4 agosto 2022
by Ivana Pisciotta

Ready to dive. Italy underwater

An ancient mosaic on Campi Flegrei seabed
An ancient mosaic on Campi Flegrei seabed

There is nowhere else on earth that you can find as many ancient treasures as in Italy. It’s a well-known fact. But what people often don’t realize is that Italy preserves many priceless finds in its abysses, often made even more fascinating precisely because they are hidden deep under the sea.

There are around 1,000 archaeological sites mapped in Italy. They are not all ancient, with many dating back to the Second World War: these are wrecks of submarines or merchant ships that seem to have been halted in time, like snapshots, bearing witness to a tragedy that happened long ago. Over time, the metal plates of the boats have become the home for numerous fish species, giving them new life and becoming sites of attraction for both historians and biologists.

Traveling further back in time, instead, all you need to do is put your nose under water, and at a depth of just 16.5 feet, you can admire, hidden among the posidonia, the remains of an amphitheater and a Roman villa, in the divers’ paradise in the Campi Flegrei area near Naples. This vast volcanic area is 8 miles wide and already includes 20 diving spots, despite it being not yet fully explored. But the whole of Italy is full of testimonies that 'rest' on the seabed. 

In Liguria, at a depth of 55 feet, in the bay of San Fruttuoso, between Camogli and Portofino, there is a bronze statue, the Christ of the Abyss, which has become the symbol of the passion for diving and the sea. However, the dive is quite challenging, as is the dive off the coast of Sestri Levante, the scene of bloody battles during the Second World War, with the sea full of military wrecks, including, in particular, the Bettolina, a Dutch barge used for transporting goods and sunk on February 12, 1944, probably hit by a missile. There are many ancient ports hidden by the sea, which two thousand years ago were very active

The whole of Italy is full of testimonies that 'rest' on the seabed

In Puglia, in Egnazia, construction works have been found that were built directly in the water and which testify to two of the different building methods of the time, as explained by Vitruvius in De Aechitectura: works using pillars or using continuous foundations. However, you need an expert eye because, at first sight, it is not easy to understand the complexity of the construction.  

There is also the archaeological park of Kaulonia, on the border between Reggio Calabria and Catanzaro, discovered in the 1930s, which was once a populous site. Over time, the coast has been swallowed up by the sea due to the activity of two underlying tectonic plates, but if you scuba dive to a certain depth, you can still see a perfectly preserved Doric temple. Also in Calabria, at Punta delle Castelle in the province of Crotone, on the seabed at a depth of just 36 feet, there are numerous wrecks and artifacts including many cast iron cannons and more “modern” metal remains.

But the most fascinating submerged archaeological site is undoubtedly in Campi Flegrei. Horace claimed that “no gulf in the world shines more than the pleasant Baia,” and, if figures of the caliber of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Marcus Anthony, as well as the poet Lucullus and Cicero, had their holiday residences here, then there is no doubt. In short, Baia was an elite holiday resort at the time of the Roman Empire and has now become one of the most beautiful and evocative archaeological centers in the world. A few feet from the shore, you can find mosaics, statues, remains of floors in marble slabs and Roman walls hidden by tufts of posidonia and caressed by passing schools of damselfish and sea bream.

Baia was an elite holiday resort at the time of the Roman Empire and has now become one of the most beautiful and evocative archaeological centers in the world

Portus Julius has been a protected marine area since 2002. And it still does not cease to amaze: between the famous Nymphaeum of Claudius and the Villa dei Pisoni, a new mosaic was found just two years ago—the first polychrome example—which was probably part of a spa complex of 27,000 square feet, which was itself part of a private residence, dated around the 3rd century AD. The floor in question has a geometric design composed of juxtaposed octagons, decorated in the center with all different, stylized flowers. The area was also popular for its sulfurous waters used to treat ailments and diseases, to the extent that it is said that spas were invented right here. The blue sky, the crystal-clear sea, the pleasant climate, the hot springs: for the Romans, it was the ideal environment to indulge in doing nothing.

Cicero certainly appreciated the idle nature of Baia, describing it as the area of “pleasures, loves and betrayals.” It was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the frenzy and the desire for adventure: the poet Martial noted ironically that “in Baia, a woman arrives as a Penelope and departs as an Elena.” But Baia was also an important cultural and recreational hub, described by Cicero as “Pusilla Roma” (Little Rome), capable even of inspiring the emperors who attempted to reproduce certain natural features of the coast in the capital. Going for a swim today in these waters means something more than a refreshing dip: it means rethinking history, rediscovering the past in an unforgettable diving experience.

Cicero certainly appreciated the idle nature of Baia, describing it as the area of “pleasures, loves and betrayals"

For those who are instead passionate about ship wrecks, in Italy they are spoiled for choice, since, of the more than 202,000 recorded worldwide on the sea and ocean bottoms, 15,641 are in the Mediterranean.  

Among the most famous, on the Tremiti islands, in Cala degli Inglesi, there is Il Lombardo, an eighteenth-century wheeled steamer, which is none other than one of the boats used by Garibaldi in the expedition of the Thousand. Moreover, since ancient times, the sea around the Tremiti was very busy in terms of trade, and in fact, in its depths, you can still find amphorae and the remains of boats. In Portofino, there are the wreck of the Croesus, sunk in 1855 and the Schooner, a sailing ship from the first half of the twentieth century. In the Gulf of Genoa, at a depth of 111 feet, you can “tour” La Haven, one of the largest submerged ships in the Mediterranean.

There are also many wrecks that lie in the seas of Sardinia: in Santa Teresa di Gallura you can admire the Angelika, the Greek cargo ship, sunk in 1981 in circumstances never clarified, which is located just off Punta Marmorata. In the Gulf of Orosei, there are two, including the famous KT, a German merchant ship that was sunk by cannons hidden in the caves along the coast. The wreck is beautifully preserved to the point that, through the shoals of fish, you can see on the floor of the ship even the saucers featuring the swastika, symbol of the German National Socialist party.

In the Strait of Messina, at Saline Joniche, the Laura C. “rests” on the seabed at a depth of 164 feet, an iron cargo ship that was sunk by a torpedo during the Second World War; while again in Sicily, in the Gulf of Tonnara, lies the Kent, a Greek cargo ship, sunk in 1979, which at the time of the disaster was carrying thousands of copies of the Koran and this reason is also known as the ‘ship of the Korans’. With a length of 262 feet, it sits at a depth of 82 feet and is only recommended for more experienced divers. Let's move on to the coast of Lazio: in Cala dell’Acqua in Ponza, in 1944, a Landing Ship Tank, an American landing craft, failed to reach the shore when it was sunk by a storm.

Today. lying on the bright white sandy seabed, you can still see the two parts of the broken wreck, making it a stunning dive experience. If we move instead to Puglia, to be exact in Santa Caterina di Nardò, in the province of Lecce, for over 60 years, divers have admired the remains of the German Junker 88 aircraft, located at about 115 feet. About 65 feet wide and 50 feet long, the wreck is in excellent condition and has been available to divers for a relatively short time, since the 2000s.

Back to Sicily: for the more experienced divers, the wreck of the Valfiorita, a 6,200-ton motor ship, sits at depths of between 148 and 233 feet in Mortelle, near Messina. Built for commercial purposes, during the Second World War it was converted into a military vehicle. The ship is broken in two and its cargo includes other interesting wrecks of vehicles: Fiat Balillas, Fiat 1100s, motorcycles with sidecars, numerous armored vehicles. All you have to do is dive in, take up your regulator and open your tank!

Seguici su