31 Jan The history of the bathroom
The desire to sanitize one’s body is part of all civilizations starting with prehistoric man. The bathroom was born from this desire, which has led man to seek ever more innovative and pleasant shapes for the individual.
The term hygiene comes from the Greek and it means healthy, containing a close link with the feeling of well-being. During the past, the meaning of “feeling good” only related to health, over time it enriched itself with meanings related to human needs. American psychologist Henry Murray in the 1930s hypothesized that need is an instinctive concept, inherent in every individual. In the 1950s, another American psychologist Abraham Maslow enunciated the concept of need by describing a pyramid divided into five levels starting from the most elementary ones, linked to survival, to the most complex ones. Man goes through the various stages and realises his aspirations progressively. It transits from behaviors dictated by basic survival needs to more advanced ones linked to the spiritual and emotional sphere.
Probably the notion of hygiene was born with the experience already in ancient times.
Those who survived created an idea of hygiene linked above all to the maintenance of food. Individual care comes later, closely linked to the first operation, as after the meal there is a need to clean up one’s body and make it efficient.
The world of art often documents the practice of bathing, the use of water, and the strongly symbolic value of the source. The wall paintings and many canvases made by artists belonging to different eras describing water themes try to link the sphere of the sacred to that of the profane through symbols of purification and rebirth.
It also links the history of the bathroom to a double path, one to hygiene and another to the pleasure limited to water. Each of these areas continued its journey separately, especially during the historical periods in which one had more value than the other, up to the modern age, when the bathroom assumes that physiognomy of completeness in enclosing both the space intended for hygiene than the one dedicated to the pleasure of body care.
The ancient Egyptians already made use of a hygienic type of legislation relating to what we now call social medicine. They had specific rules for the burial of the deceased and many requirements for the maintenance of domestic homes, for food and for public relations. Water played a very important role, it was the primary source of sustenance and a purifying element. The bathrooms were present in the wealthiest homes with a natural shower. There is talk of the discovery of a bathroom with copper pipes within the walls of some pyramids.
Following the Egyptians there was the Babylonian people who, with their own laws and prescriptions, contributed to the development of medical science. Also, for this tradition, the relative hygiene rules played a very important role; the cleanliness of the individual was especially significant for children and priests, and they showed particular attention to the preservation of food.
Cisterns and pipelines were in use for the water that brought supplies to the homes and the rich hanging gardens. They equipped the wealthiest residences with a bathroom in which to bathe with perfumed ointments. The palace of Sargon, founder of the Akkad dynasty, had latrines similar to modern ones that discharged outside the palace into individual cesspits.
Cretan civilization made use of underground water disposal systems. The remains of the Queen’s bathroom, in the Palace of Minos in Knossos, has walls decorated with black and white frescoes, in the center of which were placed the supports for the tub, also richly decorated.
In the Jewish tradition, only priests could deal with medicine and they carried out their profession accompanying it to specific ceremonies. Of course, the purification of the body served as an offering of elevation in the face of divinity. The distinction between purity and impurity extended to the moral and physical spheres. We can consider the laws against leprosy the first model of health legislation.
Hygiene also played a very important role in Indian medicine. The religious cult showed strict dietary requirements, care for one’s body, especially for the eyes, considered the mirror of the soul. The attention to the care of the body derived not only from the spiritual sphere but also from the fear of contracting serious diseases.
The ancient Greeks used to delight in high-temperature thermal baths, with the addition of scented and therapeutic oils for massages, very similar to those used today in modern wellness centers. They had the consolidated habit of using a small container containing lukewarm water to rinse their fingers during, or at the end, of a meal. The purpose of this activity reflects a therapeutic and hedonistic significance at the same time.
The songs of Homer illustrate the practice of purifying rites with the use of water before entering the temple of the god of medicine, Aesculapius.
They also practiced body care after physical exercise in gymnasiums, when young people took a bath to prepare for the lesson taught by the philosophers. We found remains of bath tubs in an almost upright position, while in the domestic bathrooms diving tubs similar to ours win nowadays.
They recommended the bath with cold water for men of culture, in fact, Pythagoras recommended to his disciples to immerse themselves in cold baths and to consume a vegetarian diet. Hippocrates of Kos, an Athenian doctor, urged the use of cold and hot hydrotherapy, but always applied correctly. He used both fresh and sea water, often adding honey and vinegar.
The relationship with water continues to maintain a purifying meaning, linked to rebirth, as in many frescoes, in the tomb of the Diver in Paestum, represents a figure diving into a body of water towards an infinite dimension. In Knossos, on the island of Crete, King Minos built a large and elegant palace with a dedicated bathroom where a beautiful basin for sacred ablutions was located, linked to the ritual of purification.