When An Italian Guy Went To Repair His Toilet, He Unearthed An Ancient Underground Complex

Image: Rebecca Arnold via Museo Faggiano/John Johnson

It’s 2001, and in the historic Italian city of Lecce, Luciano Faggiano and his sons dig through the floor of their property, searching for a broken pipe. However, as the family members remove shovels full of debris, they come across something unexpected: a false floor. And what lies underneath this structural layer will leave them – and the rest of the city – stunned.

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Italy contains some 40,000 years of human history – and as a result, the country plays host to an incredible collection of ruins from eras past. Rome, for example, was established in 753 B.C. And no trip to The Eternal City would be complete without visits to its many ancient ruins from the civilization that started it all.

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Perhaps the most iconic Roman relic is the Colosseum – an architectural feat that was completed in 80 A.D. In days long since past, the circular amphitheater welcomed audiences of up to 80,000 people at a time. And inside, these spectators could watch everything from gladiator fights and public executions to sea battles – with the venue, yes, sometimes flooded with water.

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Near to the Colosseum stands the Forum, which once served as the heart of Roman daily life. Here, inhabitants of the time could hear public speeches, attend criminal trials and learn the results of elections. And although, two thousand years later, many of the buildings and monuments of this site have crumbled, millions of tourists nevertheless pile in to see it – and imagine what life was like there all those centuries ago.

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Yet Rome isn’t the only Italian city where these kinds of architectural remnants still stand. For example, Lonely Planet has called the ruins of the city of Pompeii “one of the world’s most engrossing archaeological experiences.” That’s because the entire ancient cityscape was preserved by the same volcanic ash that destroyed it in 79 A.D.

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Pompeii remained hidden under ash and earth until 1594, when an architect named Domenico Fontana was attempting to dig a canal in the area. While doing so, you see, Fontana inadvertently found the city’s ruins. And amazingly, excavators eventually discovered the molds of some of Pompeii’s former residents. These ancient disaster victims had been buried by volcanic ash – between 13 and 20 feet of the stuff – creating forms of their figures that remained even after their bodies had decayed.

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Archaeologists later decided to fill those molds with plaster, forming somber figures of real people who had lost their lives in the volcanic eruption. Also preserved within the ash were homes, stores, cafes, amphitheaters, places of worship and a bordello. There’s even graffiti scribbled in colloquial Vulgar Latin – a broadly forgotten language different from that which was used by classical authors.

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Because of Pompeii’s historical and cultural significance, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared it a World Heritage Site. In fact, country-wide, as recorded in 2018, Italy features 54 locations that have been given this same title – more sites than any other nation in the world.

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On top of that, Italy also has a long list of sites that it considers worthy of the World Heritage Site tag. Future nominations to be considered by UNESCO will, naturally, come from this roster. And one such potential inclusion is Salento – a region within the heel of this famously boot-shaped country. Salento’s presence on the list of nominees is largely down to the area’s magnificent Baroque architecture – particularly that which can be seen in the city of Lecce.

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The Messapians – an ancient tribe who inhabited the Salento region long before Jesus’ birth – founded what would ultimately become Lecce. And today the city therefore boasts more than 2,000 years of history within its confines. As The New York Times has explained, “Lecce was once a critical crossroads in the Mediterranean, coveted by invaders from Greeks to Romans to Normans to Lombards.”

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Yet despite all the territorial commotion surrounding the city, Lecce’s architecture would ultimately flourish. And by the mid-17th century, ornate Baroque-style structures had begun appearing in the city. It’s because of these embellished sights that the city in fact earned the name “The Florence of the South” – after the Tuscan destination also famed for its architecture.

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Nowadays, it’s worth noting, Lecce doesn’t boast the same geographical prominence that it once held. And yet it’s still the capital of its province and an important hub in the region. Nearly 100,000 people call the place home, and it supports a number of industries. For one thing, the city exports a type of limestone known as Lecce stone, which is famed for being soft and malleable and thus fantastic for sculpting.

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Meanwhile, the land in the area supports Lecce’s agricultural commerce, too. In true Italian style, the city and its surrounds count wine and olive oil as among the most important goods that it produces. And the city also has a notable ceramics industry and, separately, houses the largest medical facility in the region.

