Stained-glass depicting spring source, Stabilimento Tettuccio, Montecatini Terme (Italy)

From 9-16 October 2016, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Kunsthistorisches Institut (KHI) in Florenz’ annual Studienkurs, Wasser-formen: Geschichte, Gestalt und Semantik eines Elements. A group of 14 of us were led by KHI to explore water throughout time and various media. As a scholar of ancient water–it was an incredible experience to interact with and listen to presentations by other young scholars on water, whether in Late Antique baptisteries, to Renaissance villas and gardens, to nineteenth-century painting and thermal bath complexes, and to contemporary art and film.


Canopus and Serapaeum, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli (Italy)

I gave two talks for the group: “The Architectural Structure of the Baths of Caracalla” and ” Hadrian’s Villa: The Role and Gestalt of Water in an Imperial Villa” (abstracts at the end of the post). While these were talks of two entirely different subjects, they both neatly laid the foundations for our subsequent discussions of water throughout time. Particularly at Hadrian’s Villa, where some have argued that water is omnipresent and guides the architectural design there, it was clear that water as an essential and vitalizing element of architecture.


Nymphaeum designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati (post 1550), Villa Giulia, Rome

Through our various discussions at different sites, there were so many themes related to water that I was pleased to see ran from antiquity to the present–issues that we are constantly grappling with, and trying to make sense of. There is the two-fold nature of water, as it is both life-giving and destructive. We are in awe and fear of this essential element, whether through the overuse of water in artificially-constructed villas or images of drowning victims in nineteenth-century paintings. There is also the control of water–which then allows humans to display it and enjoy its sensorial qualities, showing one’s own power and might. Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona uses the positive associations of water to show it literally becoming a positive force, creating pleasurable sensorial experiences through its impressive water-display. [See also: David Clarke’s, “The Place of Water in European Art,” in Water and Art: A Cross-Cultural Study of Water as Subject and Medium in Modern and Contemporary Artistic Practice, 19-75. London: Reaktion Books, 2010.]

It was also great to examine post-Antique sites that showed the continuity of our fascination with water–oftentimes in the same ways as the ancient Romans. For example, the Nymphaeum at the Villa Giulia, used as a private residence for Pope Julius III, employed the ancient waters associated with the Aqua Virgo–stressing the abundance associated with the pope, while also creating an idyllic escape on the outskirts of Rome, with water as its focal point. At Montecatini Terme, located between Florence and Pisa, is a site that has been used for its healing waters since at least the 8th century CE. The main building today, the Stabilimento Tettuccio, was constructed in 1922-1928–evoking the Belle Époque through classically-inspired architecture and Art Deco art. Just like the Romans, a spa site (including spaces for cultural events) grew up around naturally occurring springs, leading to an urban development–just as in the Roman period.


Galleria delle Bibite, with water from local sources and painted tiles by Basilio Cascella (1927), Stabilimento Tettuccio, Montecatini Terme (Italy)

I still am still reflecting on my time at the KHI, but I am sure that my research into ancient water-displays and their associated sensorial responses will continue to grow and develop because of it.

The Architectural Structure of the Baths of Caracalla

The Baths of Caracalla (ca. 200-220 CE) are one of the largest imperial thermae (monumental bathing complex) in the city of Rome. Dedicated by the emperor Caracalla (r. 198-217 CE), the Baths are located near the southeast edge of the city at an important urban crossroad, near the Porta Capena at the start of the via Appia. The complex employs pre-existing Roman bathing elements (e.g., frigidariumtepidariumcaldarium progression), but its sheer size and other features set this monument apart from other baths in Rome and the wider Roman Empire. On a terraced site of nearly 300 acres (ca. 1.2 km2), the main bathing nucleus was surrounded by a precinct that would have provided bathers with a variety of amenities, including libraries and spaces for cultural gatherings. The decoration inside the complex was luxurious, complete with imported marble, mosaics, sculpture of all sizes, and stucco work. The use of water, too, at these Baths, given its architectural design, was monumental. In addition to water being used for bathing and display, water would have been employed in more utilitarian uses, essential to the administration of the baths, including food preparation and laundry services. The Baths, particularly given their current state of preservation, provide insight into the running of a bathing establishment, especially the extensive underground network of passages that provided access to the ‘behind the scenes’ services, such as the furnaces used to heat the water of the hot rooms. This paper helps to illustrate how the architecture, both in terms of innovation and scale, impacted the social and cultural importance of bathing in the High Roman Empire (ca. first-third centuries CE).

Hadrian’s Villa: The Role and Gestalt of Water in an Imperial Villa

Hadrian’s Villa, located outside of Rome near modern Tivoli, was built between 118-123 CE, with subsequent additions over the following decade, by the emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE). The villa complex, comprising nearly 30 different buildings, covering nearly a square kilometer, is combination of public and private spaces for the emperor and his imperial retinue. Among the variety of spaces are residences, baths, dining areas, and receiving halls, in addition to the extensive network of utilitarian areas used to keep up the villa by a large staff. It is widely believed that Hadrian himself was the architect of many of the innovative spaces in the complex, and it is believed that many areas were modeled after places he had visited in his travels throughout the empire (e.g., the Canopus, modeled after a water-feature in Egypt). What ties the sprawling complex together is its use of water, particularly for display. There are at least 170 water installations in the villa, including fountains, pools, baths, and latrines. While water was omnipresent throughout the villa, it was used in a variety of ways, such as moving or still, as a focal point or in the periphery, and helping to complete a decorative program in a particular space. This paper seeks to understand better the role of water-displays in general of the villa, with special attention to the areas of the Canopus, Garden Stadium, and Piazza d’Oro. Water here added vitality and affected one’s sensorial experience of the villa space—making this a unique case study in the use of ancient Roman water-displays in both public and private spaces.


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