BBC History Magazine
What lies beneath
Michael Scott discusses his discoveries from delving below a trio of Italy’s most historic cities
Italy’s Invisible Cities TV scheduled for January How do you convey the extraordinary richness of Italy’s history? Explore and map the spaces beneath its cities. That’s the idea behind a new three-part series hosted by Dr Michael Scott and Alexander Armstrong in which they visit Naples, Venice and Florence.
Each city was chosen to represent a particular era in Italy’s history, with Naples selected for its Roman heritage. “You think of it as a dangerous city, a chaotic city – and it is those things,” says Scott. “But when you spend some time there, you realise that it has an extraordinary energy. And that energy comes from the fact that the people who live there have, since time immemorial, been dancing on a geothermal hotplate.”
That aspect became clear to Scott during a scuba dive off the coast west of Naples, at a spot that lies “on top of a large, lava- filled chamber” that rises and falls over the years, changing the level of the land. Because of this movement, the ancient Roman resort of Baia now lies under the sea. On his dive Scott admired a “perfect, pristine Roman mosaic floor as beautiful as the day it was laid 2,000 years ago”.
The duo’s trip to Venice to explore its rise in the medieval era was similarly soggy, as Scott dived down to see the foundations on which the city rests – surprisingly basic engineering. “It’s effectively taking a wooden pylon and hammering it into the mud along the edge of the bit of the lagoon you want to strengthen and protect, and then building up on top of that,” says Scott. “It’s no more high-tech than that.”
Simple – but effective, because the brackish water in the Venetian Lagoon “doesn’t allow enough parasites to grow in the water to eat at the wood”. Instead, exposed wood “gets slowly petrified”.
Finally, the two men explore Florence’s role in the Renaissance, and ask how a city “managed not only to turn up all the volume controls on the natural competitive instinct in humanity”, but then harnessed the energy this produced “and channelled it towards the creation of feats of architecture, art and technology that were utterly unsurpassable” – a view borne out by cutting-edge 3D visualisations including remarkable images of Florence’s cathedral.
The brackish water in the Venetian lagoon “doesn’t allow parasites to grow in the water to eat at the wood”