Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: <Jeff Matthews

     entry Mar 2009, updates Apr 2016, Dec 2017, Dec. 2021

Bacoli, The Baia Castle & the Museum of the Flegrean Fields

<     distance side to side of this image is about  55 km /34 miles    >

 —added: Dec. 2021.
A word about Bacoli: When you read about the "sights to see in Naples" you generally refer to the site itself —Capri, Vesuvius, the Phlegrean (or Flegrean) Fields, Pozzuoli, Ischia, Cuma, etc. but those places are in, administratively, one town or another; that is, Capri is a town, Vesuvius is not; that is, Capri has a city hall; Vesuvius does not. The Gulf of Naples has two bays: Naples  and Pozzuoli. The places ("sights to see") — the Phlegrean Fields, the Baia Castle, Solfatara, Cape Miseno, the Piscina  Mirabilis, etc. are in the Bay of Pozzuoli, in a town you've never heard of —Bacoli. It's on Lake Fusaro. Population c. 27,000. It is the site of the popular Vanvitellian Lodge (image, left), which hosts art shows, a film festival, etc. (The red pin-drop in the above image.) You see the large island of Ischia on the left and the cone of Mt. Vesuvius on the right.

It's difficult imagine another place in Europe that has as many items of archaeological, historical, mythological and even geological interest in such a compact area as the western end of the Gulf of Naples. The Baia castle (a fortress, really — image, below) sits above all this and houses the new Museum of the Phlegrean Fields (the Campi Flegrei).

The castle is almost at the western end of the gulf, just before Cape Miseno; it is a stone’s throw from Cuma, the first permanent Greek colony on the Italian mainland and is surrounded by the submerged ruins of the great Portus Julius, home port to the Imperial Roman western fleet, now partially viewable (from glass-bottom boats or with diving gear) in an underwater archeology park. As well, there are many surface relics of the Roman empire in the form of villas, temples and cisterns scattered throughout the area. The castle also overlooks the waters where Virgil tells us that Misenus, master of the sea-horn —the conch-shell— challenged the sea-god Triton to musical battle, and it is near Lake Averno, the mythological entrance to Hell. Geologically, the castle has a bird’s-eye view of Monte Nuovo (New Mountain) the result of an eruption in 1538.

Amongst all that, the Baia castle seems almost an afterthought; yet, it was for centuries (between 1500 and the unification of Italy in 1861) an important defensive bulwark along the coastal approaches to Naples, the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The fortress extends over 45,000 sq. meters and reaches a height of 94 meters above the sea. The structure is somewhat of an architectural hodge-podge. It was built by the then ruling —but fading— dynasty of the Kingdom of Naples, the Aragonese, in the 1490s in preparation to defend against imminent invasion by the forces of Charles VIII of France. It is on the site of a villa traditionally thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar, himself, but now thought to have been Nero's. After the new Spanish dynasty took over in the early 1500s, the fortress was expanded greatly under viceroy Toledo. That expansion was actually a rebuilding since the above-mentioned eruption caused great damage to the fortress as well. It was expanded again under the Bourbons in the late 1700s.

Besides being one of the fortresses that protected the Gulf of Naples, the Baia Castle also had other functions —diplomatic, cultural, scientific and even penal; it hosted visitors to the kingdom and served as a base under the Spanish for early studies of volcanism in the entire area of the Campi Flegrei; it was also the site of grisly executions.

After the unification of Italy, the fortress no longer served a true military role and was officially “demoted” in 1887. (That is, it was no longer classified as a working defensive fortification on the Italian coasts.) A military orphanage was opened on the premises in 1927 with the aim of providing for the children of soldiers who had fallen in WWI. Industrial development in the area both before and after WWII left the Baia castle pretty much neglected. For a while, after the earthquake of 1980, castle premises also served as a shelter for those displaced from their homes.

In 1993 the Superintendency of Archaeology finally got hold of the castle and opened the nucleus of what is now the Archaeological Museum of the Campi Flegrei. In its current state, the museum is already an impressive display both outdoors and inside, in three stories of the northwest tower of the castle, dedicated not just to the history of the castle, but to the wealth of archaeological material within the entire area of the Campi Flegrei, including the larger-than-life sculptural ensembles of the Sacellum of the Augustals. (A sacellum was a small Roman temple; the Augustals were a Roman priestly class; a display of plinths from the sacellum at Miseno is on display at the Baia museum, and an entire room is given over to a reconstruction of the temple facade. This sacellum was discovered in 1968 in the waters off of Punta Sarparella, a few hundred meters up the coast from the castle.) As well, another room contains a reconstruction of the nymphaeum found submerged off of nearby Punta Epitaffio in 1969—that is, a rectangular grotto shrine with a series of statues commissioned by the emperor Claudius, himself, including two, Ulysses and a companion, that recreate a scene from The Odyssey. Another room contains the "plaster casts from Baia," a collection of hundreds of fragments of plasterwork discovered in 1954 and evidence of large-scale Roman copying of original Greek bronze statues. Eventually, the museum will cover 44 rooms on the premises of the castle.

The best short guide to the area is Baia: the castle, museum and archaeological sites, published by the Soprintendenza per i beni archeologici di Napoli e Caserta, editor Electa, Napoli (2003). Electa graphics are always good; the Italian text by Paola Miniero is also good; and the English translation by Mark Weir, as usual, is spectacular.

update: Apr, 2016 -

See this entry for news of this new guide to the underwater archaeological park of Baia. 

added Dec, 2017 -

The Italian Federation of Parks and Nature Reserves

The Italian Federation of Parks and Nature Reserves (
FEDERPARCHI) was founded in 1989 and is one of 160 bodies that manage national and regional parks, marine protected areas, and regional and state nature reserves. In 2008 Federparchi also became the Italian Section of  the Europarc Federation. It works in close coordination with other similar groups such as the Italian Environmental League.

Under the rubric “A Sea of Culture”, at its 10th annual iteration in Florence, both of these groups have recognized the combined "protected marine reserves” in the gulf of Naples for their efforts to coordinate efforts in order to promote tourism and to afford more efficient protection of the areas involved. As noted in more detail at marinepark.php:

...The Campania region of Italy has six "protected marine reserves.” Four of them are directly in the Gulf of Naples: the reserve at Punta Campanella (at the end of the Sorrentine peninsula); the underwater park at Baia (on the western side of the Bay of Pozzuoli, the bay across from Procida), the underwater park of Gaiola (on the Posillipo coast) and the reserve Regno di Nettuno (Neptune's Kingdom) (comprising some of the shoreline and coastal waters of the Flegrean Islands at the western end of the Gulf of Naples (that is, Ischia, Procida and the latter's smaller satellite island of Vivara.) 
cover photo, above: Pasquale Vassallo                                            

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