Tourists marvel at the festive city of ancient Rome, now buried by the sea | Italy

Fish flit around Enrico Gallochio as he gently sweeps a layer of sand to reveal an ornate mosaic floor on which Roman nobility is said to have held non-stop parties in Baiae, a former seaside resort on the Gulf of Pozzuoli, near from Naples. Four meters below the water’s surface, Gallochio walks past other mosaic paving stones and the remains of walls that once surrounded a spa.

The mosaics date from the 3rd century and are only a small part of the remains uncovered since Baiae, now a vast underwater archaeological park, began to emerge from its aquatic tomb. The site has become an unlikely tourist destination, even as work continues to uncover more ruins.

Remains of Roman settlements at Baiae Marine Park

“It was incredible,” said archaeologist Gallochio, who manages the underwater park. “In this area alone, we found 20 rooms. There is still so much to discover, but it is a job that will take years.

Local residents always had a feeling that something special was under these waters. Ancient Roman relics were occasionally found during the 19th century, and in the 1920s, the discovery of prestigious marble sculptures during a dredging operation off Pozzuoli so aroused the curiosity of fascist leader Benito Mussolini that he suggested draining the area to see what other treasures might arise. .

Then, on a clear day in the 1940s, Raimondo Baucher, an Italian Air Force pilot, spotted what he described as a “strange ghost town” as he hovered at low altitude which was once the port of Portus Julius. Aerial photos taken by Baucher, who was also a pioneer in snorkeling, identified with exceptional clarity the shape of the walls, marble columns, roads, breakwaters and elaborate sidewalks.

“The water was about a meter and a half deep, and because the sky and the sea were so clear that day, he could see there was something below,” said Gallochio. “His photos revealed a world that until then was unknown – only the locals suspected there was something, but they didn’t know what.”

Since then, archaeologists have found dozens of antiques, most recently a huge marble column. Gallochio described Baiae as the Monte Carlo of the ancient Roman era, a place where the rich and powerful would enjoy the mild climate, drink wine, eat oysters, and indulge in all imaginable pleasures.

A dive guide with a mosaic of a submerged Baiae villa. Photograph: Andreas Solaro / AFP

Emperors including Augustus, Nero and Caligula had homes in Baiae, and some of the ruins of the villa belonging to Julius Caesar are on display at the Campi Flegrei archaeological museum.

Baiae was built on the slopes of the Campi Flegrei supervolcano, and its initial attraction was its hot springs. “It was a spa town, where people believed that any disease could be cured,” said Gallochio. “Emperor Hadrian died in Baiae: he probably came here towards the end of his life while searching for a definitive cure.”

Later, written sources described Baiae as a city of vice, where the rich partied for days, had business, and shamelessly flaunted their wealth. It was also the place where Senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso plotted to kill Emperor Nero.

“We have traces of those huge, luxurious rooms that must have hosted continuous parties,” said Gallochio. “You can imagine that during the summer holidays it was a place of convenience, where the Roman nobility could go mad.”

A marble capital in Baiae.
A marble capital in Baiae. Photograph: Andreas Solaro / AFP

By the fourth century, much of the city had started to sink due to Bradyseism, where volcanic activity caused the earth’s level to rise and fall. The phenomenon affected the entire Gulf region, with the nearby Pozzuoli shopping center found under four to six meters of water.

Baucher’s photographs sparked a huge intrigue, but the first attempts at excavations were not carried out until 1959, as scuba diving equipment became more sophisticated. An archaeological map of the submerged city has been drawn, showing roads lined with buildings.

The first major excavation was attempted in the early 1980s, during which the nymphaeum, a room filled with marble statues commissioned by Emperor Claudius, has been found. Replicas of the statues stand today on the seabed; the originals are on display in the museum.

Other finds include ancient baths, fountains, fish ponds – where owners raised moray eels for the tables of Roman gourmets – and a water pipe engraved with his last name in the home of Senator Gnaeus. Calpurnius Piso.

A stretch of Roman brick wall
A stretch of Roman brick wall was visible above the water. Photograph: Andreas Solaro / AFP / Getty Images

The 437-acre underwater site has been a marine protected area since 2002. Prior to that, many relics were stolen and sold overseas – one of which ended up at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

“The flights have coincided with the growing popularity of scuba diving. Some people took away relics without realizing how precious they were, ”said Gallochio.

Today, the site is closely monitored by closed-circuit cameras, and a diving team from the Italian artistic police conduct regular checks.

“We have no evidence of recent thefts, but we cannot rule it out 100%,” Gallochio said. “The column we found 10 days ago was wrapped in a rope… Maybe it had been there for years – we don’t know.”

Tourists can explore the ruins by snorkeling or scuba diving with a licensed guide. There are seven dive sites to choose from, including Portus Julius, Senator Piso’s home, and Emperor Claudius Nymphaeum.

Park authorities are also testing the possibility of letting visitors view the ruins from a glass-bottom boat, departing from Pozzuoli.

Gallochio said it would take years for archaeologists to research the entire region, but they were sure they would find many more.

“It’s always moving to find something, even if it’s a little piece of marble,” he said.

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