Baiae, the Atlantis of Rome (2021) - full transcript

With an area three times larger than Pompeii, Baia, about 15 km from Naples and within the volcanic area of the Phlegraean fields, is the largest underwater archaeological site in the world. In 100 BC Pompeii is an ordinary city o...



NARRATOR: Off the coast of Naples,

a team of Italian researchers
is surveying the volcanic structures

below the surface
of the Mediterranean.


The island of Ischia itself
is an active volcano.

It's part of a volcanic arc,

which includes Mount Vesuvius

and the area
known as the Phlegraean Fields.

It is a name of Greek origin,

from 'flago' - 'to burn'.

But it was the Romans
who made the most of the area,

making the Phlegraean Fields key
to the growth of the Roman Republic

and later the Empire.



1.8 square kilometres

of streets, buildings,
mosaics, Roman statues.

Under a few metres of water,

the sea of the Phlegraean Fields

hides the largest underwater
archaeological park in the world...

..a haven
for archaeologists, researchers

and underwater enthusiasts.

Most of these
archaeological treasures

were part of the glittering city
of Baiae,

built in the middle
of the Gulf of Pozzuoli.

Well known today
as an archaeological park,

its fame is also due to the tireless
work of Gennaro Di Fraia.


Hundreds of dives and surveys
from the 1980s

allowed him to be the first
to map this ancient city.


Gennaro Di Fraia's map
of the submerged Baiae

was key in 2002 to the creation
of the archaeological park.

Since then,
Baiae has been a protected area.

But centuries of pillaging
and the effects of the saltwater

are a constant threat
for this unique World Heritage Site.

Studying, protecting and preserving
this treasure

is the task
of a multidisciplinary team

from the Italian
Istituto Centrale del Restauro,

made up of underwater restorers,
technicians and archaeologists...


..a never-ending task
across a huge area

to restore the structures
already known and identify new ones.


Leading the operations
is Barbara Davidde,

who heads the underwater
archaeological research teams

at the institute.


The restorer Riccardo Mancinelli

is heading towards one
of the identified buildings -

a residential villa

with a particular access.

It is known
as Villa With A Prothyrum Entrance

because of the monumental portico
above the main entrance door.

The focus of today's mission
is a mosaic floor

that decorated a room
in the north-west area of the villa.



Before studying the collapsed floor,

the team has to remove the sand
covering the mosaic

with an underwater vacuum cleaner.

It's a delicate operation.


There were dozens of villas like this
in Baiae.

It was, in fact,
an offshoot of Rome itself -

a centre of rest and recreation

for the most important
Roman citizens.

DIANE FAVRO: I think Baiae

and the whole region

was incredibly important

in influencing ideas about Rome.

The first emperor had a villa there.

His heirs did, others,
emperors and important senators.

And this was a big trading emporium.

Traces of its former glory
are also visible on the mainland.

The present town has developed

right on top
of the pre-existing Roman structures.

Behind it lies the remains
of an imposing thermal complex.

The baths were an important
institution in Ancient Rome.

It was pleasure. It was social.

It was like a club.
It was where you can discuss things.

In those baths,
water would be heated by furnaces,

using a technical system
famous as hypocaust -

a floor lifted from the ground up,

underneath which
hot air and hot gases circulated.

It's sort of like
what we call in modern architecture

panel heating of a space.

That is the artificial system.

The baths of Baiae
were different and unique.

To produce heat,

they used the volcanic nature
of the Phlegraean Fields.


Baiae produced
so much and such a variety

of hot gases, hot wet vapours,

that they did not
need to use artificial systems

to heat the space
as well as to heat the water.

It was naturally heated.

It required a rather sophisticated
and dangerous engineering

to conduct the hot gases
from below the earth,

through conduits, through canals,
up to the surface

and heat the bathing structures
that they had constructed

and heat the water
and heat the space

with this natural
sort of nature-given hot sources.

The baths were everywhere in Baiae,

often in private houses.

The remains of the thermal
facilities are still clearly visible

in the area of
the Villa With A Prothyrum Entrance.

The villa continues
to reveal new information

about Roman structures
and construction techniques.

Salvatore Medaglia is one
of the archaeologists in the team.


The villa had also a large garden.

Salvatore Medaglia has recognised
some fragments of a column.

To get an idea of the structure,

he tries to put them back together.

To the guests of the house,

the garden
must have looked like this,

opening out
to a splendid view of the sea.

All of these treasures

are now submerged
under several feet of water.

What had happened?


Calderas are large
cauldron-like hollows

formed as a result
of the sinking of the magma chamber

of a volcano after an eruption.

