The Sea Shell Collector of Baia: a Trip to an Underwater City

– dedicated to Vandana Lohia

With her gaze fixed on the swirling shell of Tyrrhenian Sea, Mizu was confounded by the secrets of the old city that had crept into her ears without warning. What began as an underwater tour of a 2000 year old Roman party city, turned into an expose on the private lives of the ancient uber-wealthy, and in what manner?! Only the most bizarre unimaginable one! From Virgil to Cleopatra, Mizu had felt the sinful reverberation of people she had only read about in books.

In the two weeks that Mizu spent near Baia, she had several scuba diving lessons to prepare herself to visit the old edifice that inhabited the boundless sea. Once a flamboyant city and a seduction fortress for Rome’s finest men and women, Baia was now in ruins, sunken underwater, luring Mizu to take the big leap into its dense past.

She recalled being ready after ten long days of diving practice, extended visits to the local museum, and lengthy conversations while feasting over the region’s ragù made with aromatic soffrito, tender meat, and delicious tomato sauce. After gaining formidable, or what she now thought of as innocent surface level knowledge of the place, she donned her scuba diving gear and along with the instructor got onto a speedy white boat that cut across the sea, heading straight to the infamous “Villa a Protiro” diving site.

The journey on the boat reminded Mizu of what water meant to her. It was in one word: memory, of her own life and of all life, the end and the beginning. To be blanketed by the waves was to become one with the rhythm of creation, to be purged of one’s sins, to be renewed, to be baptized, and yet to be meaningless to the course of life. No wonder, she thought, the sinful city was swallowed by the ocean…

With a trembling body, she had leapt into the stiffing blue waters of this Italian sea, and at once, felt the pressure of the infinite unknown upon herself. Swimming against the currents, following the path of the instructor, she witnessed a majestic structure covered in algae sneak into the realm of her vision. As she was told a few days ago, this was a sprawling grey stony Roman villa from the 1st century. The instructor swam to the bottom, and stretched his palm forward and dusted off specs of black sand to reveal a mosaic tiled monochrome floor with large hexagons. He then held a hand out to Mizu and motioned her to come forward and do the same. Black and white fish swam past Mizu as she moved closer to feel the surface. She touched the geometric tiles, tracing its defined pattern. Feeling grounded, she let go of the weight of the water as it finally dawned on her that a whole city had sunk and it was at the tips of her fingers. This was the floor on which many bare bodies once pursued life 2000 years ago.

The instructor and Mizu swam past the tall edifice and discovered exquisite marble floors which were white and gleaming. They were the remains of luxurious spas. The grey-ish jagged walls of the city were still intact…they went on for miles, estate after estate, in colors of brown, sea green, and coral yellow, showing off the city’s splendid opulence. Swimming under arcs and into narrow doors as if the city was alive and well, Mizu could only imagine the sheer grandiosity of the place. It might have truly made for a lavish summer resort for Roman senators and helmsmen alike.

While she was in blissful admiration of its vivid textures, one peculiar thing struck Mizu. The hands of the sculptures were severed, their bodies were formless, and their faces were corroded; as if the water meant to preserve the city, but not its people for a reason Mizu hadn’t yet chanced upon yet. Haunting and surreal, Mizu was soon engulfed by the eeriness of the ruins. The fish that inhabited the pores of the sculptures were new residents of this sunken city and she and the instructor were made mere onlookers to see and reminiscence what man had lost to nature.

Before Mizu knew it, it was time to swim back to the boat. She had caught sight of someone who seemed like the instructor and followed him. She suddenly realised that he was moving too quickly, deeper into the water, and she was finding it difficult to keep up. He began to swim out of sight, and Mizu was soon doused in wonder. She kept swimming and once more caught sight of him, but she soon realised that it was not the instructor she was following, but some creature with no legs and a slimy green seaweed for a tail. It was a woman, she thought, a half-woman. Mizu hid behind a large coral reef, and saw a translucent being wrapping her seaweed tail over a shell and bring it close to her head.

After pouring the contents of the shell into her non existent ears, she then placed it under the skin of her arms and began to swim into the deeper end of the sea. Little did Mizu know that she was none other than the seashell collector of Baia. The one who gathered only those shells which had tiny sea creatures spewing secrets of the past. She was supposed to collect them and empty their scandalous tales into her ears.

Mizu and the shell collector soon became acquainted in an odd manner, with Mizu following her around until she would reveal herself, which when contemplated about, brought a blush of embarrassment to her cheeks. They couldn’t speak underwater of course, but the shell collector carelessly allowed Mizu to follow her around.

