure enough, he could just make out a sprawling lattice of wooden beams. He and his men tried to send down ropes with hooks on the end to retrieve parts of this mysterious structure, but at a depth of 60 feet they didn’t have much luck. All they managed was to tear off some planks. Colonna had confirmed that the wreck existed, but from there the mystery only deepened.

In 1535, Italian inventor Guglielmo de Lorena and his partner Francesco de Marchi returned to the wrecks with a new and exciting technology: a diving bell. They descended through the murk and gloom and saw an enormous wooden superstructure far vaster than anything they had imagined. The two fished around in the lake bottom for artifacts, and managed to bring up sculptures made of marble and bronze scattered on the muddy lake bottom. Many others tried to explore and survey the wrecks, but without much success. It wasn’t until Italy fell under the sway of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini that the ships would finally be uncovered.

Mussolini was a man obsessed with the legacy of Imperial Rome, and he worked hard to include its archaeological remains in his cult of personality. Mussolini had embarked on ambitious projects around the capitaл: Excavating the mausoleum of Augustus to build a Fascist piazza around it, clearing the buildings that clustered around the Theatre of Marcellus and digging up the floor of the Colosseum’s Arena to expose the hypogeum beneath and stripping it of its once verdant plant life. He was frequently described in propaganda dispatches as “a new Augustus”, evoking the Roman Emperor who rebuilt much of the city during his reign.

It was only a matter of time, then, before the dictator’s attention turned to the mysterious ships at the bottom of Lake Nemi. In 1929, Mussolini ordered something unprecedented. The whole of Lake Nemi would be drained. Engineers reactivated an ancient Roman cistern that together with a modern pump reduced the lake’s water level by 65 feet. In the mud, slowly emerging from the waters, the Italian engineers found not one, but two enormous shipwrecks. The excavations would take years, with the second ship not brought up until 1932.

The ships were vast, among the largest ever recovered from the ancient world. The largest was 240 feet in length, the same length as an Airbus A380, and measured 79 feet across. From inscriptions on lead pipes and tiles, it soon became clear that what had been discovered were the floating pleasure palaces of the infamous first century Roman Emperor Caligula.

Caligula was Emperor for only four years, from 37-41 CE, but his name has lived on in history due to a penchant for sadism, hedonistic excess and brutality.

It seems Caligula may have built his ships on the tiny Lake Nemi due to its alignment with the goddess Diana Nemorensis, a fitting place for a living divinity to site his pleasure barges. Here, Caligula had two ships built at enormous expense. The largest, dubbed the “prima nave” (first ship) was an enormous vessel, steered with oars 36 feet long. The second was a giant floating platform replete with marble palaces, gardens, and a system of plumbing for baths.

On these ships, Caligula was reported to hold parties where his wild and licentious appetites ran wild.

In 1940, the restored ships were exhibited in a specially built museum by the lake. On the night of May 31, 1944, less than four years since Mussolini entered the Second World War in support of Hitler’s Germany, the museum and the ships were completely destroyed by fire. Italy was on the brink of defeat. The country had nearly capitulated, Allied troops were closing in. It’s not known whether the fires started as a result of US artillery or German arson.

                                                                                                                                                      Yovo Panchev


This exhibition was realized with the support of the National Fund "Culture"

under the "Creative Scholarships" program.


The author

Kamen Startchev