An Art Story

Anne Whitehouse

June 1, 2022


The following story is based on true events. Whilst the names of the characters have been changed, and whilst the monochromes of certain unknowable details have here been decorated with the palette of speculation, this remarkable tale otherwise remains as true to the facts as is reasonably possible.

Part One
The Gallery

An art book about depictions of animals in antique furniture led me to a gallery on a side street of the Upper East Side, its façade shaded by a graceful street tree. Inside were three floors of treasures. It was a store without price tags, attracting a certain class of clientele.

I was not one of them. Yet I was greeted by the proprietor, a willowy woman with ash-blond hair, “of a certain age,” casually elegant in tweed skirt and sweater. Sometimes a perfect stranger will open up to me, and so it was that day for Elena and me.

She’d put her trust in a young man, her daughter’s Harvard classmate, with beautiful manners and clothes. He impressed her with his knowledge of art and antiques and the promise of access to rich, young customers.

After he graduated from college, she hired him. His salary was low, but he lived rent-free above the gallery, with an expense account larger than his pay. He was given shares in the business after a few years of service and managed the gallery’s finances.

The trouble began when he wanted her to buy him out. She discovered art and objects had gone missing, and there was far less money than there should have been.

It was the oldest trick in the book, a younger man taking advantage of an older, vulnerable woman. As I expressed my sympathy, I felt a mix of pity and scorn at how she’d been taken in. A year later I went to an opening and saw her from across the room. Sometimes I would glimpse the gallery through the window of an uptown bus, or walk by on my way to another destination, but I didn’t go back.

Part Two
The Nemi Ships

Two thousand years ago, the Emperor Caligula commissioned two ships of immense beauty and spectacular luxury. Although seaworthy, they never went to sea, but were moored in Lake Nemi, a volcanic crater of clear water dedicated to the goddess Diana, in the Alban Hills south of Rome.

In the galley ship was a temple for the worship of the goddess, granting it religious exemption from Roman law forbidding boats on the sacred lake. Inside the temple, a marble statue of Diana revolved on a wooden turntable mounted on bronze spheres.

The second ship was a floating palace with sumptuous rooms and shaded terraces, marble baths with piped hot and cold water, fruit-bearing trees in pots, statues in niches, and mosaic pavements of green and red porphyry and serpentine and molded glass in geometric patterns.

When the fiery eye of the sun put itself out in the liquid dark, the ship was transformed into a vehicle of pleasure when pleasure meant excess. The ships were sunk after Caligula’s assassination or in the following decades, and lay submerged at the bottom of Lake Nemi, under sixty feet of water, but their historical memory persisted, passed down through generations.

Alberti, during the Renaissance, tried to retrieve the pleasure ship with iron hooks attached to the hull by swimmers, but the hooks ripped apart the hull. In 1827, eight men descended in Fusconi’s diving bell. They pulled timbers from the hull that were carved into curios, and collected architectural details and artifacts that were sold for profit.

From the second ship, located seventy years later, came the astonishing bronzes in Rome’s Terme museum.

Mussolini’s great triumph was the draining of the lake with massive electric turbines through an ancient Roman conduit. The pleasure boat was retrieved in 1929 and the galley temple in 1932. They were larger, more elaborate and technologically advanced than anyone had dreamed, and perfectly preserved from their centuries-long immersion.

Removed from the protection of the sacred waters, they deteriorated in the open air. A museum was built to shelter them, but fifteen years after they were salvaged, Caligula’s ships were destroyed. German soldiers fleeing the Allies in 1944 set the museum on fire in a calculated act of arson. The blaze reduced the wooden ships to ashes, leaving fragments of brick, charred stone and terracotta, and thousands of copper nails.

The only surviving objects were the artifacts acquired by the Terme museum in the last century — the decorative bronze heads of lions, wolves, and panthers that gripped the mooring rings and capped the oars, fragments of surface decoration, a square of a tessellated pavement in a geometric pattern of white glass and marble and red and green porphyry.

After the Second World War, the mosaic left the museum. No one could say what happened.

Part Three
The Connoisseurs

As a young man, the future lapidary expert Mario Guardelli had an eye for colored stone and a special love of porphyry. At an art gallery in Rome in the 1960s, he saw Caligula’s mosaic on display and snapped a picture. Then it went missing. Decades later, he included the photo in his book about imperial decoration and red and purple as emblems of power.

At Guardelli’s book party in New York, a guest, leafing through the pages, stopped when he saw the photo. “That’s Elena’s mosaic,” he exclaimed, as other guests gathered around. It seemed they all had seen it. “Who is Elena?” Guardelli asked, and was told, “She’s a woman who lives on Park Avenue, and this mosaic is her coffee table.”

An Italian art official at the party overheard the conversation and alerted the New York authorities. They started an investigation, and four years later seized the table.

