In the culturally and historically rich province of Tuscany in central Italy there is an old way of blessing someone verbally. It translates into the phrase “…from the warm waters of San Casciano dei Bagni,” in reference to the healing powers of the hot springs in the Tuscany region. San Casciano dei Bagni’s long history and much of its identity is connected to its hot springs: 42 in all, through which 5.5 million liters of fresh water flows every day, the third largest source in Europe.
In August 2020, a European team of archaeologists, representing the universities of Siena, Pisa, Florence, Dublin, and Cyprus, found a spa and “an international sanctuary of great importance” according to Jacopo Tabolli, coordinator of the excavation committee called the “Roman Baths Project,” as reported on the local news site StraNotizie.
The findings were published in a volume titled “ Il Santuario Ritrovato: Nuovi Scavi e Scoperte al Bagno Grande di San Casciano dei Bagni, Livorno ,” which included contributions from 30 academic scholars and researchers.
The ancient and modern bathroom in San Casciano dei Bagni ( Municipality of San Casciano dei Bagni / Stranotizie)
The Discoveries Unearthed at the San Casciano dei Bagni Site
Commissioned by the municipality of San Casciano dei Bagni, under the tutelage of General Directorate of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape, Italy, the original purpose of the project was to restore the thermal baths to their former splendor. This project had been in the pipeline for over 15 years, and it was only the discoveries that came after the Apollo sanctuary find that made it a truly amazing archaeological site.
Parts of the newly revealed sanctualy at San Casciano dei Bagni, Siena. ( Municipality of San Casciano dei Bagni )
The travertine (sedimentary stone) altar with a Latin inscription that revealed it to be a sacred shrine to Apollo was discovered near the monumental entrance of the sanctuary.
What followed was another discovery, an altar dedicated to the Roman goddess of fortune and luck, Fortuna Primigenia . The only other previously discovered sanctuary to the goddess was discovered in Palestrina, just south of Rome, which is a popular heritage site.
Another altar was discovered that was dedicated to the divine mother goddess of ancient Egypt, Isis.
Finally, a marble statue of Hygeia, deity of health and daughter of Asclepius, the healing god, was discovered at the site.
This left the excavation team in no doubt about the sacred and healing nature of the baths, and the respective sanctuaries that are located adjacent next to the pools of the Bagno Grande (or Great Bath).
The other miraculous discovery was that the flowing waters had a temperature of 42°C (108°F) in Roman times, which remains the same even today.
A marble statue of Hygeia, deity of health and daughter of Asclepius, the healing god, discovered at the site. ( Municipality of San Casciano dei Bagni )
Tracing the History of the Sanctuary
The stratigraphic excavation, carried out through a muddy garden adjoining the spring, was dated to the Augustan age (between 27 BC and 14 AD).
“In just two months of excavation, the sequence of the cult site’s history emerged clearly. The monumental layout of the sanctuary can be traced back to the Augustan age: it is a structure built on a sacred site from Etruscan times and which was also frequented during the Hellenistic period. In the Augustan age the sanctuary took the form of a building with a compluvium roof over a central circular basin, resting on four Tuscan columns, and with a southern entrance propylaeum bordered by two columns with an Attic base.”
The Roman inscription found at the Apollo sanctuary at San Casciano dei Bagni. ( Municipality of San Casciano dei Bagni )
It was towards the end of the 2 nd century AD when the three travertine altars were built in dedication to Fortuna, Isis, and Hygeia, right at the edge of the hot spring tub, in the heart of the sanctuary. By the 4 th century AD, the sanctuary lost its earlier relevance due to the spread of Christianity, and the building was dismantled, but the baths continued to be used.
Roman inscriptions dedicated to the hot springs of Bagno Grande have been known since the middle of the 16 th century. In fact, the Medici of Florence built their baths in the adjacent valley, using ancient marble presumably quarried from this site (in the 15 th and 16 th centuries).
The excavations at the San Casciano dei Bagni site are slated to continue over the next few years, with the goal of restoring the ancient pools with water and restoring the baths for public use.
Top image: The San Casciano dei Bagni ancient Roman bath site (left), next to the modern baths. Source: Municipality of San Casciano dei Bagni