The Turkish Bath
The Turkish Bath (1862) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is an extraordinarily sensuous depiction of communal bathing in the 19th century. Completed when the artist was 82 years old, the widely reproduced masterpiece resides in the Louvre in Paris.
thousands of bathers at the same time and included facilities for exercise and sports, food vendors, and attendants who offered the modern-day equivalent of spa treatments. Not to be outdone, each emperor strived to create even grander thermae than his predecessor, using marble, colorful mosaics, and precious metals to adorn these impressive spaces and their magnificent vaulted ceilings. And to ensure the ruler’s popularity, entrance fees were minimal so nearly everyone could afford admission.
In ancient Rome, the baths were a way of life. Every afternoon throngs of people men and women, young and old, aristocrat and pauper concluded their workday with a trip to the baths. Bathing became a symbol of Rome, something that made them feel superior to other societies. That attitude might have been supercilious, but one has to give the Romans accolades for their architectural and engineering prowess. The baths were essentially a series of rooms and pools, all warmed by hypocaust, a system that
heated the raised floors and walls by channeling heat and steam from wood fires through a network of earthenware pipes. The system was so effective that the baths’ water and floors could be heated beyond the boiling point. To prevent heat blisters on their feet, bathers often wore sandals.
The Roman bath was ritualized, and bathers proceeded through a series of rooms in a specific order. First was the apodyterium, the dressing room where bathers would leave their clothing under the watchful eye of a servant or slave. Next was the palaestra, or gymnasium, where bathers were oiled down before performing exercises. From here, patrons moved into thefrigidarium for a cold plunge bath. Then it was quickly on to the tep-idarium, or warm room. The caldarium, or hot room, was next. This steamy chamber contained a hot plunge bath (or labrum). After some time in the soothing mist, the bather would have a servant or friend scrape off the oil from the bather’s skin using a spe- , cial tool called a strigil.
Homer and other writers tell us that the Greeks also enjoyed the hot-air bath, called laconicum. Though many people attribute the sauna concept to the Finnish, it was the people of Laconica, the ancient region of Greece whose capital was Sparta, who conceived the idea of creating a hot-air bath by heating rocks. Today, however, the sauna is synonymous with the Finnish lifestyle, with more saunas per capita in Finland than cars.
After the caldarium or laconicum, the Roman bather would return to the apody-terium via the tepidarium and frigidarium. The bather might then take a brisk swim in the natatio, or outdoor swimming pool. To keep the baths as clean as possible, aqueducts, an engineering marvel borrowed from the Greeks, brought fresh, clean water to the city and other areas of the empire.
Like many modern health spas, the ancient baths catered to a culture that thrived on pleasure and leisure. However, they were also used for medicinal purposes. Often a physician would prescribe a particular room at the bath for a patient to visit, depending on his or her diagnosis.
Despite their reputation for healing the sick, the baths were not endorsed by Christians, who called the thermae cathedrals of flesh. During the Dark Ages, the stately sanctuaries fell to ruin. Unfortunately, it took centuries for western Europe to rediscover the healthful benefits of hot-water baths, dry-heat baths, and steam baths. And recent years have brought the most dramatic advances in hot tub, sauna, and steam bath technology. What were primarily amenities for four-star hotels, fitness clubs, and health spas are increasingly making their way into homes across America.
Whether you’re interested in hot tubs, saunas, steam baths, or all three, this book.
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