THE UNDERWATER ARCHAEOLOGY PARK OF BAIA
A ancient city, preserved below the waves, now protected for the amazement of generations to come
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.
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