The shock when the police entered her apartment with a search warrant nearly gave Elena a heart attack— “It was as if I were a smuggler or a thief. My husband bought the mosaic from an aristocratic family. When it arrived in New York, we had it attached to a marble frame and mounted on a pedestal. We used it as a coffee table. We had it forty-five years. We never tried to hide it.”

Elena said she could not recall the seller’s name or how much they paid, nor could she produce a bill of sale. She agreed to relinquish the mosaic, and was not charged with any crime. “To disregard the provenance of an art purchase is to give tacit approval to criminal practice,” commented the New York district attorney. “Good title cannot be passed on a stolen object.”

How did the mosaic come into possession of the family that sold it? Elena couldn’t or wouldn’t say. Her husband, Luigi Corsini, was a well-known journalist and a Florentine count. Elena claimed that the sale of an object of antiquity by a noble family, brokered by a friend, was typical among their acquaintance.

They were like the collectors in the last centuries who carved walking canes and smoking pipes from the timbers of Caligula’s ship, when they converted their fragment of his ship’s pavement to a coffee table. Year after year, they set down on it their mugs of coffee and tea, their glasses of wine, their candlesticks and their vases of flowers. It was their hearth, the center of their home.

It distressed Elena to lose her table. It was a link to life with her husband, mourned for twenty years, but she had no means to fight the seizure. No matter what they knew or did not know, she and her husband had skirted the rules. The mosaic had come to New York from Italy smuggled without papers by diplomatic pouch.

The Italian restorers took four years to eradicate the wine and coffee stains before the mosaic went on display in the National Museum. If you look closely at the mosaic now in its place of honor, you can discern the faint, white ring of a calcium stain left by a vase of water, like a ghost.

Part Four
The Rebirth

Gerald Lathrop speaks:

My mother loved words. Poetry was her medium. Words stick in my throat and get trapped in my mouth. I put my love into things. Art and furniture. Rooms and windows. Rugs and fabrics and porcelains. Life on the surface has always appealed to me, if the surface is beautiful.

I intended to become a new person when I went east to Harvard. I took her name and gave up his. I didn’t talk about my past. I applied myself to decoration, the art of making things look better than they are. I cultivated an appearance. Appearances can be deceiving.

When I met Patricia, I felt right away that she was who I wanted to be, if I were female. We misunderstood the attraction at first. We were better siblings than lovers. I needed a family, and I fit right into the slot where a brother would go. Her parents welcomed me, and her home became my home. That very first Christmas I spent with them in Italy. My sisters said they would miss me, but they had already made their own separate lives, and wherever he was, it was not my home.

Don’t think I didn’t know that the Corsinis liked me to be attractive and attentive. I was like a mirror, reflecting back what I saw. The reflection kept me from looking inward.

It was understood I would go to work for them when I graduated. They made me a rent-free apartment above the gallery and paid the tuition for my master’s degree in art history. At their expense I dressed well, I went out all the time. I traveled to Europe on gallery business. They did everything but give me a decent salary. I felt safe among the art and antiques, as if their presence were protection, as far away from my past as I could get.

I enjoyed working with customers, leading them to treasures they might not have noticed. When the silence in the shop grew oppressive, I got a little dog. I stood next to Patricia when she married her Italian count.

The Corsinis had a roundabout way of operating. In Italy, it seems, it is a way of life to skirt the rules. I adapted. We supported each other. I was happy enough living with old, beautiful things, or thought I was.

But all the while there was buried fear and anger, like poison vapors trapped inside an abandoned mine, waiting to explode. Because no matter how far away I got in time and space, a part of me never left that rainy, foggy California night my senior year in high school when I came home very late after a Saturday night with friends to find two policemen waiting to tell me my mother was dead from a shotgun blast, and the shooter was my father.

It was his antique gun. Dad was in the Marines in Vietnam, and he collected guns. He said he showed it to my mother when he was cleaning it, and it went off and shot her in the chest. He convinced the police it was a tragic accident. But we never believed him. Not me, or my sisters, or my uncle Andy.

Mom was afraid of Dad, and she didn’t like guns. She’d been sleeping in the room above the garage. They both had lovers. She was planning to leave him when I went to college.

Sometimes I wonder if Hamlet really saw his father in supernatural aspect or if the ghost was a figment of his mind. I was hiking in the Olympic peninsula, when I thought I saw my mother walking ahead of me through the fog between two ancient spruce trees. Though I saw her from the back, I recognized her by the square set of her slim shoulders and the way she walked on the balls of her feet, like a dancer. She tossed her head the way Mom used to do, and a shiver went through me. I was afraid she would turn around. I didn’t want to see the wounds that blossomed on her chest. I hid behind a tree, closed my eyes, and stopped up my ears until she was gone. Afterwards, I was ashamed of myself.

