Fish dart around Enrico Gallochio as he gently wipes a layer of sand to reveal an ornate mosaic floor that would have been partying non-stop at Baiae, an ancient resort in the Gulf of Pozzuoli near Naples. Four meters below the surface of the water, Gallochio passes more mosaic paving stones and remains of walls that once surrounded a spa.
The mosaics date from the third century and are only a small fraction of the remains discovered since Baiae, now a vast underwater archaeological park, began to grow out of its watery grave. The site has grown into an unlikely tourist destination, although the work continues to uncover more and more ruins.
“It was amazing,” 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. “
The residents always suspected that there was something special under these waters. Ancient Roman relics were occasionally found in the 19th century, and in the 1920s the discovery of prestigious marble sculptures during a dredging operation off Pozzuoli piqued the curiosity of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini that he suggested draining the area to see what other treasures emerge could.
Then, on a clear day in the 1940s, Raimondo Baucher, an Italian Air Force pilot, discovered what he called a “strange ghost town” while flying low over the former port of Portus Julius. Aerial photographs of Baucher, who was also a freediving pioneer, identified with exceptional clarity the shape of walls, marble pillars, streets, breakwaters, and ornate walkways.
“The water was about five feet and a half, and because the sky and sea were so clear that day, he could see that there was something underneath,” said Gallochio. “His photos revealed a world that was unknown until then – only the locals suspected something was there, but didn’t know what.”
Since then, archaeologists have found dozens of antiques, the most recent being a giant marble column. Gallochio described Baiae as the Monte Carlo of ancient Roman times, a place where the rich and powerful enjoy the mild climate, drink wine, eat oysters and enjoy every conceivable treat.
Emperors like Augustus, Nero and Caligula had houses in Baiae, and some of the ruins of Julius Caesar’s villa are on display in the Campi Flegrei archaeological museum.
Baiae was built on the slopes of Campi Flegrei, a super volcano, and its first attraction was its hot springs. “It was a health resort 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 to seek a permanent cure.”
In later times, written sources portrayed Baiae as the city of vice, where the rich partied for days, had affairs and shamelessly displayed their wealth. It was also the place where Senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso planned to kill Emperor Nero.
“We have traces of these huge, luxurious rooms that have been partying non-stop,” said Gallochio. “One can imagine that this was a place of frugality during the summer holidays, where the Roman nobility could freak out.”
In the fourth century, much of the city began to submerge Bradyseismwhere the earth’s level rises and falls due to volcanic activity. The phenomenon affected the entire Gulf area, with the nearby Pozzuoli commercial center being between four and six meters under water.
Baucher’s photographs sparked great intrigue, but the first excavation attempts were not made until 1959, when diving equipment became more sophisticated. An archaeological map of the sunken city was created, showing streets lined with buildings.
The first major excavations were attempted in the early 1980s, involving the Nymphaeum, a room with marble statues commissioned by Emperor Claudius was found. Replicas of the statues now stand on the ocean floor; the originals are on display in the museum.
Other discoveries include ancient baths, fountains, fish ponds – where homeowners raised morays for the tables of Roman gourmets – and a water pipe engraved with his surname in the house of Senator Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso.
The 437 hectare underwater area has been a protected marine area since 2002. Previously, many relics were stolen and sold overseas – one ended up in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
“The thefts coincided with the increasing popularity of scuba diving. Some people took relics with them without knowing how valuable they were, ”said Gallochio.
Today the site is strictly controlled by surveillance cameras and a diving team from the Italian Art Police conducts regular checks.
“We have no evidence of recent thefts, but we cannot rule it out 100%,” said Gallochio. “The column that we found 10 days ago was wrapped with a rope … Maybe it has been there for years – we don’t know.”
Tourists can explore the ruins while snorkeling or diving with a registered guide. There are seven dive sites to choose from, including Portus Julius, the home of Senator Piso and the nymphaeum of Emperor Claudius.
The park authorities are also testing the possibility of allowing visitors to tour the ruins from a glass-bottom boat departing from Pozzuoli.
Gallochio said it would be years before archaeologists explored the entire area, but they are sure to make many more discoveries.
“Finding something, even if it’s a small piece of marble, is always emotional,” he said.