The Cathedral of Water

On Sunday we had planned to take a little 40 minute detour on the way home from our weekend retreat. Little did we know, that detour would turn into a full afternoon excursion- not because we discovered other things to explore but because of traffic! Oh my goodness, traffic near the water/coast is always a bit touch and go but in the summertime, on a weekend, when there’s an accident… it’s absolutely awful!! It was a bit more intense because our air conditioner didn’t work in our car… so the 90 degree weather that day made for a toasty wait in the open sun! We did get to see some beautiful coastal views while re-routing around the accident site though!


Thanks to that accident it took us 3 hours to reach La Piscina Mirabilis (the Mirabilis Pool), but it was by far one of the coolest things that I have seen! It is the largest and most monumental cistern of drinking water ever built by the ancient Romans and provides a detailed glimpse into their advanced technology. It also makes an excellent backdrop and is the setting for the Canto delle Lavandaie del Vomero (Song of the Washerwoman) in John Turturro’s film Passione. Here the Romans collected water brought by an aqueduct from the Serino River, but scholars disagree about who used this water tank. It is said that it had the function of supplying water to the numerous ships belonging to the Classis Misenensis of the Roman Navy, once moored in the nearby port of Miseno. Or it might have provided water to the nearby villas. The cistern, also known as “The Cathedral of Water” for its grandeur, is located in Bauli, the name that the ancient Romans gave to today’s city of Bacoli.

The Piscina Mirabilis is located in Pennata, the heart of the Phlegrean Fields. On the one hand, this archaeological site suggests the Ancient Romans’ excellence in the fields of hydraulics and aqueduct construction. On the other hand, the pool presents itself as an empty and quiet space, illuminated by dim and greenish light, an effect that the vegetation overrunning the wall boundaries produces by hanging from the openings in the vaults. Over time, the Piscina Mirabilis has been the favorite destination of artists, painters, men of culture, musicians and architects; there is proof that several noteworthy personalities such as Palladio, Mozart, Andrea de Jorio, Paoli and Winkelmann have visited this place. In the 18th century it was considered a must-see stop of the Grand Tour, as demonstrated by the presence of several dated inscriptions that can still be observed in the Roman reservoir. The dates of its construction go from 33 BC up until 12 BC, the same as the creation of the aqueduct itself. Despite the strongly multidisciplinary potential of the archaeological site , the Piscina Mirabilis was rediscovered only in 1890.

Dug into the tuff rock, it has two entrances. The first is by way of the metal stairs. The second is on the opposite end, but the tuff stairs currently lead only to earth. A middle nave lies one metre below the rest of the structure and once served as a decantation pool for periodic cleansing and emptying of the cistern. A think layer of waterproof cocciopesto or signinum once covered the cistern walls. They were made of broken tiles mixed with mortar. 

The Piscina Mirabilis is North-West/South-West oriented; it is divided into 5 longitudinal and 13 transverse aisles. It is approximately 70m long, 25m wide, and 15m high. The structure presents 48 cruciform columns supporting the roof, which is made of barrel vaults sustained by arches. According to traditional hypothesis, the adduction pipeline is located by the entrance staircase, in the North-West corner. The Romans created hydraulic machines on the roof terrace that pumped the water. Its water capacity was approximately of 12600 m3. One only needs to take into account the actual water needs of the fleet to fully understand the magnitude of this work. Archeologist and former director of the Phlegrean archaeological area, Paolo Caputo, estimated that the Misenum fleet counted 3,000 rowers, each of them whom had a daily water need of 51, which is equal to 170 m3 per day.

In Roman times, water was supplied to many provinces of the Campania Felix territory by the extraordinary aqueduct system “Aqua Augusta Campanise.” After the tragic battle of Atium in 31 BC, Emperor Augustus appointed two fleets in charge of the defense of the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian Seas. One was stationed in Ravenna and the other in Misenum in the Phlegrean Fields area. The port of Misenum was a large-scale replica of Portus Julius, which had become inadequate due to the slow, progressive silting of the seabed. The militarization of Misenum’s natural harbor and the profound urban and residential transformation of the Phlegrean area at the time of the civil wars showed the the necessity to provide the territory with an adequate water supply system. Such were the circumstances that led to the construction of the monumental Serino aqueduct. The main channel running for approximately 105km, the aqueduct reached 135km with its branches. For economic and safety reasons, and for the preservation of the organoleptic characteristics of water, it ran for the most part underground. It crossed the limestone rocks of the Apennines, then passed under the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and branched off to Nola, Atella, Acerra, and Pompeii. It then reached the city of Naples and the Phlegrean Fields, to finally end in Misenum.

There are multiple traces that well document the aqueduct’s presence in the Phlegrean area, all of which naturally preserve, despite their fragmentation, the structural features for which they were built. One can see from the reported cartography, the aqueduct entered the Phlegrean Fields running parallel to the Crypta Neapolitana, it crossed the Promontorium Pausilypi, and continued in the direction of Pozzuoli along the ancient Via per Colles (today known as Via Terracina), which still connects the latter municipality to the city of Naples. In this way, the aqueduct also supplied water for the thermal complexes of the Agnano area. Once in Pozzuoli, the Augustan infrastructure branched off to the civil port, while the main channel continued its course toward the Averno Lake. In recent decades, one of the aqueduct’s most significant traces has been found in the last section of its long path: a secondary passage for water catchment connecting the little-known Roman tunnel from the Scalandrone area to the Augustan aqueduct. At the entrance of this tunnel, in fact, an inscription reports the date “December 30th, 10 AC,” which represents the most ancient ante quem reference to the Acqua August Campaniae. From here, the infrastructure proceeds towards the ancient city of Baiae, supplying water for the numerous aristocratic villas and the thermal complexes of the area. Reaching its final destination in Misenum, it flew into the Piscina Mirabilis, the largest cistern for military use in Roman times.


And of course, we walked along a nearby vineyard (which just happened to also be the parking lot) and snagged some local wine!



Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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