Chiara Del Core 14 mar 2019 Articles 0 comments

1 - Evolution of spa practices

Roman Empire

The term Spa which today encompasses all those actions aimed at body care, seems to have a dual origin. According to some, this is the acronym deriving from the Latin phrase "salus per aquam" which signifies the health obtained through the use of water. According to other sources, the word Spa would originate in the homonymous and ancient Belgian town frequented during the sixteenth century for its purifying waters. Precisely thanks to the presence of the thermal waters, many towns enjoyed a good success developing and enriching themselves thanks to the construction of the first spas.
In ancient Rome, these structures were seen as meeting and relaxation places where you can lift your mind and body from daily efforts. Differentiated according to the users to which they were intended, the spas were distinguished between those very popular, more chaotic and aimed at the people and the smaller and more refined ones, reserved for the most influential characters of the time.
Soon the evolution of techniques and solutions adopted for water heating allowed the spread of spas within the city and the Roman Empire exported them to the colonized territories.
As for the layout plans and the layout of the interior, the Roman baths followed universal principles regardless of where they were located.
The succession of the various functions was mirrored directly on the spaces which, in harmony with each other, constituted a real path of purification. The element of water and the ritual of the bathroom associated with it, constituted the main fulcrum of the entire route.
However, the majesty of the façade did not correspond to a meticulous planning of the functional rooms: in fact, the spa complexes appeared bare and unadorned to amaze visitors only once they entered it.
Once inside, there was the apodyterium or the dressing room, where the visitor could place his clothes in side niches. From this moment the real thermal path began in humid rooms with persistent heat.

The environments that followed were the following:

  • Calidarium da calidus = hot> section intended for baths in hot water and steam baths

  • Tepidarium da tepidus = lukewarm> section intended for baths in lukewarm water

  • Frigidarium da frigidus = cold> section intended for baths in cold water

  • Natatio> swimming pool

It was a fixed and pre-established disposition in order to guarantee routes that met specific needs. Corollary to the building were the courtyards used as a gym, equipped with arcades and some rooms where it was possible to find relief after physical activity, thanks to massages and treatments. In addition, there were gardens and in some cases libraries, conference rooms and temples.
One of the most famous and representative examples of the Imperial era is the Ancient Baths of Caracalla dating back to 212-217 AD. Also known as "Thermae Antoninianae" from the name of the emperor Caracalla (Marco Aurelio Severo Antonino Bassiano), they underwent numerous interventions and extensions throughout history. For some periods the structure was used for other uses: agricultural area, cemetery, quarry of precious materials. In its greatest splendor, the complex measured 337 x 328 m and was able to accommodate 1500 people inside. With a portico enclosure, of which there are no traces left, it housed many rooms dedicated to various healing functions.
Between the external space occupied by the fence and the internal one, there were extensive gardens organized according to precise designs. Cisterns with a capacity of 80,000 liters containing enough water for the various body treatments were placed inside.
Great attention was given to the details and finishes of floors and walls enriched with two-tone mosaics and rare stones. The path, divided into two mirror sections and intended respectively for male and female users, met in a single solution in correspondence with the "tepidarium", a temperate environment of limited dimensions.

Planimetria Terme di Caracalla    

General plan of the complex of the Baths of Caracalla and aerial view in its current state
Source :

The fall of the Roman Empire caused the arrest of the development of the thermal sites which suffered a period of crisis also due to the restrictive laws of Christianity which prohibited idleness and pleasure of the body. The recovery took place in the Middle Ages, a period during which the company returned to appreciate the beneficial purposes of thermal waters.
In the nineteenth century the centers assumed great importance for healing purposes and to be easily reached, the railway and road communication lines were perfected throughout the European territory.
With the passage of time, the spas became increasingly important, becoming today wellness centers where we take care of the body and soul at 360 °.

The tradition of the hammam in Istanbul
From the fusion between the Roman and Ottoman traditions, the practice of hammam was born, which spread in 600 AD There are numerous references to the Islamic religion according to which through the purity of the soul and the cleansing of the body one can approach the Supreme God Allah.
From an architectural point of view, the Turkish bath follows the same interiors as the spa but with much smaller overall dimensions. On the facade it looks like a mosque without openings and with domes and chimneys at the top for the continuous escape of the smoke produced by the internal steam. Similarly to the functional spaces of the spa, there are three rooms:

  • Camekan, entrance where you can have a cup of tea in peace, undress and receive the "pestemal" fabric to cover yourself

  • Sogukluk, a transition space between the outside and the inside

  • Hararet, the center of the hammam, a room with a high temperature and full of steam

It is a place dear to the female, in fact the ceremony prior to the wedding took place there and today hygienic, aesthetic and therapeutic rituals are celebrated.
A fundamental prerogative is that of maintaining the cleanliness of spaces and pools of water, as required by sacred law. The course is carried out in two distinct areas between men and women; in the center of the main room is the göbek tasi, a large marble stone heated from below. The buildings used for the Turkish bath are welcoming, with arches and domes and the rooms stand out in relaxation areas and areas for skin scrubs.
Since ancient times, in addition to being the symbolic structure for the Muslim community, it has established itself as a place of purification and total catharsis.

An example of absolute magnificence is represented by the Turkish Hammam of Istambul Cağaloğlu; built in 1741; it is one of the largest in the city, an example of Baroque architecture.
The two entrances differentiated by gender are located one on the main road (men), the other on the side street (women). The Camekan of the Turkish bath is surmounted by a large dome and from it extends the corridor leading to the hot area, raised by eight columns.
In the center of the room is the large marble stone on which you can lie down for massages. The Turkish baths have detailed interiors and details that refer to the oriental aesthetic: large pendant lamps with perforated textures, mirrors, marble and monumental fountains.


Section of the Cağaloğlu turkish bath and view of the central room of the hammam
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