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Yet Lecce resident Luciano Faggiano doesn’t appear to have been involved in the lines of industry just mentioned – certainly not as it concerns our story. Instead, the now-sexagenarian had, you see, purchased a building on the city’s Via Ascanio Grandi with a particular vision in mind. He wanted to turn the lower level of the property into a restaurant. And in keeping with this plan, he, along with his wife, Anna Maria Sanò, and then-12-year-old son, Davide, were to live in the building’s upper levels.

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Faggiano also has two other sons who had already flown the nest. The eldest, Marco, had moved to Rome to study film; meanwhile, his middle son, Andrea, had moved out to go to college. When it came time to turn the ground floor of his building into a restaurant, though, the father asked both Marco and Andrea to come home.

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The project was to be more than just an aesthetic renovation, though. It seems that Faggiano had, you see, discovered a problem with his newly acquired property. Yes, although the building appeared to have been updated with brand-new central heating and featured crisp white paint on its walls, the father-of-three had found that the toilet didn’t work.

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Now of course, the last thing that any restaurateur wants is backed-up sewage making its way into their eatery. So, Faggiano got to work. He enlisted his sons’ help to dig a trench, try to find the pipe and figure out the problem. The father also assumed that the project would take them a very short period of time to complete.

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As Faggiano told The New York Times in 2015, “I said, ‘Come. I need your help, and it will only be a week.’” Happily, his sons heeded the call, too, and the four of them began to dig for the faulty pipe. Soon, however, they uncovered something that they surely would never have expected: the false floor.

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At this point, Faggiano knew for certain that the project as he had promised it wasn’t to be. The dig at his new property would take far longer than seven days. So, he and his sons worked to remove the false floor – and yet they also made sure to keep what they were doing secret from wife and mother Anna Maria.

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Image: Rebecca Arnold via Museo Faggiano

Faggiano’s secrecy was likely tied up with what he had uncovered below the faux floor boards – and how he had found it. With this layer out of the way, you see, he and his sons had discovered another level covered in medieval stone. And this was just the first of the amazing historical finds that they would ultimately make beneath their family home.

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Image: Rebecca Arnold via Museo Faggiano

Incredibly, you see, the medieval flooring gave way to a tomb that had been built by the Messapians – a civilization whose existence, as previously mentioned, preceded the birth of Jesus. Faggiano and his sons also uncovered a grain-storage chamber that had been employed by the ancient Romans. And then, adding even further intrigue, they found the basement of what had been a convent – a space that nuns had once used to ready bodies for burial.

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Image: Rebecca Arnold via Museo Faggiano

Meanwhile, Faggiano also hit upon an interesting way of exploring new areas of the ruins beneath his home. The novel approach? He would sometimes tie a line around Davide, his then-12-year-old son. And then, he’d lower the pre-teen into newly uncovered spaces to see what lay inside them.

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“I made sure to tell [Davide] not to tell his mama,” Faggiano said of the young man – who indeed didn’t spill the truth to his mom. Rather, Anna Maria found out on her own after noticing a spike in laundry to be done around the house. “We had all these dirty clothes, every day. I didn’t understand what was going on,” she revealed.

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Yet as it turned out, Anna Maria wasn’t the only one who had started to wonder what was happening with Faggiano and his sons. The quartet had, you see, begun taking debris from their impromptu archaeological dig before putting it in the back of a car for removal. Hence, in turn, neighbors had then proceeded to take notice of their suspicious hauls.

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So it was that people living near the Faggiano residence on Via Ascanio Grandi called the authorities. And when inspectors subsequently arrived, they ended the project that the patriarch had started. He couldn’t, they said, helm an unsanctioned archaeological dig. However, Faggiano retorted that he had merely wanted to find and repair a broken pipe.

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It took a year for Faggiano to subsequently get the green light to resume his construction project. The authorities’ go-ahead came with one caveat, though. In order to continue, the father would have to perform his work under the supervision of heritage officials. And yet he agreed, got back to the task – and continued unearthing treasures from civilizations past.

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Image: Rebecca Arnold via Museo Faggiano

As well as finding the rooms already mentioned, Faggiano went on to uncover everything from ancient vases and medieval-era relics to religious bottles used by the Romans and long-concealed frescoes. And the discoveries that had lain hidden within the underground chambers came from different eras of Lecce’s past.

