‘It’s as if we found oil’: Tuscan town savours discovery of spa trove

San Casciano dei Bagni’s fortunes expected to change after opulent Etruscan-Roman sanctuary found

Since she was a child, Martina Canuti has been venturing down the steep hill flanking the Tuscan town of San Casciano dei Bagni, known by residents as “the sacred mountain”, to take a dip in the two ancient hot springs famed for their therapeutic benefits.

Little did she know that just a few metres away lay a sanctuary built by the Etruscans in the second century BC, containing a trove of treasures that could now reverse the fortunes of this relatively isolated town of 1,400 inhabitants near Siena.

“We used to gather at the springs for parties too,” said Canuti. “It is odd to think that these treasures were so close by, but then again we were always curious as to why nothing relevant had ever been found. This is an area rich in spas built by the Etruscans and Romans, and plenty of relics had been found in towns nearby, so why not in San Casciano dei Bagni?”

Agnese Carletti, the town’s mayor, was curious too. Supported by funding from the government and private donors, she helped to set in motion an archaeological project that led to the discovery of 24 bronze statues, mostly dedicated to the gods, buried by mud and boiling water in the ruins of a network of thermal springs that had been a place of worship for both the Etruscans and Romans.

“It’s as if we found oil,” Carletti said. “Maybe all these gods are now bringing us some good fortune.” She said she hoped the find would trigger a tourism boost in a town facing economic challenges because of depopulation.

San Casciano dei Bagni.
San Casciano dei Bagni. Photograph: Fani Kurti/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The bronzes - the largest discovery of their kind in Italy – included a sleeping ephebe lying next to Hygeia, the goddess of health, with a snake wrapped around her arm, and a statue dedicated to Apollo, the god of sun and light.

The statues, which experts have said were commissioned by wealthy families in the area, once adorned the rim of the oval-shaped baths before being immersed into the water in a ceremony believed to have occurred in the first century AD.

Along with the bronzes more than 6,000 coins were found along with numerous votives, including small figurines.
Along with the bronzes more than 6,000 coins were found along with numerous votives, including small figurines. Photograph: Beni Culturali/Sintesi/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

Excavations have also unearthed 6,000 coins, along with an array of votives. These include small figurines depicting the palm of a hand holding money, a penis, a pair of breasts and a child wrapped in swaddling clothes that would have been offered up to the gods and holy water in the hope of bringing conception or general good luck.

The project, which residents have affectionately likened to one that might have been undertaken by Indiana Jones, is led by Dr Jacopo Tabolli, an assistant professor at the University for Foreigners in Siena.

Some of the bronzes from the site.
Some of the bronzes from the site. Photograph: Beni Culturali/Sintesi/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

He said the sanctuary, which was made more opulent during the Roman period, when it was frequented by emperors including Augustus, remained active until the 5th century AD, before being closed down, but not destroyed, during Christian times. The pools were sealed with heavy stone pillars while the divine statues were left in the water, which was rich in minerals, including calcium and magnesium.

“This water was considered great for the liver, for treating facial pain, for helping with fertility,” said Tabolli. “There was a lot of ritualistic practice connected to pregnancy, so the theme of natality was extremely important. But this was definitely not drinkable water, as it’s poisonous.”

Etruscan and Roman inscriptions have also been found at the site, and Tabolli said the artefacts uncovered so far represented an important testament to the transition between the two historical periods, with the baths being considered a haven of peace.

The Christian era put paid to the site being used for pagan rituals, but the baths next to the sanctuary and others dotted around the Tuscan countryside attracted visitors from across Europe during Renaissance times.

Excavations at the Etruscan-Roman sanctuary in San Casciano dei Bagni.
Excavations at the Etruscan-Roman sanctuary in San Casciano dei Bagni. Photograph: Beni Culturali/Sintesi/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

In 1585, the Medicis created a structure at the site and during excavations they found relics, including altars, that were then brought to the nearby Roman baths of Fontaverde, where the Florentine banking family built a palace, which today is a five-star wellness resort.

Fontaverde has captured most of the hot-spring fame to date, but the discoveries at San Casciano dei Bagni are creating a buzz in the town. The relics will be restored and further studies undertaken over the next few months before eventually being housed in a museum that will be created in a 16th-century building recently bought by the Italian ministry of culture.

More treasures are expected to be discovered when excavations resume next summer, with the site eventually being turned into an archaeological park.

Bathing in the thermal springs under the light of a full moon on Thursday, the existence of the adjacent cordoned-off archaeological delight also came as a surprise to Sabrina Lepri, a visitor from Perugia.

“I was wondering what was behind the fence,” she said. “I’ve been coming here for 25 years, I love the springs for their natural wildness. Every time I emerge from the baths my skin feels incredible, as if I’ve had a massage. I hope the newfound fame doesn’t change things too much.”


Angela Giuffrida in San Casciano dei Bagni

The GuardianTramp

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