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Roman Architecture - Thermae

( Originally Published 1921 )



The Thermae (Gk. thermos = hot) or palatial public baths of Imperial Rome, which were probably derived from the Greek Gymnasia, portray, even in their ruin, the manners and customs of the pleasure-loving populace and are as characteristic of Roman civilisation as are the amphitheatres. The principal ruins of therm in Italy are at Rome and Pompeii, and much can be learned of their former magnificence from the drawings of Palladio, made in the sixteenth century, when they were in a better state of preservation than now, while students of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts have also worked out some imaginative restorations. The thermae were not only designed for luxurious bathing, but were resorted to for news and gossip, and served, like a. modern club, as a rendezvous of social life besides being used for lectures and athletic sports, and indeed entered largely into the daily life of the Imperial City. A small entrance charge of a quadrans (i farthing) was sometimes made, but in later times they were opened free to the populace by emperors in search of popularity. The thermae were under the management of the " aediles " ; there were also " balneatores " to take the entrance money, and janitors to guard the doors, with a staff of attendants, including anointers, manicurists, barbers, shampooers, besides stokers, lamplighters, and hundreds of slaves to make the process of bathing a luxurious relaxation.

The thermae were generally raised on a high platform within an enclosing wall, and underneath were the furnaces and rooms connected with the service of the establishment, which usually consisted of three main parts, as shown in the Thermae of Caracalla (p. 158 B) and Diocletian.

(a) A great central structure. This contained the " tepidarium," or warm lounge ; the " calidarium," or hot room; with a hot-water bath ; the " sudatorium " (" laconium "), or hottest room, and the " frigidarium," or cooling-room, with its " piscina," or swimming-bath, all of which were devoted to bathing somewhat on the system of the modern Turkish bath. There were also " apodyteria," or dressing-rooms, and " unctoria," for oils and unguents, where the " aliptor" shampooed, oiled, sanded, and anointed the bathers and scraped the skin with the " strigillus." A " sphaeristerium " for games of ball, a library, and small theatre were occasionally included in the central structure.

(b) A large open space. This was a park-like enclosure surrounding the central structure, planted with trees and ornamented with statues and fountains. Part of it was used as a stadium with raised seats at the side for spectators ; and here various athletic sports took place, such as wrestling, racing, jumping, and boxing.

(c) An outer ring of apartments. These included lecture rooms and exedrae for philosophers, poets, and statesmen ; while colonnades, a feature of all open spaces in Rome, served as a protection from the sun. A large reservoir fed by a special aqueduct supplied the frigidarium, tepidarium, and calidarium. Other apartments were let off as shops or accommodated the numerous slaves of the establishment.

The Thermae of Caracalla, Rome (A.D. 212235) (pp. 135 K, L, 158), with accommodation for 1,600 bathers, give a splendid idea of the size and magnificence of these establishments for although now in ruins, the relative positions of tepidarium, calidarium, frigidarium, sphaeristeria, apodyteria, and other apartments can still be traced. The Thermae stood on a platform 20 ft. high, measuring over one-fifth of a mile each way, and underneath were the vaulted store-chambers, corridors, furnaces, hypocausts and hot-air ducts for heating the buildings (p. 158). A colonnade on the entrance side screened two storeys forming shops on the ground level and " slipper " baths on the platform level. The main entrance led to the park-like enclosure, laid out for wrestling and games, around which were grouped halls for dramatic representations and lectures. On the opposite side of the platform and beyond the stadium was the great vaulted reservoir of water supplied by the Marcian Aqueduct, heated by furnaces and carried through leaden pipes to the thermae proper. The central building, used entirely for bathing, measured 750 ft. by 38o ft, thus covering an area of 285,000 sq. ft., i.e. about equal to Westminster Palace, and larger than either the British Museum or the Royal Courts of Justice, London. There were only four doorways on the north-east side, which was exposed to cold winds ; but large columned openings to the gardens were a feature of the south-west side. The symmetrical planning of this building on axial lines gave vistas through the various halls and saloons, while exedrae and screens of columns prevented any loss of scale and emphasised the vastness of the building.

The tepidarium was the controlling feature of the plan and around it the subsidiary apartments were grouped (p. 158 B). It was 183 ft. by 79 ft., roofed with an immense semicircular, intersecting vault of concrete, in three compartments 108 ft. high, which rested on eight massive piers of masonry fronted with granite columns 38 ft. high and 5 ft. 4 ins. in diameter, supporting short pieces of entablature (p. 135 L). This great apartment was lighted by clear-story windows in the walls under the intersecting vaults, which rose above the roofs of adjoining halls, as in the Thermae of Diocletian (p. 161 A) and the Basilica of Constantine.

