CNR IBAM|TERME ACHILLIANE
c/o Palazzo Ingrassia - via Biblioteca, 4 - 95124 Catania
Tel: +39 095 311981
Fax: +39 095 311981
IMMERSIVE ARCHAEOLOGY AND DIGITAL COMMUNICATION LAB. IBAM / CATANIA
MUSEO DIOCESANO CATANIA
Via Etnea, 8 - 95124 Catania
Tel.: +39 095 281635
Fax: +39 178 2249116
COMUNE DI CATANIA
Via Vittorio Emnuele II, 121
Tel.: +39 095 742 80 35
The "Achillian" Baths are numbered amongst the principal public bathing establishments of Roman date which survive in Catania, alongside the Terme dell'Indirizzo and the Terme della Rotonda, and constitute a mysterious and highly suggestive place. They are located beneath the Piazza Duomo and may be reached through a narrow underground passage next to the principal façade of the Cathedral.
The name derives from a fragmentary Greek inscription on a slab of Carrara marble, found around the middle of the 18th century. The inscription, attributable to the middle of the 5th century AD, is currently on display in the Museo Civico of Castello Ursino in Catania.
Early studies and interventions
The bath complex was discovered in 16th century, when Bolano associated it with a Temple of Bacchus, whose foundations were thought to have been reused for the construction of the baths. The first intervention was made by Ignazio Paternò Castello, Prince of Biscari, around the middle of the 18th century. At that time, the rooms which were visible were emptied of soil and mud, facilitating the study by Pancrazi and the drawing by Pigonati. Indeed, prior to that, the emergence of the springs of the Amenano would have made it impossible to reach the floor-level of the building; for this reason, the waters were diverted and an access stairway to the east of the East Door of the Cathedral was created.
In 1767, the Prince of Biscari made an opening to the baths through a trapdoor which opened directly into the Piazza del Duomo in front of the façade of the Cathedral. Between 1776 and 1779, the baths were visited and drawn by Jean Houel. In 1828, the Royal Commission for Antiquities and Fine Arts moved the entrance to the baths to the corner between the Cathedral and the Palazzo del Seminario dei Chierici. A spiral staircase led to and underground passage, and through this one reached the Roman building. Today, however, it is possible to enter by means of a stairway on the south side of the forecourt of the Cathedral.
The excavation of the building was carried out in 1856 and start again in 1882 under the direction of Sciuto Patti, Royal inspector of Excavations and Ancient Monuments for Catania; he exposed the paving of the main hall and several lengths of conduits which pass around it, together with many fragments of worked marble (cornices and fragments of inscriptions).
The investigations carried out in the course of the 20th century, at the time of the restoration of the Palazzo del Seminario dei Chierici and within the Cathedral, made it possible to verify that part of the medieval cathedral was built directly upon the piers of the arcades in the Roman building.
Campaigns of excavation
Between 2003 and 2005, the Superintendency for Cultural Heritage and Antiquities of Catania carried out new interventions on the occasion of the consolidation and refurbishment of the paving of the piazza. The bath building was covered in part by a massive steel plate in order to reinforce the support of the piazza above. Archaeological investigations were carried out both inside and outside the building, both concerning the rooms which were already known and enabling the identification of new spaces. A detailed survey of the structure has enabled its precise topographic relationship with the Cathedral and the piazza to be determined.
The part of the building complex which can be visited today includes the main hall, know as “Hall of Piers”, off which opens a series of rooms, some of which are linked to it by a corridor along the south side. This, covered by a barrel-vault and about 18m long, leads to four rooms of uncertain purpose. The area has yielded numerous fragments of late Roman and mediaeval pottery, which demonstrate the continued use of the building.
The meagre stratigraphic data obtained from the various excavation campaigns, together with the analysis of structural details, have made it possible to date the first bath building to the 2nd century AD; while a second building phase, observable in the east wall of the main hall, must belong to the mid-5th century AD. The latter must have constituted an elongated rectangle in the first phase, while it was probably re-shaped in the second phase, reducing its size.
Following refurbishments in late antiquity, the main hall is now more-or-less square in outline (11 m from north to south and 11.90 m from east to west). The vaulted ceiling of the hall, whose extraordinary figurative decoration can still be admired, was covered with stucco protraying cupids, vine scrolls and bunches of grapes. Along its own sides is a conduit 0.70 m wide, linked to the channel system found in the long corridor which flanks the hall on the south. The paving of the hall was a fine work in opus sectile, composed of re-used slabs, of which the impressions remain in the mortar bedding. In the centre of the hall is a basin, originally veneered with marble, in the centre of which would have stood a small column. During the first phase, the height of the piers would have appeared greater than it does now, for in fact the present paving dates from a complex remodelling of the building which involved its raising up. As one passes along the corridor, there is on the left a room which has yielded the only remains of the heating system (a hypocaust with piers composed of cylindrical bricks). In this same room have been found the remains of a staircase, indicating the existence of an upper floor to the bath complex, which must have occupied more than one level.