THE UN­DER­WA­TER AR­CHAE­OL­OGY PARK OF BAIA

A an­cient city, pre­served be­low the waves, now pro­tected for the amaze­ment of gen­er­a­tions to come

Scuba Diver Australasia - - Contents - By Pasquale Vas­sallo

Take a tour around this in­cred­i­ble sunken Ro­man city

THE PHLEGRAEAN FIELDS

In the south of Italy to the west of the Bay of Naples, in a har­mo­nious land­scape of rolling hills, lie the Phlegraean Fields, which, rightly, were called the “beloved home­land” of the Hel­lenic-Latin civil­i­sa­tion and which in­spired Goethe to say: “It is in this land one re­mains as­tounded by the events of Na­ture and his­tory!”

In an­tiq­uity, the Phlegraean Fields ex­tended over a larger area in­cor­po­rat­ing much of the re­gion around Mount Ve­su­vius. Due to its vol­canic ori­gin and the con­se­quent up­heaval of the area, as the land rose and many of the vol­ca­noes be­came ex­tinct, much of the ter­ri­tory set­tled in a ho­mo­ge­neous mass which is linked to the main­land, while Ischia, Pro­cida, Vi­vara and Nisida re­main is­lands.

Thus, a land­scape which has at­tracted and en­chanted poets and artists through­out time was born; an ex­cep­tional se­ries of ge­o­log­i­cal episodes cre­ated an at­mos­phere which ra­di­ated

magic, while myths and leg­ends spread with the erup­tion of the tale. Within the few square kilo­me­tres of the Phlegraean

Fields – called “the Burn­ing Fields” by the an­cient Greeks and Ro­mans – an­cient and ex­tra­or­di­nary cities fol­low one an­other over a long pe­riod of his­tory along with breath­tak­ing panora­mas which be­came a the­atre for ex­cit­ing leg­ends.

Greek-Ro­man an­tiq­uity has left grandiose mon­u­ments but Na­ture it­self was not far be­hind, hav­ing lit­tered the land with vol­ca­noes, lakes, and hot springs, and placed an­cient shore­lines on the seabed. Sites of great sig­nif­i­cance dur­ing the Ro­man era, such as the com­mer­cial city of Poz­zuoli, the fa­mous res­i­den­tial area of Ba­iae and Misenum, the seat of the western im­pe­rial fleet are, today, all be­low sea level.

Today, the Un­der­wa­ter Ar­chae­ol­ogy Park of Baia of­fers a glimpse into a lost world of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and em­pire. Here are some of its most as­tound­ing sites.

THE SUNKEN NYMPHAEUM OF CLAUDIUS

In Zone A of the Park, be­fore Punta Epitaffio, is the re­mains of a palace be­long­ing to Em­peror Claudius which orig­i­nally ex­tended to the over­hang­ing hilly crags.

Claudius’ Nymphaeum is a build­ing of rect­an­gu­lar shape with four niches on each of the longer sides whilst the short sides were formed by a semi­cir­cu­lar apse and fac­ing a brick arch. Stat­ues were placed in the niches; of these, the sea has given up three on the east­ern side and one on the western. Two of the stat­ues on the east­ern side rep­re­sent Diony­sus as a child – one hav­ing a play­ful ex­pres­sion, the other pre­oc­cu­pied – whilst the third has been iden­ti­fied as Clau­dia Oc­tavia, the wife of Nero, or, as has re­cently been in­ter­preted by Fausto Zevi, as an­other of Claudius’ daugh­ters who died at a young age. On the western side is the statue of An­to­nia Mi­nor, Em­peror Claudius’ mother.

In the apse at the far end of the room are the stat­ues of Ulysses and his com­pan­ion Baios.

PORTUS JULIUS

This site is char­ac­terised by a seabed which has a preva­lence of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds. It was here that the thriv­ing com­mu­nity of Ori­en­tal traders, smiths and mar­ble workers car­ried out their ac­tiv­i­ties. The mo­saics prob­a­bly be­longed to a mar­itime villa.

One mo­saic of Opus with its char­ac­ter­is­tic red colour is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing, adorned with “white flow­ers”, their cen­tres al­ter­nat­ing be­tween black or white, demon­strat­ing the de­tails and the aes­thetic taste of the villa’s pro­pri­etor. Con­tin­u­ing north over a seabed rich with frag­ments of amphorae shards, we sight a num­ber of col­umns in ex­cel­lent con­di­tion which sur­round a room.

THE VILLA WITH PROTHYRUM EN­TRANCE

Near the en­trance of the port of Baia is a villa. En­ter­ing the res­i­dence there are small rooms which are po­si­tioned around a cen­tral atrium, its walls cov­ered in mar­ble. An­other in­ter­est­ing room, which in it­self makes a visit to this site worth­while, is adorned with a mo­saic of black and white tiles which cre­ate a geo­met­ric pat­tern of hexagons and a pseudo em­blem of cir­cles and shields.

We are faced with the most beau­ti­ful mo­saic of the en­tire ma­rine pro­tected area, which has be­come the sym­bol of the Un­der­wa­ter Ar­chae­ol­ogy Park of Baia through­out the world. The au­tho­rised guide slowly un­cov­ers the mo­saic, free­ing it from its pro­tec­tion of sand, al­low­ing vis­i­tors to ad­mire it in all its el­e­gance and splen­dour; there­after to re-cover it as is done with such im­por­tant and valu­able items. The itin­er­ary con­tin­ues, finning south to find our­selves in a large hall with an apse whose semi­cir­cle mea­sures ap­prox­i­mately 10 me­tres and which is richly lined with mar­ble slabs; we re­main suit­ably im­pressed by the grandeur of one of the mar­ble slabs, hav­ing the in­di­ca­tion of what was prob­a­bly large en­trance doors. A whole col­lec­tion of mar­ble ac­com­pa­nies the last part of our tour, which re­gret­tably comes to an end. The mem­ory of the beauty of the hexag­o­nal black and white mo­saic will al­ways re­main in our minds.

With pho­tog­ra­phy, I doc­u­ment a her­itage which, be­ing Neapoli­tan, I feel is mine but which be­longs to all mankind; with the hope that my images stim­u­late the de­sire to pre­serve and learn about the past which never ceases to amaze and to teach. To let one­self be car­ried by the magic of the many small fish which, as if an­cient souls, guide me on each and ev­ery dive; never the same, never ba­nal. It is easy to get caught up in one’s imag­i­na­tion, touch­ing the splen­did mo­saics with one’s hands. I am no longer a mere spec­ta­tor; I have be­come a cit­i­zen of Baia. For more of Pasquale’s work, visit

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