The statues and ruins of a 2,000-year-old resort, famous for its opulence and luxury, are now a marine visitor attraction.
Fishes surrounded Enrico Gallochio gently brushed the sand to reveal an ornate mosaic floor. The Roman nobility would host non-stop parties at Baiae, a quaint resort near Naples in Pozzuoli Bay.
Four meters below the water’s surface, Gallochio passes more mosaic pavements and the remains of walls that once surrounded a spa.
The mosaics date back to the third century and are only a tiny part of the remains discovered since Baiae, now a vast underwater archaeological park emerged from the flooded tomb. Its water. The site has become an unlikely tourist destination, even as work uncovered more ruins.
“It’s unbelievable,” said archaeologist Gallochio, the park’s manager under the sea. “In this area alone, we have found 20 rooms. There is still a lot to discover, but it is a work that will take many years.”
Residents have always suspected that something special lies beneath these waters. Ancient Roman ruins were occasionally found during the 19th century, and in the 1920s, the discovery of prestigious marble sculptures was during a dredging campaign off Pozzuoli.
This aroused the curiosity of fascist leader Benito Mussolini that he suggested draining the area to see what other treasures could be obtained.
Then, on a clear day in the 1940s, Raimondo Baucher, an Italian air force pilot, spotted what he described as a “strange ghost town” while flying low over what used to be the harbor of Portus Julius.
Aerial photographs were taken by Baucher, who was also a free-diving pioneer, identified with particular clarity the shapes of walls, marble columns, roads, breakwaters, and complex sidewalks.
Gallochio said: “The water was about a meter and a half deep, and because the sky and sea were so clear, he could see something below. “His photographs reveal a world that until then was unknown – only the locals suspected that something was there, but they didn’t know what.”
Since then, archaeologists have found dozens of artifacts, most recently a giant marble column.
Gallochio describes Baiae as the Monte Carlo of ancient Rome, where the rich and powerful came to enjoy the mild climate, drink wine, eat oysters, and enjoy every conceivable pleasure.
Emperors including Augustus, Nero, and Caligula had homes in Baiae. Some of the ruins of a villa belonging to Julius Caesar are on display at the Campi Flegrei archaeological museum.
Baiae is built on the slopes of the Campi Flegrei volcano, and its original attraction is the hot springs. “It’s a spa town where people believe that any illness can be cured,” Gallochio said. “Emperor Hadrian died in Baiae: he probably came here at the end of his life to seek a final cure.”
In later times, written sources depicted Baiae as a town of vice, where the rich would party for days, have affairs, and shamelessly flaunt their wealth.
It was also where senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso plotted to kill Emperor Nero.
“We have traces of these huge luxury rooms, where there must have been constant parties,” says Gallochio. “You can imagine that, during the summer holidays, this was a place to relax, where the Roman nobility could go crazy.”
In the fourth century, a large area of the town began to sink due to bradyseism, where volcanic activity caused the ground to rise and fall.
The phenomenon has affected the entire bay area, with the nearby shopping center Pozzuoli being flooded with 4 to 6 meters of water.
Baucher’s photographs suggested a central intrigue, but the first excavation efforts were not made until 1959 as scuba diving equipment became more sophisticated. An archaeological map of the flooded town has been drawn up, showing streets lined with buildings.
The first significant excavation was made in the early 1980s, in which the nymphaeum, a room filled with marble statues commissioned by Emperor Claudius, was found. Replicas of the figures stand on the seabed today; The original is displayed in the museum.
Other discoveries include an ancient bath, fountain, fish pond – where the homeowners kept moray eels for the Roman gourmet table – and a water pipe inscribed with his last name in the home of senator Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso.
The 437-acre undersea site has been a protected marine area since 2002. Before that, many relics have been stolen and sold abroad – with one last housed at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
“The thefts coincided with the growing popularity of scuba diving. Some people have taken the relics without understanding how precious they are,” Gallochio said.
Closed cameras tightly control the site, and a diving team from Italy’s art police conducts regular inspections.
“We don’t have any evidence of recent thefts, but we cannot rule it out 100 percent,” Gallochio said. “The pole that we found ten days ago had a rope wrapped around it… Maybe it’s been there for years – we don’t know.”
Tourists can explore the ruins by snorkeling or scuba diving with a registered guide. There are seven dive sites to choose from, including Portus Julius, home of the senator Piso and the emperor Claudius’s fairy.
Park authorities are also testing the possibility of allowing visitors to view the ruins from a glass-bottom boat, which departs from Pozzuoli.
Gallochio said it would take archaeologists years to study the entire area, but they are sure to have many more discoveries to come.
“There is always emotional when you find something, even if it is a small marble,” he said.