(D, F). The calidarium on the south side was reached through an ante-room and may have had a dome similar to that of the Pantheon, while special attention was given to heating this apartment by wall flues (p. 158). The frigidarium was probably centrally open to the sky, and this open-air swimming-bath formed a welcome retreat during the hot and sultry months in the Imperial City (p. 158 A). Many tons of metal joists found below the ground suggest that it may have been partly roofed in and probably cased with bronze. The interior, unlike the exterior; was evidently elaborately decorated, in marked contrast to Greek methods. Pavements were formed of bright-coloured mosaics in geometrical patterns or with figures of athletes the lower parts of the concrete walls were sheathed with many-coloured marbles, and the upper parts with painted and modelled stucco ; the great columns under the vault springers were of granite, porphyry, giallo antico, alabaster or other rare marbles from the AEgean Islands. Various coloured marble columns were used constructively to support the upper balconies and peristyle roofs, and decoratively to form, with their entablatures and pediments, frames for the super-imposed niches in the walls. The great vaults were also richly ornamented with coffering, bold figure decorations in black and white, or coloured-glass mosaic.

These magnificent halls sheltered some of the finest sculpture of antiquity, which was brought from Greece or executed by Greek artists in Rome. During the excavation of the thermae in the Renaissance period many of these masterpieces of art were removed to the Vatican and other museums in Rome, whence later some were carried off to the museums of Europe. Additional interest was given to interiors by the perpetual streams of running water which, issuing from the mouths of lions sculptured in marble or wrought in brightly polished silver, fell into marble basins and produced a delicious coolness in hot, sultry weather. The exteriors of these great thermae appear to have been treated very plainly in stucco, or left as impressive masses of plain brickwork, perhaps banded with bricks of a contrasting colour.

The Therm of Agrippa, Rome (B.C. 27), which were the earliest, have disappeared, but the drawings of Palladio give an idea of their plan and general appearance.

The Thermae of Titus, Rome (A.D. 80), stood on a great platform, partly over the foundations of Nero's Golden House on the Esquiline Hill, and when excavated about A.D. 1500 many remarkable frescoes (p. 194 B) were discovered, which had considerable influence on the painting of that period, and some of the finest statues of antiquity, such as the Laocoon group, found their way into the art galleries of Europe.

The Thermae of Diocletian, Rome (A.D. 302) (p. 161), which accommodated over 3,000 bathers, resembled the Baths of Caracalla in their general distribution (p. 161 D). The tepidarium, zoo ft. long by 8o ft. wide and 90 ft. high, is covered with the original cross vaulting of concrete (p. 135 M), springing from eight monolithic columns of Egyptian granite, 50 ft. high and 5 ft. in diameter, with Composite capitals of white marble, supporting an ornamental entablature (p. 161 A). This tepidarium is of special interest, first because it gives the general appearance of these great halls, and secondly because it was converted by Michelangelo, in A.D.1563, into the Church of S.M. degli Angeli. A choir was added on one side by Vanvitelli (A.D. 1749), which converted the nave into a transept. The restorations of the frigidarium (p. 161 n) and the ephebeum (p. 161 H) give a good idea of the sumptuous character of the building.

The unbounded licence of the public baths, which were resorted to for all sorts of dissipation, brought them under the ban of the Early Christians, who held that bathing might be practised for cleanliness, but not for pleasure. Then in the fifth century the thermae fell further into disuse and decay, owing to the destruction of aqueducts by the Huns, and also to the decrease of the population. Later they served as quarries for Mediaeval and Renaissance builders.

The Balneum or small private bath was very usual in Roman palaces (p. 183 n) and houses, and under the Republic gave its name to public baths, which were simpler in character than the later thermae of the Empire, in which bathing became secondary to luxury and entertainment. The Older Therm, Pompeii, and the Stabian Thermae, Pompeii, are on the lines of these small public baths.

Wherever the Romans settled they built thermae for the people, and thus at that notable Roman city of Timgad, North Africa, there are the ruins of no less than eleven of these sumptuous thermal establishments. At Bath in England, the " Aqua Solis " of the Romans, the most remarkable thermae in existence have been unearthed, where the hot water still gushes up and flows through the massive leaden conduit into the great swimming-bath. The Romans also used slipper baths, many of which were beautifully carved.

The Minerva Medica, Rome (p. 231 A, B), is now generally regarded as a nympheum of the Baths of Gallienus (A.D. 266) ; for the absence of a hypocaust and of flue tiles preclude it from having been used as a calidarium, It is decagonal on plan, 8o ft. in diameter, with semicircular niches on nine sides and the entrance on the tenth. Just below the dome there were ten large windows which would give light and air to the growing 'plants. The dome, which bears a remarkable similarity to that of S. Vitale, Ravenna (p. 230), is of concrete, ribbed with tiles. It is particularly interesting because here roughly formed pendentives were first employed to set a circular dome on a decagonal base (p. 135 N), a device further developed by the Byzantines. Here too buttresses, at given points, admitted of thinner walls, and thus was foreshadowed a more complicated system than that of the uniform wall which supported the dome of the Pantheon. This was indeed a step towards the elaborate structural system, dependent upon elasticity and equilibrium, which wrought such a miraculous architectural change in Mediaeval times.



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