Blog. 29 August 2023

Wellness in History

Written by Angela Munari

Wellness in History

In Venice between the 15th and 19th centuries


We often give the term wellness a contemporary space-time collocation, considering this “state” an achievement of recent decades, or at most, going back in centuries a “classical” dimension, with the iconic vision of Greco-Roman physical beauty and monumental thermalism. But are we sure that this is exactly how things were? That over the centuries other answers to the innate need for “being well” were not sought and found?

Let us try to trace its genesis and main solutions in the Venice, and its surroundings, of the past.



To understand the relationship between health, natural resources, climate, water, and quality of life in the amphibious city par excellence, where every choice has been a challenge to resilience, we must start with a key word like balance. In only a few other places have the environment, people and the polis balanced and fused with such harmony as to help create the myth of the “saluberrima” city. Here the “well-being” of citizens soon became a right, thanks to a careful health care organization centered on the concept of protecting the entire social “body,” with a wide range of offerings for all budgets.

With Humanism and the Renaissance, after centuries of mortification, man once again became the undisputed protagonist of Nature, his body being the center and proportion of all things. Care and physical beauty are imposed as a necessity and a value. The practice of artificial thermalism thus spreads to many Italian and European cities, including Venice, where, towards the end of the 15th century, there is a widespread presence of stoves, centers inspired by Turkish baths and Roman spas with a decidedly more erotic and less monumental character.

The supply is concentrated in the commercial and financial area of Rialto, given the constant passage of merchants, travelers, tourists, and potential customers. The spaces designed to accommodate the stoves are divided into a few rooms: the fornacetta, reminiscent of the hypocaustum in Roman baths, where water is heated, the dressing room, the room with the vapor baths, and the rooms for overnight stays. The range of services offered by the stufaioli, or stuèri, is really wide: massages, depilation, haircuts and hair dyeing, aesthetic services of various kinds, female and non-female companionship, music concerts, catering, medical care and pharmaceutical advice.




The stoves often benefit from the advice of musk-makers, the perfumers, whose name derives from a secretion of a particular type of deer, called musk, of aromatári (herbalists), of apothecaries (pharmacists) and of soap-makers (saponai), located with their stores mostly in the realtina area. The art of perfumery, also understood as aromatherapy, could in fact draw on a vast availability of raw materials of animal and vegetable origin coming from the East for the distillation of medicinal waters and for the manufacture of essential oils, perfumed pastes, soaps and cosmetics.

Hundreds of handwritten and printed cookbooks circulated in Venice between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, proposing all kinds of solutions, ranging from body care to perfumed baths, from soap making to making poisons against lice, bedbugs and crabs, from

teeth whitening to fabric whitening. “Mild and useful,” pleasant and beneficent odors play a central role in determining the state of olfactory well-being of Venetians, who are always struggling with exhalations and hygienic difficulties.

Several types of resins are used for this purpose: dragant, laudanum, mastic, myrrh, and storax. The latter lends itself in the many uses, as incense, as an infusion in rose waters, as an emollient or as a poultice. Plants, in the form of flowers, fruits, roots or barks, also form the basic ingredients of many fragrant waters and pastes: carnations, roses, sage, basil, mint, nutmeg, ginger, gentian, elderberry and the ever-present orange peel. Excellent fragrant oils are made from the flowers. Some cookbooks already describe the technique of enfleurage, the preparation of essential oils through cold extraction.


Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Republic of Venice revised the function of stoves, precisely regulating their services and accentuating their medical character. The new artificial thermalism is thus co-designed by physicians, architects, and artisans, who together redesign complex environments and equipment for therapeutic baths, showers, and walled tubs (semi-cupboards). Treatments also conquer a “domestic” dimension, thanks to the installation of fixed, and mobile showers, or closet stoves, equipped with seats with recesses for head support, stoves for producing hot-humid vapors, doors and windows for ventilation, and thermometers for constant temperature control.


In the same centuries the range of services offered by artificial thermalism was added, in the Veneto State, to those of natural thermalism. In fact, in the Euganean Hills area historically concentrated the most important baths, frequented, since the Roman age, by a large number of vacationers attracted by the beneficial properties of mineral waters. From the General Plan of the elevations of all the factories of 1789, contained in the treatise Dei bagni di Abano by the physician Salvatore Mandruzzato, we can see the articulation, extension and endowments of the bathing facilities, which, in addition to rooms for baths and showers, counted numerous lodgings, stores and taverns. Which confirms the Serenissima’s attention to tourist accommodation and the resulting economic spin-offs.




