History of Porretta Terme
History of Porretta Terme
The thermal baths of Porretta have over 2000 years, and legend says it was thanks to a sick ox, unable to hold the plow and set free by his owner, that the properties of the waters were discovered: the ox quenched his thirst at the thermal spring – which was later called Polecat – during one of his wanderings, and got its strength back. Since then, the healed ox is the emblem of the Baths of Porretta.
The history of Porretta’s thermal station is over-millennial, extended and very articulate.
As for the ancient times, most of the information can be deduced indirectly from the writings and statements of scholars, extrapolating data and news on vestiges of the classical era discovered in the vicinity of the thermal springs of Bagni della Porretta, which pass on testimony of the existence and the antiquity of the thermal waters’ use in this area.
Nonetheless, we have also a direct source to witness the existence of hot springs at least since Roman Times: this is the famous mask depicting the face of a lion, symbol of the Baths of Porretta in the past. The marble effigy, retrieved along the bed of the Rio Maggiore in 1888, goes back to the first century of our era.
The discovery of fragments of a statue of the Etruscan era is then already a hint that these people knew, and were using, the waters of Porretta.
The centuries of the High Middle Ages haven’t handed down any historical document, neither archaeological nor written, telling us about Porretta’s spas.
Only in the twelfth century, Porretta and its spas are beginning to be mentioned in several documents, and since the second half of the fourteenth century, the interest in the baths begins to intensify, especially by the Bologna’s political power. At the same period, the construction of the first community hotels dates back, and the town starts to take shape as it is currently, under the name ‘Bagni della Porretta’ (Baths of Porretta).
The reputation of Porretta and its thermal baths in the field of female infertility was such that the famous merchant Francesco di Marco Datini wrote about it in letters included in its trade correspondence, in 1387.
Even Niccolò Machiavelli quotes them in “The Mandrake” (Act I – Scene II): “Besides this, I spoke last night to several doctors. One says that I shall go to San Filippo, another one says to Porretta, and the other at the Villa“.
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the interest of Princes and Lords of the Italian Renaissance increased in Porretta Terme. Lorenzo the Magnificent, Bianca Cappello wife of Francesco I de’Medici, Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, who had the famous painter Andrea Mantegna among his followers, Giovanni Visconti Sforza first husband of Lucrezia Borgia.
The baths in the modern age
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century the experimental method develops invading, with the Enlightenment, all the fields of knowledge and will be reflected on the more or less empirical knowledges on the mineral waters and their mechanism of action that were known back then.
This time for Porretta Terme coincides with the county’s government of the Ranuzzi family, during which a further development of the spas is operated, resulting in the commercialization of waters and salts derived from there.
Spa treatments are still, at this time, the privilege of few and the access to Porretta is hampered by the inaccessibility of the place, which would last until the construction of the TransApennine Railroad, as well as insufficient hotel accommodation.
The Lordship of Ranuzzi ended with the French Revolution, when Porretta became part of the Napoleonic Empire, then it passed under the Papal States in 1814 and in the Kingdom of Italy in 1859.
Regarding the road and rail links, the development of the territory – and in particular of Porretta – has long been affected by the lack of adequate and safe connections with the major cities of Emilia and Tuscany.
The SS 64 Porrettana was completed only in 1847, after thirty years of work, but was unable to meet the needs of the traveler, because of poor security and uncertainty over the duration of the trip.
After a series of disputes, in 1851 the Austrian Government, the duchies of Parma and Modena, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States signed an agreement for the construction of the railway, called “Central Italy’s Iron Road” (Railway track), which would connect Piacenza to Pistoia; the stretch Bologna – Porretta Terme – Pistoia was started in 1856.
A work of that magnitude had never been realized in Italy until that moment: in fact, the line in the section concerned is characterized by the presence of 47 tunnels on a 133 km path. The work was undertaken with great speed and in 1863 the new railway line was opened to the Bath of Porretta by Vittorio Emanuele II, and the following year was opened to regular traffic.
The Porretta’s station became a leading stopover at national level, a necessary step in the connection between Central and Northern Italy.
The railway has contributed significantly to the economic and social development of the populations of the Reno Valley, breaking their old isolation.
The nineteenth century is the period of the great renewal of hydrology, both from the doctrinal and practical point of view. In this century, thermal structures undergo an architectural revolution, with majestic reconstructions, often carried out without respecting the vestiges of the past, though. Many important finds were destroyed, as it happened in Porretta with the construction of the new Lion-Ox establishment, built on the ancient thermal foundation.
The baths were frequented by a selected audience, represented by the ruling class of the time, the bourgeois society that saw in the thermal town a place of leisure and recreation, besides an opportunity for treatment. This century represented the apex for the Baths of Porretta, with an inflow of bathers never materialized in the past.
Thus, the 1800s coincided with a period of great development of the spa and Porretta at once, which was determined and decisive for a number of phenomena: the construction of new roads, railways, new factories, increased collaboration with the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Bologna.
The twentieth century
After the unification of Italy, the influx of people underwent a sharp and steady increase. The fame of the therapeutic properties of thermal waters of Porretta spread in the peninsula and abroad, and numerous medical conferences were held in Porretta in those years.
The newspapers spoke often of Porretta’s spa in their chronicles, from which protruded slices of interesting and special thermal life came out, rich of curious episodes as well as important events for the life and development of the thermal station. Porretta was a lively and fashionable spa.
There were many opera singers who came here to restore and fortify their precious vocal cords with inhalation treatment. Among the many, it is worth to mention Adelina Patti, Gemma Bellincioni, Alessandro Bonci, Giuseppe Borgatti, Ezio Pinza, Toti Dal Monte, Gino Bechi.
In the second half of the 1900, thermal tourism becomes a mass phenomenon: in addition to the many writers, painters, singing artists who had designed it as their ideal spa, along with all the aristocracy of culture and art, thousands of people begin to reach Porretta, attracted by the fame of its waters.
The origins of the name Porretta
A curiosity. Demetrio Lorenzini, chemist, geologist and botanist, born and raised in Porretta between 1834 and 1910, author of “Guide to the Baths of Porretta“, claimed that the name comes from Porretta “a poor parish church dedicated to Saint Nicolai of Poreda”, also the name of an old castle already destroyed in the war between the Bolognese citizens and those of the Sambuca Pistoiese area.
The sanctuary of the “Madonna del Ponte” (Madonna of the bridge)
The cult linked to the worship of the sacred image of the Madonna is traced back to 1249, a time when the effectiveness of the thermal springs of the city was experienced.
The first building was a Majesty, whose back wall was made up of the rock on which the Madonna was painted.
At the Sanctuary, built between 1578 and 1585, many miraculous events occurred promptly, and they were documented by historical texts and numerous preserved ex-votos; the best known of which is certainly the one that occurred around the 1599, when forty pilgrims, returning from the shrine, were involved in the collapse of the bridge remaining unharmed.
In 1599, it was decided to rebuild the old wooden bridge in masonry, connecting the Sanctuary with the current state highway Porrettana in that stretch carved into the rock.
Porretta Terme today
Since the difficulties of the last few decades, as a result of the termination of social thermalism (1987), on which the Baths and the city based most of their tourism flows, new initiatives are engaging in 2016, aiming at renewing Porretta Terme under all points of view, and to bring them back soon to their former glory with a modern twist.