Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News
Sept. 28, 2009 -- A number of ancient Roman statues might lie beneath the turquoise waters of the Blue Grotto on the island of Capri in southern Italy, according to an underwater survey of the sea cave.
Dating to the 1st century A.D., the cave was used as a swimming pool by the Emperor Tiberius (42 B.C. - 37 A.D.), and the statues are probably depictions of sea gods.
"A preliminary underwater investigation has revealed several statue bases which might possibly hint to sculptures lying nearby," Rosalba Giugni, president of the environmentalist association, Marevivo, told Discovery News.
Carried out in collaboration with the archaeological superintendency of Pompeii, the Marevivo project aims at returning the Blue Grotto to its ancient glory by placing identical copies of Tiberius' statues where they originally stood.
Celebrated for the almost phosphorescent blue tones of the water and the mysterious silvery light flowing through fissures in the rocks, the Grotta Azzurra, as the cave is called in Italian, is one of the top attractions in Capri.
The island was the capital of the Roman empire between 27 and 37 A. D., when Tiberius made a permanent home there to take advantage of the mild climate and its seclusion.
Dividing his time among 12 villas and orgiastic feasts, the emperor used to bath in the almost hallucinogenic blue light of the cave, swimming among naked boys and girls.
The story goes that those who displeased him were thrown into the sea from a rock near his Villa Jovis. Perched 1,000 feet above the sea with Mount Vesuvius's cone in the distance, this was the most magnificent of his residences on the island.
The Blue Grotto might have been equally amazing. In 1964, archaeologists recovered three statues from the sea bottom. One sculpture depicts the sea good Neptune, while the other two statues each represented the Greek god Triton, who was the son of Poseidon (Neptune, for the Romans).
According to the archaeologists, the position of the Tritons' shoulders (the arms are missing) would suggest that the marine creatures were blowing into large seashells as if they were trumpets.
Triton was known to carry a twisted conch shell, on which he blew to calm or raise the waves.
The recovered sculptures confirmed an account by Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. - 79 A.D.), who described the sea cave as populated by a Triton "playing on a shell."
Now on display at a museum in Anacapri, the three statues have provided a glimpse of the original setting of the Blue Grotto.
According to the reconstruction, a swarm of Tritons headed by Neptune might have lined the rocky walls of the cave. Bathed in the magic light of the grotto, the statues stood with waters at their knees.
During the Marevivo survey, aimed at finding the original bases of the three statues, divers found a total of seven bases at a depth of 150 meters (492 feet). This suggests that at least four other statues lie on the cave's sandy bottom.
"The sculptures were all placed at the same level. It is likely that other statues will come to light as the project continues with new underwater investigations," diver Vasco Fronzoni told Discovery News.
The Grotta Azzurra's reputation as a natural paradise was seriously threatened last month. The cave was closed twice due to fears that its waters had been contaminated by raw sewage.
Aimed at returning the grotto to its full ancient glory, the Marevivo project is also expected to pave the way to a more strict controls to preserve the natural wonder.
"By next summer, tourists to the Grotta Azzurra will enjoy a really unique experience," Giugni said.