The site at Baia


The Grand Tour

Sir Gregory Page-Turner 1768From 1660 onwards, until rail travel became widespread in the 1840s, The Grand Tour served as an educational rite of passage to the wealthy landed gentry of England and other northern European countries.

Lasting anywhere from a few months to several years, the Grand Tour resulted in visits to a number of European locations, where the manners, customs and language of those countries might be learned and an appreciation of the cultural background and history of them experienced at first hand.

In Italy, the tourist might visit Turin, Florence, Pisa, Padua, Bologna and Venice before visiting Rome and continuing as far as Naples to study music, visit some of the ancient archaeological sites and undertake an ascent of Mount Vesuvius.

Greece was still under Ottoman rule and considered too uncivilised to be included in the Grand Tour, so any appreciation of Greek architecture was through Greek sites in Italy such as Paestum.

Sir Gregory Page-Turner, painted while on the Grand Tour in Italy, 1768

The Phlegraean Fields

The volcanic area of The Phlegraean Fields was the site of classic Greek and Roman legends, as studied at school by anyone of culture. Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid both involved a descent to the underworld somewhere in this region. This area of Campania became very much a part of the Grand Tour.

Antonio Bulifon

Tourists on the Grand Tour would take advantage of Bulifon’s guide to the Phlegraean Fields, which had the equally grand title of: "La guida de’ forestieri, curiosi di vedere, e di riconoscere le cose più memorabili di Pozzuoli, Baja, Cuma, Miseno, Gaeta, ed altri luoghi circonvicini."

“The guide for strangers, curious to see, and to recognize the most memorable things of Pozzuoli, Baia, Cuma, Miseno, Gaeta, and other surrounding places.”

This guide was published in a number of editions and the map it contains gives us a glimpse of the sites to be visited and the sights to be seen. The edition below was produced in 1696.

Later editions were printed in languages other than Italian and included an updated version of the map.

The map was later reproduced in London in various publications catering for those about to undertake The Grand Tour.

The hand-tinted example below is from Salmon’s "Modern History or the Present State of all Nations".

Bulifon Salmon

The oval caption states "The present Map of this most Curious and renowned Tract of Land has been sent from Naples to London by M. Bulifon in 1708 as being newly corrected by himself. He desires the Travellers to give him notice when they are at Naples of the remaining mistakes they will observe."

The ruins at Baia

Bulifon Baia

Bulifon’s guide gives us an early glimpse of Baia, with the Aragonese castle on the left and the ‘Temple of Venus’ visible by the bay.

Bulifon BaiaAt Baia there are three major Roman bath complexes, each distinguished by a conspicuously large, domed rotunda. These were about all that was obviously visible and these rotundas were erroneously described in the seventeenth century as the ‘Temple of Venus’, the ‘Temple of Diana’ and ‘Temple of Mercury’. They are all bath houses, not temples, even though some maps and local signs persist in calling them temples even today.

The Roman baths are not the earliest buildings at Baia. As this website hopes to point out, the Greeks inhabited this area of Italy long before the Romans conquered it.

A series of buildings called today ‘Le Piccole Terme’ – the small baths, among the highest at the excavated site today, show signs of the ruins of a Greek temple and an entrance to the complex of tunnels and underground stream that show all the signs of being the entrance to the underworld, the oracle of the dead, Hades and the River Styx of antiquity.

At the time of this engraving the bulk of the Roman baths were buried and forgotten. Just a few of the larger Roman buildings were visible above ground and most of the town of Baia now submerged, yet still visible under the sea.

Bulifon’s plan shows the ‘Temple of Venus’ as number 29 and the ‘Temple of Mercury’ as number 28. Both are Roman baths.

By far the most prominent and sketched Roman building was the ‘Temple of Venus’. Endless historical examples of the ‘Temple of Venus’ can be shown, right up to the time of photography and the present day.

Turner’s famous painting of the Bay of Baia with Apollo and the Sybil, exhibited in 1823, also shows the ‘Temple of Venus’. Little was Turner to know that on the hillside to the right of the temple he’d painted was the entrance to a true underworld.

The Penny Cyclopaedia of 1835 had this to say about Roman Baiae:

‘Baiae, the name of a sea-port town and a celebrated watering-place of the antient [sic] Romans, which was situated on the western shore of the Bay of Naples, between the Lucrine Lake and Cape Misenum, and opposite to the town of Puteoli, now Pozzuoli, from which it was distant about three miles across the water.’

‘The ground on which Baiae stood is supposed to be that crescent-like sweep of coast between the base of Mount Grillo, which divides it from the Averno and Lucrine Lakes, and the promontory on which the present Castle of Baja [sic] stands. It is a narrow semicircular slip of ground, about one mile in length and confined between the hills and the sea. Here the wealthy Romans built their villas and baths; and, for want of space, often encroached upon the sea. Horace (Carm. 2, 18) alludes to this practice. Remains of submarine foundations and of jetties and buttresses, projecting into the water, are still seen.’

‘The only remains above ground are three or four circular buildings, commonly called temples, but two of which, at least, were, to all appearances, thermae or warm-baths. There is one building, however, which is generally believed to have been what it is called, namely, a Temple of Venus, for that goddess is known to have had a temple at Baiae. It is an elegant structure, octagonal outside, but circular in its internal area; the diameter of which is about ninety feet.’

Entering the 20th century

Around 1900 popular postcards were still showing a similar view of the Temple of Venus, with the Aragonese castle beyond. Little had changed in sleepy Baia.

The three views below of Baia taken in 1933 show the terraces where the ruins of ancient Baia were buried. Just a few low fragments of building stood out among the vines.

The 1950s

A few stairs and ruined walls are all that were visible before Amedeo Maiuri set about clearing the terraces to reveal what was underneath.

The Roman site of Baiae revealed

By 1958 a layer of debris several yards/metres thick had been cleared from the surface to reveal the remains of a huge complex of buildings that sat below the surface.

What I believe we can also see in this picture, taken soon after the site was cleared, is the series of buildings relating to what is proposed on this website to be the Oracle of the Dead. These buildings seem to sit on a shelf that crosses the later Roman division of the site, giving some credibility to the notion that before the Roman baths were built there existed an older set of buildings.

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