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They first came upon the ruined residence of the poet Virgil, and the shell collector placed a fiery red shell into Mizu’s palm and put it to her ears. In a strange manner, contents began to flow into her ear and Mizu heard a little squeal about a nymphaeum, the place of indulgence to fulfill the wildest of desires. She was unsure if it was Virgil speaking or somebody else, but Mizu couldn’t ask any questions. All she could do was listen to tales, not knowing rumor from history. Mizu followed the shell collector to the place called Punta Epitaffio where she beheld the corroded statues of Ulysses,  the epic hero she had read about in Latin literature on countless occasions. The sea shell collector had brought her to the site of the nymphaeum, a grotto dedicated to the nymphs at the heart of Baia, the fleshy core of sin. Mizu wondered now if the two were related, Virgil’s residence and the grotto, what more secrets of pleasure did the waters keep?

The sea shell collector’s sea weed tail picked up another shell from the nymphaeum and handed it over to Mizu. This one was a sultry green colour and was balmy like the Mediterranean sea, but its contents were delirious. It sang an elegy by the poet Sextus Propertius from 25BC:

“But you must quickly leave degenerate Baiae;

these beaches bring divorce to many,

beaches for long the enemy of decent girls.

A curse on Baiae’s water, love’s disgrace!”

Mizu had heard in conversations that Baia catered to the fantasies of many poets, but she hadn’t known that they reprimanded the place too! It was yet again the human hypocrisy of seeking and still disapproving of what’s forbidden!! Seeing Mizu’s very puzzled reaction to the contents of the shell, the shell collector whisked her away in excitement to an area with a lead water pipe that had the peculiar inscription, “L Pisonis“.

Her seaweed tail glowed at the sight of a tiny shell that she picked out from a bunch. It was flatter than most shells, pearl white and chrome in colour, and had a spiral carved on its body. As soon as Mizu held up the shell, she could hear the contents from afar. The creatures inside were screaming about a senator named Gaius Calpurnius Piso, narrating a scandalous tale, filled with vengeance, involving the emperor Nero.

Hearing their names pricked Mizu’s ears as she had only recently read about these two men at the museum. Piso and emperor Nero were close friends, but Piso’s greed for the throne had him plotting the emperor’s murder at his Baia residence. Although things didn’t go to plan, fate took a strange turn when Nero found out about Piso’s plotting and ordered him to commit suicide.

Mizu thought that this spot in Baia with the inscription “L Pisonis” indicated the location where the act would be committed. It could be evidence for the most scandalous conspiracy in Roman history.

Mizu wondered if the inhabitants of the city were doused in punishment or pleasure, because soon enough she came upon a host of shells that revealed the sins of the people. While one spoke of the tale of Cleopatra fleeing from Baia in a boat after the murder of Julius Caesar, the other spoke of statesmen building villas, leisure resorts, private terraces and mansions on the water itself out of greed for surreal floating residences at sea. They had enormous slabs of expensive marble contorted for their own perusal and affixed onto the sea bed. The people were crazed with lust and no wonder the water chose to drown it all…

Mizu’s gaze was still fixed at the swirling shell in her hand. The sea shell collector had given her this shell to take home, but had told her that the contents could only be heard in the treacherous waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Baia was once a private backdoor into the underworld, the gateway to a haven of earthy pleasure, longing, and luxurious feasts, where one could live freely, uprooting the roots of moral law, and suspending oneself into a state of bliss. Even the “Temple of Venus” was not really a temple, but a sort of heated sauna. “Oh the vice!”, Mizu thought. Now, the city lay below the sea bearing warning. It seemed like the end of the world was here at Baia. Mizu realized that this is what would happen to those who descent. They’d go on living their lives, but all of a sudden, a day would come when they’d be chewed up, their lavish embellishments dissolved, and only their bony skeletons would be spat out to teach others of lessons learnt.

The next day, after her underwater escapade, Mizu hid the swirling shell in a tiny pouch and tucked it away into her suitcase. She bid farewell to Baia and the equally mysterious sea shell collector who she would never see again.

Where will Mizu go next? Find her on Instagram @mizucity for updates!

Published by Mizu City

Dear Reader, I have a little something to share about cities. These are my own thoughts, emotions, troubles, and passions. If I don't write, they burden my mind. I try to pen them down into stories. I hope they resonate with you.

4 thoughts on “The Sea Shell Collector of Baia: a Trip to an Underwater City

      1. I’ve been dabbling with the brush and pen for a while now. If my reader enters a sensory realm on Mizu City, I’ll be happy. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean, being a writer yourself. And, Thankyou David. Means a lot 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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