Belle Époque of thermae
From healing rite to exclusive worldly chance: straddling the nineteenth and the twentieth century the aristocratic and bourgeois elite discovers all the charming glamour of “taking waters”
Blowing on Great Britain since the first half of the nineteenth century, the wind of novelty of the Industrial
Revolution came to Italy by the turn of the twentieth century. Thermalism was entering its modern age, following not only its therapeutic vocation but also the European loisir. Our country, so rich of healing waters and of tradition, opened itself to socialites with optimism, building its most fascinating villes d’eaux in Liberty style, transforming thermal towns in authentic and exclusive resorts for aristocrats and bourgeois people. It was the rising of modern thermalism, but it was also the rising of modern tourism, with aristocrats, politicians and entrepreneurs who went to trendy spas with their families, as well as today they go on the most famous shores of the peninsula. Game, relaxation, amusement and wellness can be met at thermal poolside, in the halls of Grand Hotels, in Casinos and around the “glamourous” streets of the ancient villages blessed by thermal waters. Even today, the same streets are filled in a Belle Époque charm, lightness, pleasure and joy of living which created the myth and the legend of the most beautiful spas in Italy.
San Pellegrino It’s one of the most famous waters of the world, it is present with its label in the most prestigious restaurants of both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. However, San Pellegrino is firstly one of the most famous and charming spas of our country, renowned since XII century for the therapeutic properties of its springs and studied even by Leonardo da Vinci, during his Milanese stay at Ludwig the Moor’s court. In the nineteenth century the resourceful and capable Mrs. Ester Palazzolo led the private management of the spa, transforming the town in a health and culture center famous in Europe. However, it wasn’t until 1899 that San Pellegrino began to transform into a modern thermal center, resort and fascination for international socialites. In that year the Società Anonima delle Terme di San Pellegrino arose and it managed both the thermal springs and the bottling. The bright and visionary, entrepreneur Cesare Mazzoni understood the priceless value of this water and he was one of the principal craftsmen in the transformation of the Val Brembana town in a Liberty style jewel: from 1901 till 1906 the new thermal building, the wonderful Grand Hotel and the spectacular Casinò or Kursaal, by the architect Romolo Squadrelli, were inaugurated. San Pellegrino bottles of water were sold all over the world right from the start thanking to Mazzoni’s entrepreneurial intuition and they became the most efficient promotional tool of the “new” touristic destination, that was all the rage with royals and aristocrats – for example, queen Margaret of Savoy and baron Rotschild, princes Borghese and Gonzaga, zars of Russia and, later, king Faruk’s family of Egypt – but it was also visited by ministers and diplomats, scholars and artists, magistrates and high-ranking officials, coming from Rome and Paris, London and Berlin, Saint Petersburg and even from Cairo. Thus, there was the rising of luxury hotels, café chantant, halls for parties where people celebrated the Belle Epoque splendors, at least until World War I, when the harsh reality broke in pieces the optimism and the lightness of those carefree years. After decades of decline and at almost 40 years from the definitive closure of the Grand Hotel, today San Pellegrino is living again in all its splendor, with the last year restoring of the Kursaal, with the work to reopen the wonderful Grand Hotel in 2018 and with the prestigious project for San Pellegrino new headquarters.
Thermae today: www.qctermesanpellegrino.it
Montecatini Giuseppe Verdi went to Montecatini thermae from 1875 till 1900, giving it fame and glory. From the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century the town turned from bath village to one of the most elegant villes d’eaux in Italy. Here Liberty style is still the measurement of style and sophistication. From 1902 architect Bernardini built the park and the buildings going from the Torretta to the Parco Regio, passing through the Terme Fortuna and the Tamerici, down to the Tettuccio. Right after there were the building of the Teatro- Kursaal and the Gambrinus, luxury hotels, cafés and the cinema Excelsior, that transformed Montecatini in a “little Paris”, visited by prominent figures of the political, artistic, ecclesiastic and financial world. King Victor Emmanuel III and queen Margaret, Arturo Toscanini and Giacomo Puccini, president Segni and president Gronchi and Ettore Petrolini, Guglielmo Marconi and Madame Curie participated to the rite of “taking waters” during those years. The same period saw the building of the funicular, which allows to reach the old heart of Montecatini in 10 minutes of breathtaking climb: created in 1898, it’s composed by two coaches, Gigio and Gigia, and it is the eldest still functioning in the world. Right at the end of the nineteenth century, not very far from Montecatini, another thermal spring was introducing itself to the world, in this case it was for the very first time. It was Grotta Giusti: a unique natural spectacle, made by stalactites and stalagmites, corridors, subterranean chambers and a little lake of hot water that pervades the whole space with its therapeutic fumes. It was discovered by chance in 1849 and by the end of the nineteenth century it welcomed visitors from all over the world in the Regio Stabilimento and in the Albergo Reale, included an enthusiast Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Verdi who called it “the eighth wonder of the world”. Today the nineteenth century villa Giusti rises on the thermal cave, where the most distinguished guests gathered, and it is a prestigious and exclusive resort.
