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The Baia Castle & the Museum of the Flegrean Fields


It is difficult to imagine another place in Europe that has as many items of archaeological, historical, mythological and even geological interest packed into such a compact area as the western end of the Gulf of Naples. The Baia castle (I think it’s really a fortress—see this link) sits above all this and now 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 great fortresses that protected the Gulf of Naples, the Baia Castle also served 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: April, 2016 -






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






 cover photo, above: Pasquale Vassallo                                            


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