Because of this movement
of the earth,

the entire coastline
has sunk over the centuries

and, today, much of ancient Baiae
lies underwater,

and needs to be preserved.

It is not an easy task
for the restorers -

the guardians of the treasure.

New problems
always need new solutions.


The blocks first need
to be fixed with strong straps

attached to a lifting balloon

into which air is pumped,

but not too quickly,

otherwise the huge block
might rise suddenly and break free,

putting the operators
and the floor itself in danger.

The floor is finally cleared
and the job can be completed.

Many advances
in underwater restoration

come from the insight and commitment
of Roberto Petriaggi,

a world-renowned
underwater archaeologist,

who's worked for the Istituto
Centrale del Restauro for 30 years.


The binding agent that's always been
used for building on land is mortar.

The one used
for underwater restoration

needs to harden immediately,
even in water.

It was the Romans who invented it

over 2,000 years ago
in this very area.

They added pozzolana to the mixture,
the sand of Pozzuoli,

a volcanic powder
which makes the mortar bind in water.



It was not uncommon
for villas to extend out to sea.

Luxury was the way of life in Baiae,

and wealth had to be flaunted.

DIANE FAVRO: Everybody built.

And if you built a villa,

your neighbour had to make
his or hers bigger and better,

and then the next one
had to be bigger and better.

I don't mean city
in an administrative way,

but an integrated group

of buildings, pools,
the whole thing.

A spa city, if you'd like
to think of it that way.

It doesn't have a forum.
What is it?

Well, it's part of a bigger
metropolitan resort area,

but not just resort.

Baiae was more
the residential area of the wealthy.

Building on the hills

allowed for one of the most
appreciated luxuries -

enjoying a wonderful view.

And, at the same time,
being visible from far out to sea.

Today, the Archaeological Museum
of the Phlegraean Fields

is housed in the Castle of Baiae.

Several rooms showcase the treasures
found in the underwater park.

Before the castle,
an imperial villa stood here.

Archaeological investigations

have brought to light several
floors, statues and frescoed walls.

Dating of the decorations
and contemporary accounts

suggest that the villa
belonged to Emperor Julius Caesar.


On the other side of the bay,
at the Punta dell'Epitafio,

another villa has been identified.

FIKRET YEGUL: This was that Punta,

which also has remains
of some ancient villa.

Over here,

which today is underwater,

is a big hall,

rectangular with a great, big apse,

belonging to Roman Emperor Claudius.

How do we know that?

Because inside this apsidal hall

there are statues of the Claudian
Family, the Imperial Family.

And in the apse, the small apse,

there is a group statue

of recreating the myth

of the blinding of Cyclops, the
giant with a single eye, by Ulysses.

This construction
was called a 'nymphaeum',

used as a banqueting hall

and located
in the lower part of the villa.

On one side there was also
a private thermal complex

attached to the villa.

Luxurious villas
in a beautiful natural setting.

"Nothing in the world shines
brighter than the Gulf of Baiae,"

wrote the poet Horace admiringly.

Several ancient sources
refer to a mysterious Baiaen lake,

which housed the city's port.


On February 20, 1985,
during an aerial survey of Baiae,

Gennaro Di Fraia discovered clear
evidence of the mysterious lake.

Before his eyes, two, long,
artificial wharves appeared -

proof that the ancient sources
could be trusted.

The channel was over 200 metres long
and 32 metres wide.

This was the access
to the Lacus Baianus

mentioned in the literary sources -

the access to the shorefront
of the splendid Baiae.


Nearly 30 years earlier in 1956

a similar structure
had been discovered by chance

by Pilot Commander Raimondo Bucher

flying in the area
between Pozzuoli and Baiae,

a seemingly much larger waterway.

What could have been its function?


Between Baiae and Pozzuoli

lies the small lake of Lucrino.

In Roman times it was larger,

but a volcanic event
completely changed the landscape.

The Lucrino
was a shallow saltwater lagoon,

ideal for breeding
a particular species of shellfish.

It wasn't like the sea

with the crashing waves
and everything,

so they liked
the gentleness of the water,

and they used those waters
for oyster culture.

We certainly
know about the Lucrinus.

That's the wealthy,
like Sergius Arata, had oyster beds,

and that's another luxury.

You could just see them
drinking wine from the hills of Rome

and eating oysters.

Lake Lucrino and a second lake
behind it, Lake Avernus,

renowned as the entrance
to the underworld,

took on another function

when in 37 BC

they were transformed by Emperor
Augustus into a military port,

a port shipyard to strengthen
the naval fleet and train new crews.

As reported by the historian Strabo,

it created a secure harbour

and became a productive shipyard,

using materials
from the woods around Lake Avernus.

