Friday, May 10, 2013

An Ancient Spa

The gymnasium

The modern spa, with its saunas, steam rooms, hot and cold pools, massage rooms an gymnasiums, has an ancient equivalent. In fact, a visit to the remnants of the Roman Therme di Caracalla, or baths of Caracalla, will confirm that the Romans know how to do spas par excellence, and any modern equivalent you can name will be but a mere shadow of this - which was Rome’s second-largest baths.

The Baths get their name from the Roman emperor Caracalla, who reigned during the third century AD, 212 to 216. In view of the mighty nature of the complex, it is likely that the building work was begun before Caracalla’s time; and it seems to have been renovated by later emperors. It remained in use until the 6th century when the blighted Goths rampaged through Rome; and it’s possible that the Baths returned to use even later. However, they did fall into long disuse and were only excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, until the 1990s, they were used as a site for opera al fresco, but the steel seating structures have now been removed from the half-dome of the ancient caldarium. It was the venue and backdrop for the first “Three tenors’ concert in 1990. In an odd piece of trivia, the site was used for the gymnastic events during the 1960 Rome Olympics - something the ancients would have appreciated.

A huge complex

Mosaic floors

Changing rooms

Because it was to the Baths that ordinary Roams, rich and poor, came for entertainment and relaxation. There was an outdoor ‘Olympic-sized’ swimming pool, a frigidarium with cold water baths and fountains, a teipidarium with warm water, and a caldarium with water kept hot by wood fires burning under the floors. there were twin saunas - the hot rooms has high glass walls facing south into elaborate gardens, strewn with statuary. Indoors, statues, frescoes and marvelous mosaics decorated marble-lined walls. Magnificent columns held the soaring ceilings, glass mosaics reflected the light on the water in nooks and apses of the pools, and niches in the high walls held statues of water nymphs and athletes. 

Sketch of the interior decorations

Decorated the sun deck!

Patrons could swim, bathes, have a massage, work out in the gym, have their body-hair removed in the depilation rooms. And there were extensive changing areas with sloping mosaic floors (for drainage) - though it was usual to bring your slave to watch your things while you were bathing, since petty thieves were a problem. In other parts of the complex you might stroll in the manicured gardens, read in the library, or pick up a snack in the nearby restaurants. 

A specially-built aqueduct brought water to several large cisterns which kept the Baths in water; and huge stores of wood were kept to stoke the underground fires for the warm rooms. The Baths were free, public, and open all year round. The art works were superb, as attested by the remaining bits of mosaic, and the bits and pieces stolen - er, ‘saved’ - by the Farnese family: the so-called ‘Farnese Bull’ and the ‘Hercules’ are both now in the naples Archeological Museum. Two enormous porphyry tubs from the Baths are currently in use as fountain bases in the piazza in front of the Palazzo Farnese (current home of the French Consulate in Rome).

I’ll never look at my local spa/gym/‘leisure centre’ with quite the same eyes again.

For the approximate dimensions of the Bath complex, check Wikipedia. Astounding.

The towers were 'chimneys' for steam heating the hot rooms.

Glass mosaic tiles decorated the inside of the arches




Delightful gardens

No comments:

Post a Comment