After the end of the Republic, already from the early nineteenth century and then throughout the century, Venice differentiated its tourist proposal, promoting itself as a maritime seaside resort. Along St. Mark’s Basin and along the banks of the main canals, veritable saltwater establishments sprang up, equipped with a variety of comforts: hydrotherapy rooms, small rooms in which to rest, cafes, and outdoor loggias for sunbathing and diving. Wealthier clients can also rent boats for travel in the Lagoon, equipped in a similar way to boat platforms.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, spa Venice steadily multiplied its range of offerings, structuring genuine tourist packages for different types of customers. Fashionable hotels and inns welcomed increasingly discerning guests, constantly seeking wellness, physical fitness and new experiences. Venice is thus rediscovering the functionality of the Lido and its potential seaside vocation. After some feedback, the Lido Baths Society begins construction of the Grand Hotel des Bains, the historic hotel destined to pave the way for the international seaside resort.


Angela Munari

Historian and librarian at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice.

She holds a degree in Economic and Social History from Ca’ Foscari University Venice and specializes in Archivistics and Library Science from La Sapienza University of Rome.

Since 2004 she has been working at Fondazione Querini Stampalia, as librarian, conservator of the ancient book collection and co-curator of educational activities. From 2006 to 2019 she was contract conservator of the Cabinet of Prints and Antique Book Fund of the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice. Since 2009 she has collaborated in the project “Atlante Veneto, coordinated in partnership by the Regione del Veneto (Direzione Beni Culturali), Regional Secretariat and the Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricerche, in the formulation of catalographic standards for cartography. She was president of the Italian Library Association of Veneto, from 2015 to 2019. Since 2018 she has been a member of the Commissions for Graphics and Cartography of the Central Institute for the Unique Catalogue of Italian Libraries. Since 2021 she has been a Director on the Board of Directors of the National Central Library of Florence.

Over the years she has curated several exhibitions and exhibition catalogs on the social history of Venice.

Other publications and collaborations include: The “Memoirs” of Lodovico Manin, 1796-1802 in Al servizio dell’ “amatissima patria,” edited by Dorit Raines, Venice, Marsilio, 1997; First Lights of the Press. Catalog of the Incunabula of the Libraries of Polesine, edited by Pierluigi Bagatin, Treviso, Antilia, 2002; To the Hope of Fine Arts. The Camaldolese Fund of S. Michele di Murano in the Library of the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice, in San Michele in Isola. Isola della conoscenza.Ottocento anni di storia e cultura camaldolesi nella laguna di Venezia, edited by Paolo Eleuteri, Turin, UTET, 2012; Dalla materia metallica al pensiero,in Bruno Starita.Maestri. Accademia Belle Arti di Napoli, Naples, Artem, 2013; The bankers of “family”: the Bonfils and the Querinis of Santa Maria Formosa, in Venice, Jews and Europe 1516-2016, Venice, Marsilio, 2016; La misura del Bello. The Library of the Venice Academy of Fine Arts in the Years of Leopoldo Cicognara, in The Venice Academy of Fine Arts. The Nineteenth Century. Tomo I, edited by N. Stringa, Crocetta del Montello, Antiga, 2016; Giacomo Quarenghi and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, Cinesello Balsamo, Silvana editore, 2018; Venezia in festa, Venice, Gambier&Keller, 2019





At the Sources of Pleasure. The spa and bathing civilization between care and leisure, ed.

by Nelli-Elena Vanzan Marchini, Milan, Leonardo, 1999

Nelli-Elena Vanzan Marchini, Le Terme di Venezia, Ciso Veneto, Cierre, 2015

Sabrina Minuzzi, On the Thread of Secrets, Milan, Unicopli, 2016

Anna Messinis, History of perfume in Venice, Venice, Lineadacqua, 2018



Vitruvius, De architectura, Como, Gottardo da Ponte, 1521

Opera noua entitled Dificio di ricette, Venice, Giovanni Antonio & fratelli Nicolini da Sabio, 1532

Ricettario fiorentino di nuovo illustrato, Florence, Vincenzo Vangelisti & Piero Matini, 1670

Mauro Soldo, Descrizione degl’instrumenti, delle macchine e delle suppellettili raccolte ad uso chirurgico e medico, Fidenza, 1766

Salvatore Mandruzzato, Dei bagni di Abano Terme, Padua, Giovambattista e figli Penda, 1789

Andrea Palladio, Le terme dei romani, replicate da Ottavio Bertotti Scamozzi, Vicenza, Giovanni Rossi, 1797