A canal was built to connect
Lake Avernus with Lake Lucrino.

The thin strip
of land

separating Lucrino
from the sea

was reinforced
with concrete.

A large canal linked to the sea
was also built,

over 300 metres long.

The waterway,

which Commander Bucher
had identified,

was, in fact, the access to the
military port of Emperor Augustus

known as Portus Julius.

It was such a great engineering feat

that people talked about it,

Virgil talked about it, others
talked about it, saying, you know,

"This is the greatest
engineering thing of our lifetime."

In a hall
near Punta dell'Epitafio,

a new structure
is under investigation... area of floor
known as 'opus sectile'.

These are polychrome marbles,

mostly those with red streaks
on a black background,

known as 'African marble' -

materials that are not
available in Italy.

Where did they come from?

How did they get to Baiae?

Puteoli, today Pozzuoli,

was the most important harbour
and trading area

in the

Of the
imposing pier,

on 15 pylons

and 372 metres long,

today only a collection of drawings
and some engravings are left.

One of the greatest works
of maritime engineering of antiquity,

it is sadly entirely hidden
by the modern pier.

Maritime trade
made the city particularly wealthy,

as shown by the remains
of several buildings -

the 'macellum', for example,

the great food market of the city
built near the port.

From the columns still in place,

we can deduce that the building
must have been substantial,

probably two storeys high.

The imposing Flavian amphitheatre,
dating from the 1st century AD,

is second in size only
to the colosseums in Rome and Capua.

Up to 40,000 spectators
could be seated on its benches.

The hypogeum, or basement,

is perfectly preserved

and retains its air of mystery.

In order to supply
the large population,

the port occupied a vast area -

a maze of roads, residences,

and, above all, 'horrea',
the warehouses for the goods,

which extended along the whole
coastline up to Lake Lucrino.

It now took the place
of the military port

that, in the meantime,
had been moved to nearby Miseno.


In the natural shelter
of a volcanic crater,

the port of Cape Miseno

became the base
of the Roman imperial fleet.

It could accommodate over 250
warships and thousands of crewmen.

In order to guarantee the fleet's
enormous need for drinking water,

an imposing cistern, now known
as the Piscina Mirabilis, was built.

As tall as a five-storey building,

it could hold 12 million gallons
of drinking water.

For five centuries,

it was the largest cistern
ever built by the Romans.

The restorers
begin by cleaning the structures

to check the state of preservation
and plan the works.

As so much of the decay
of submerged structures

comes from marine organisms,

laboratory research is key.

Restoration work
on the Villa Dei Pisoni

is almost complete.

It is the only house in Baiae

whose owner's name
is known with certainty.

Gennaro Di Fraia's research group
is behind the discovery.


To visually recreate

the structure and appearance
of the Villa Dei Pisoni,

Di Fraia is working on a 3-D model

using his own research

and the recent
underwater acoustic surveys

from Salvatore Passaro of the CNR.




Another team is working west of
the nymphaeum of Punta dell'Epitafio

in an area
called Baths Of The Lacus,

where a floor with a polychrome
mosaic has been located.

A section of the floor collapsed,

creating a gap in the mosaic.

As well as the biological factors,

all of Baiae's underwater structures

are affected by the force of the sea.


Roberto Petriaggi and Barbara
Davidde carry out an inspection

to assess the state of the site

and plan the restoration operations.

The floor is badly damaged
and is very uneven.

To find the answer
they first need to remove the debris.

Barbara splits the group
into two teams.

One will excavate inside the gap

and the other
will restore the structure.


By digging,
archaeologists want to confirm

the probable existence
of an earlier floorplan.

If they find it, it could be proof

that the floor was built twice
on two levels,

evidently to counteract the effects
of the movement of the sea floor.

If this is the case,

will be able to estimate a date

for the beginning of the sinking.

The second team proceeds
with the strengthening operations.

Next step is to choose the colour

of the mortar
to secure the mosaic tiles.

Barbara Davidde
uses photographic images

to get an initial colour reference.


There is no such thing
as pre-coloured mortar,

and, like alchemists, restorers
have to create them on the spot.


The mixture
shouldn't appear too smooth,

so some granular minerals are added
to give a more varied look.

Riccardo and Adriano have prepared
samples of mortar called test blocks

to be examined
and compared underwater,

where light
has different effects on colour.

The newly prepared mortar mustn't be
the same colour as the existing one

because, while respecting
the colour tone and appearance

of the original mortars,

the restoration work
must always be recognisable.

While the team carries out
its never-ending restoration work,

Gennaro Di Fraia
continues his research.

