We are not the only ones seeking youth. In fact, the idea of a fountain of youth has always roused man’s imagination, even in ancient times. And guess what? Ancient man found it. And guess what? It was volcanic. And guess where it was? Ischia.

The Greeks on Ischia mentioned the Nitrodi Springs in poetry and lore as the springs of medicinal water sacred to Apollo and the nymphs of “Nitrodes.”  While they saw the healing effects of the waters on their bodies, they could not explain the mechanism by which it happened. Enter our old, irrascible giant, Typhon. As you recall from the last episode, Typhon lost a battle against Zeus and was buried under Ischia. When all his violent shaking and spewing of volcanic debris did not free him, he started to cry. Yes, Typhon the big bully giant started to cry so hard and so pitifully that the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite was moved to free him and she turned his tears into thermal waters with healing powers.

And so, the construction of a place of worship alongside the thermal font at Nitrodi reflected  the ancient belief in a connection between the water’s special healing power and the magical forces of this gift from the gods which was meant to cure the ailments of mankind. Ancient civilizations once believed that a healthy body, as opposed to an unhealthy one, was better able to spiritually connect with the gods.

A relief in the form of a triptych. In the lateral spaces, the Dioscuri. At the center, the three nymphs depicted as the graces. At the bottom, the personification of a spring. From the collection at  Naples, Archaeological Museum.

The ancient Greeks were devoted to their pursuit of ‘medicine’ as a science separate from philosophy and theology. They were the first to begin to look into what components the thermal waters possessed to allow healing of various ailments and rendering the body youthful. Hippocrates, often referred to as the father of medicine, in his ‘Use of Liquids’ treatise, praised the properties of mineral water and hot springs.

In 1759 farmers near Barano discovered a series of marble votive offerings depicting nymphs. The twelve marble reliefs dedicated to the Nymphs of Nitrodi date from the first century B.C. to third century A.D. We can see the names of those who had been cured and made these offerings, such as Poppaea Augusta, who thanked Apollo and the Nymphs. In the first century A.D. a doctor Menippus, “Menippos iatròs upalpinos” (Menippos, from the near side of the Alps) came to Nitrodi from Northern Italy. Later, two other doctors: “Aur (elius) Monnus” and “Num (erius) Fabius” came to study the waters and treat patients.

Bas relief of the Nymphs of Nitrodi. Center one is holding a shell to receive and distribute water. The two on the sides hold water vessels.

Pliny and Strabo echoed the Greeks about the healing waters of Ischia and under Roman rule, the springs became public baths propagating their widespread use. Yet unfortunately, for hundreds of years after, the waters of Ischia and other historic spas and springs would be forgotten, as the Medieval belief was that these sulfurous waters bubbling up from the underbelly of the earth were satanic in nature.

The Springs of Nitrodi have been operating for over 2,000 years.

In the late 1500’s, however, a physician from Calabria, Giulio Iasolino, provided the first analysis of the island’s spring waters. He studied the therapeutic  properties of Ischia’s springs for fourteen years and assembled his findings in a  two volume work, ‘De’ rimedi naturali che sono nell’isola Pithaecusa, hoggi detta  Ischia’. (Natural remedies on the island of Pithaecusa, known today as Ischia). Each font and spa was analyzed and classified according to its composition and distinctive properties. First published in 1588, it is still the oldest, most consummate treatise on medical hydrology.Although Professor Iasolino’s early study had focused on the health effects of the springs, he later noted the aesthetic benefits. “Women who regularly wash their clothes in it and use it for other purposes benefit,” he wrote. “Such women are beautiful and keep their bodies healthy.” In fact, recent times have seen a transition from the strictly curative focus of the thermal springs to beauty and well being.

Reprints of historic books regarding the quality, chemical composition and health benefits of the waters of Ischia

In the 1600’s, Pio Monte della Misericordia, a clinic for the poor, was built at Casamicciola Terme, taking advantage of the thermal treatments from the Gurgitello, Fornello and Fontana springs. These thermal water cures were supplemented by steam and sauna treatments in natural grottoes at nearby Lacco Ameno or fumaroles, like those of Testaccio.

Over time, Ischia’s thermal waters became more and more renowned. During the 19th century, Sebastian Kneipp, a German priest often considered one of the founders of naturopathic medicine, also studied and applied hydrotherapy to support medical treatment. Based on a system of controlled water temperatures and pressures, the ‘Kneipp’ pools became a standard feature in Ischia’s thermal centers.

The hero of the Unification of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi, arrived in 1864 to treat injuries sustained during the battle of Aspermonte. Hotel Manzi & Spa, located in the town of Casamicciola, has preserved the original bath where he soaked his wounds.The terrible earthquakes of the 1880’s which destroyed Casamicciola and caused extensive damage and loss of life on the island was the deathnell for the thermal spa industry until its resurgence in the 1950’s.

Description of the waters from Regina Isabella, from a book published in the late 1800’s. The book lists the major locations of thermal waters and springs, lists their chemical composition and their therapeutic benefits.

These commentaries and testimonials remained almost relegated to cult status until 1918. In that year, Marie Curie came to Ischia with fellow scientists to study the thermal springs of Ischia. In testing the waters, she found something interesting: they were radioactive. She, herself had discovered radium in 1898, added the element to the chemical periodic chart and coined the word radioactive. With her discovery of the presence of radon (the gaseous form of radium) in the waters of Ischia, there was new interest in the historic documents and testimonials associated with thermal springs.

It seemed that science had caught up with tradition and validated that which early man already knew.

Next Up: Ischia – Mystery of the Thermal Waters