Thermae today: www.termemontecatini.it
Chianciano In the South of Tuscany, deep in the Val di Chiana and in the Val d’Orcia, a large lake of thermal water warms the earth and the life of these sweet hills. From San Casciano Bagni down to Siena, there are a lot of cold, hot, tepid or steamy springs, known for centuries, pouring out naturally and always bringing health and prosperity. Since the beginning of last century Chianciano has been the undisputed capital of worldliness. Visited by the socialites of culture and spectacle, of literature and politics, this beautiful mediaeval little town and its precious springs inspired some of the most famous works of Italian creativity and culture. For example, in 1905 Luigi Pirandello, who was in Chianciano with his family, set here his short stories “Acqua amara” and “Pallino e Mimì”, and later, well beyond the two world wars, in 1962 Federico Fellini dedicated to the thermal center the most poetic and ironic declaration of love, filming in a Parco dell’Acquasanta, rebuilt in Cinecittà, his biographic masterpiece 8 e ½, with his alter ego Marcello Mastroianni and the unforgettable waters keeper Claudia Cardinale. Today, that same suspended and indefinite air, that fantastic and timeless charm told by the great director, can be found walking down the large park, bigger than 7 hectares, among flowerbeds and century old trees, reaching to the large Sala della mescita and the Salone Nervi, with its very beautiful 1952 ceiling.
Thermae today: www.termechianciano.it
Bormio Between the High Valtellina snowy mountains, the steamy waters of Bormio thermal springs have been a unique, wellknown and appreciated attraction for thousands of years. Romans were the first to discover the therapeutic and relaxing properties of these odorless and tasteless waters: in I century B.C. Pliny the Elder wrote about the large tubs implemented in a cave and dedicated to Apollo, where the travellers would find refreshment. In the nineteenth century those same tubs won the Archduchess Sophie of Austria, who made implementing the panoramic large wood pool for her exclusive use. The tub is still opened in front of the cave of Roman Baths, on the spectacle offered by the valley and the mountains. If the Hotel Bagni Vecchi, built in 1826 right after the opening of the Stelvio Pass, kept alive the calling of receiving travellers like the old Roman Hospitium Balneorum (today a very beautiful and exclusive four stars), the Grand Hotel Bagni Nuovi, inaugurated in 1836, has been destined to long and luxury stays of aristocrats and bourgeois people since the beginning. However, as well as for the other Italian thermal centers, the first years of twentieth century saw the transformation of thermal springs in a genuine touristic destination for the elite of that age. The Belle Époque splendors are reflected by the magnificent halls (firstly by the magnificent Salone dei Balli), by the prestigious suites facing the Conca di Bormio, by the plasters and the frescos in the most elegant and charming Liberty style. The lucky guests, coming from the USA and from England, from Russia and from Prussia, from Germany, from France and from Belgium, went to the town by stagecoach and the hotel carriage went to take them, together with their servants, to the hotel. Their charmed sojourns lasted even two or three months at that time and took place entirely between the thermae and the Grand Hotel. They were very admired by Bormio people, who saw the guests passing and observed them from afar in the shop windows lightened by electric light, that only the hotel had in that age. That’s how stories turned to legends: from the count who always came back to the same day of every year, exactly at the same hour; to the jinx pharmacist whose coming was tied with accidents and hitches; from a poet of Saint Petersburg who composed nonsense poems, to the uncombed psychiatrist with funny nervous tics that stopped just thanking to the salutary and relaxing waters.