At about 400 metres from the ancient
coastline between Baiae and Pozzuoli

lies an area known
as Secca Delle Fumose - Smoky Shoal -

because of the gaseous emissions
rising from the seabed.

The researchers have found
some impressive structures here -

28 huge submerged towers
called 'pilae'

enclosing an area
of over 16,000 square metres.

The function of these structures
in the middle of the sea

has no immediate explanation

and represents
a fascinating underwater enigma.

Other sources, such as
the Greek geographer Pausanias,

refer to an artificial island
built in the Gulf of Pozzuoli...

..this theory supported
by a Roman fresco now lost

but that we know existed
thanks to a 17th-century reproduction

known as the Bellori Drawing.

Could the underwater towers
of the Smoky Shoal

then be the foundations
of an artificial island?

Di Fraia is on the quest
for tangible evidence

to provide an answer
to this fascinating mystery.

In the area of the Lacus baths,

the excavation of the pavement
has been completed.

Learning of the beginning
of a bradyseismic phenomenon

that forced the inhabitants
to raise the floor levels

in the 3rd century AD

was a decisive discovery.

This could have been
the beginning of the end -

the gradual sinking of the ground,

which forced the residents

to abandon their villas,

and progressively led Baiae,

one of the brightest stars
in the firmament of Rome,

to be extinguished.

Gennaro Di Fraia is still busy

trying to find an answer
to the mystery of the Smoky Shoal.

Of the three hypotheses, that of
the baths in the middle of the sea,

seems to be the most plausible.

The idea that it was a lighthouse
does not seem to be borne out.

Neither is there evidence that the
pilae belonged to a port structure.

But further inspection of the seabed

reveals collapsed areas
that offer new suggestions.

The traces of the collapse
are evident.

But, to the expert eye
of Gennaro Di Fraia,

some pilae reveal specific new clues.

Some tracks
are still clearly visible,

as well as the folds
for the support of the platform

in the upper part of the pilae.

A further theory that this is
for a second entrance to the Lucrino

is also discounted.

In addition to the Bellori Drawing,

other frescoes
discovered in nearby coastal villas

show buildings built on basements
in the middle of the sea.

So, the hypothesis
of an artificial thermal island

seems to have solid foundations.

And, to support it,
there are other ancient sources.


On the bottom of the Secca

a hot spring is still active today.

But it is too small to make
the idea of a thermal spa viable.

It appears, however,
that there are others.


Measurements are taken

of the strength of the water flow

and the temperature.

The water is very hot,

exceeding 70 degrees Celsius.

Some sections of the sandy bottom
are also hot.

The area affected
by the phenomenon is quite large.

This data will make it possible

to flesh out the hypothesis of a spa
platform in the middle of the sea.

But could these emissions
have been stronger 2,000 years ago,

bringing the heat of the entire
water column to the surface?

A clue to the answer
could come from Salvatore Passaro.

The CNR, together
with the University of Sannio,

is conducting an experiment
using innovative thermal probes.

And it's in the Smoky Shoal
that the study begins.


In Roman times then

these springs were perhaps
both more consistent and hotter.

Gennaro Di Fraia's investigation

now focuses on the area
behind the pilae, towards the coast.

Di Fraia comes across
something unexpected.

It's an exceptional find.

These are the remains
of the formworks,

the wooden frames
commonly used in Roman masonry

employed to build the pilae.


Di Fraia's research will continue.

Valuable pieces have been
added to the puzzle,

making the hypothesis
of the artificial spa island

more and more concrete.


The Villa With A Prothyrum Entrance
continues to offer surprises.

A new floor is coming to light.

It is a mosaic
with black and white tiles.

The uncovered part shows three fish.

The mosaic isn't well preserved,

and immediate restoration work
is necessary.

Barbara Davidde
dives down to check the situation.

First she tests how the tiles
are fixed to the floor.

The mosaic is in good condition,

but the fish designs

have deteriorated.


Time is short for full restoration.

The two most damaged fish will
have to wait for the next mission.

The third one
is missing only a few tiles

and will be treated immediately.

Adriano begins to prepare
the bedding plan,

but first he needs to collect

the necessary number of tiles.

Unlike the white,
the black ones seem to have vanished.


Fortunately, Marco was able to find
enough black tiles to proceed.

Now it is up to Adriano

to complete the work
of arranging and fixing them.

On land such a job is complex enough.

Underwater it's a lot more difficult.


The continuing restoration works
are for now completed,

but new missions
are already being planned.

The remarkable and diligent work
of the restorers will begin again

amongst the underwater splendour
of these remains

to safeguard their memory

and pass it on to future generations.


Captions by Red Bee Media
(c) SBS Australia 2022