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Image: Rebecca Arnold via Museo Faggiano

Heritage official Giovanni Giangreco was among those who were on hand to help supervise the dig. And, talking to The New York Times, he noted that “the Faggiano house has layers that are representative of almost all of the city’s history.” Lecce officials thus assumed that there would be an important discovery during the excavation, and so they sent along an archaeologist to oversee the work.

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It would be Faggiano and his sons who did all the labor, mind you, and they paid for the entire thing to boot. However, they also soon found themselves immersed in the process. The head of the family, for one, did a wealth of research to better understand the eras represented in the ruins beneath his home.

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Faggiano in fact clearly felt enraptured by his unexpected archaeological dig. And yet his older sons, on the other hand, found that the project acted as a disruption to the lives that they had left for what was supposed to be only a week. Andrea chuckled as he told The New York Times, “We were kind of forced to do it. I was going to university, but then I would go home and excavate. Marco [came home] as well.”

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Eventually, though, even Faggiano grew tired of the work before him; he had, after all, begun the project just to fix a faulty plumbing system. And, of course, he still had dreams of opening his restaurant. “I was still digging to find my pipe. Every day we would find new artifacts,” he said.

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After years of hard work, the younger Faggianos, meanwhile, did eventually move on from the project, with Andrea relocating to London. And luckily, their father had the rest of his property to help earn him an income while he excavated. Yes, he rented the upstairs floor; and he also brought in money through other properties that he owns.

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Image: Rebecca Arnold via Museo Faggiano

Admittedly, Faggiano lost steam with the project, too. “At one point, I couldn’t take it anymore,” he revealed. “I bought cinder blocks and was going to cover it up and pretend it had never happened. I don’t wish it on anyone.” But city officials pushed him to keep excavating. And his architect said that he’d be better off without the sludge beneath the then-future restaurant’s bathroom.

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Interestingly, though, Faggiano would in time decide to put his restaurant project on hold indefinitely. The building instead became Museum Faggiano – an independent archive displaying the patriarch’s finds that was green lit by the city government. And today, it remains Lecce’s top-rated museum as selected by Lonely Planet.

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Image: Rebecca Arnold via Museo Faggiano

Inside the museum, guests descend using a winding spiral staircase and get to examine the spaces that were excavated by Faggiano and his sons. No longer is anyone lowered into the underground space by rope, as the 12-year-old Davide once was. Instead, bright lights and glass flooring sections give visitors a clear look at the building’s many layers and historical details.

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Image: via Museo Faggiano

Also inside the archive, guests will find the museum’s docent, Rosa Anna Romano. And it seems that she and Faggiano have an interesting connection. You see, Romano’s husband – an amateur in the study of caves – had previously noticed some suspicious holes in the ground when visiting the coast not far from Lecce. Specifically, he had noticed the holes while nature was calling.

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Amazingly, the holes then ended up leading Romano’s husband and other speleologists to discover the Grotto of Cervi. This incredible cave houses pictographs from the Neolithic era – a period of time that occurred roughly 12,000 years ago, at the end of the Stone Age. And before he had stumbled upon the natural wonder in 1970, no one even knew that any of it existed.

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Amusingly, too, while this Neolithic revelation certainly sounds akin to Faggiano’s accidental discovery of the ruins beneath his home, there is something else connecting the stories of Romano and the Lecce patriarch. As he put it, “We were brought together by sewage systems.” And on that note, he did eventually find the pipe that had started it all as well.

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Image: Rebecca Arnold via Museo Faggiano

It took several years for Faggiano to locate the pipe in question – and it was indeed broken, just as he had originally thought. But during the interim, his dream of turning the property into a restaurant had since dissipated. Instead, he bought a new place to transform into an eatery – with his initial real-estate investment to remain a museum.

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Faggiano’s story may seem to be out of the ordinary – but it’s perhaps less so than you think. You see, Italy and Salento’s rich history has actually made this sort of occurrence relatively normal for archaeologists and urban planners. Lecce-based historian Mario De Marco told The New York Times, “Each… population came and left a trace.” So, if you ever begin a construction project in this region, be prepared. As Lecce city council member Severo Martini concluded, “Whenever you dig a hole, centuries of history come out.”

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