Dad’s girlfriend moved into our house right after Mom died. Dad promised to pay tuition for me and my sisters, but he didn’t. Uncle Andy took over. He paid the bills for our education and hired an attorney and a detective. Thirteen years after Mom’s death, a police agent determined from the forensic evidence that she was kneeling with her arms shielding her face when she was killed, vainly trying to protect herself from the blow she feared was coming. A grand jury indicted my father, and he was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

I went to see him in the county jail before the trial, and that was it. I don’t know where he’s serving now. I cut him out of my life. When he went to prison, something in me was liberated. I realized I’d been afraid of him. In some sense I’d barricaded myself in the gallery, and now I was free to go.

A month later I met Terence Ingram at The Winter Show for Art and Antiques. He’s an interior designer. I loved his exhibit. He invited me to his studio, and we went for a drink. We knew right away. Everything meshed between us. By then Luigi had died, and Patricia was married and living in Italy. I expected some difficulty when I told Elena about Terence, but not what happened.

I asked Elena for a reasonable salary. Instead, she doubled my expense account. It wouldn’t do. In my letter of resignation, I thanked her for all she’d done, told her I’d moved out of her apartment, and asked her to buy back the gallery shares Luigi had left me in his will. When I returned to the apartment to get the rest of my things, she’d changed the locks. After that, it just got worse.

The phrase “a fine Italian hand” defined a style of penmanship that replaced Gothic script in the seventeenth century. It came to refer to a skill or expertise. To me it also suggests a process that is hidden or concealed, hence “underhanded.” I think of “a fine Italian hand” when I think of Elena, her exquisite refinement and her sneaky, circuitous ways.

The buying and selling of antiquities has always been a shady business. Beautiful things arouse ugly vices. In Italy, avoiding taxation is a national sport. These principles, applied in America, yielded profits shared with clients all too willing to comply. Elena taught me her way of doing business and left me in charge while she went off to restore her castle on her Tuscan hilltop. When she denied me commissions and raises, I took what I felt entitled to and justified to myself what I did. As a precaution, I photocopied records of the gallery’s transactions, arming myself with evidence of her misdeeds.

When she failed to respond to my requests, I filed a lawsuit. She countersued, accusing me of theft. Early one fall morning a year later, as Terence and I lay sleeping, we were startled awake by banging and yelling: “Police!” In his bathrobe, Terence opened the door to eight officers, guns drawn, brandishing a search warrant. I was naked, and they watched me dress. They marched me through the lobby while neighbors watched, and took me to the new gallery I had opened with Terence, where more policemen waited.

That was the end of Elena in my life. She was trying to put me in jail. Naturally, Patricia took her mother’s side. I felt my whole life come crashing down. It was even worse than when my mother was killed.

I was accused of stealing thirty-five works of art and 300 art books and incurring expenses beyond what I was allowed. The charge was grand larceny, embezzlement, and criminal possession of stolen property valued at half a million dollars. They seized the paintings Patricia had given me, and the books inscribed to me by my professors. If convicted, I faced up to fifteen years. In return for a reduced sentence, I cooperated with investigators. Elena’s business methods came back to bite her. I was sentenced to three years’ probation and had to pay $57,000, representing twelve years of taxes I’d never declared on the rent-free apartment and expense account, and the sales taxes I’d evaded on purchases from the gallery. Elena’s tab was much larger: $675,000 in back taxes and fines.

I had proof of the many occasions she avoided paying sales taxes by creating false shipment records, mailing catalogues to out-of-state addresses, while sending the actual purchases to New York residences. She had no choice but to plead guilty to tax evasion. Our dispute over my shares in the gallery, and the objects she said were stolen and I claimed were gifts, ended in an unsatisfactory compromise.

With Terence, I have the life I aspired to. My work is more than business; it’s an obsession. I like to create settings, where I put together objects of different styles and ages so they engage in a conversation, and an odd, unloved piece, revealed in a new context, may finally be appreciated.

Part Five
The Thing Itself

Elena Corsini speaks:

Regret has a bitter taste. For forty-five years the mosaic was mine, and no one can take that away. My life was about acquiring, now I have to let go.

It is said Caligula built a third floating palace to complete his fleet. It, too, was sunk after his death and lies so deep in the mud at the bottom of Lake Nemi it has never been found. From time to time, there is talk of mounting a new search. Like so much in Italy, it gets put off. If the ship exists, I hope it is never found.

Anne Whitehouse’s poetry collections include Blessings and Curses (Poetic Matrix Press), The Refrain, Meteor Shower, and Outside from the Inside (all from Dos Madres Press). Ethel Zine and Micro Press published two chapbooks: Surrealist Muse (about Leonora Carrington) and Escaping Lee Miller. Anne is also the author of the novel Fall Love. She has published essays and lectured about Edgar Allan Poe: “Poe vs Himself,” “Poe and Chivers,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “Soldier, Sailor.”