Steam baths were part of Rikli’s water-air-light therapy.
Steam baths were part of Arnold Rikli’s water-air-light therapy. Digital Library of Slovenia

The naked sun doctor

Opinions were divided on naturopath Arnold Rikli. He delivered his holistic form of treatment, which involved bathing in the nude, at a sanatorium he had set up himself. Not in Switzerland, but in what is now Slovenia. The Monte Verità counterculture group was inspired, ultimately, by many of Rikli’s ideas and practices.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

Rikli’s parents actually had something quite different in mind for their son; no one would have imagined he would one day become a “charlatan” and “Robinson of the Alps”. Arnold Rikli was born in Wangen an der Aare in 1823. His father, Abraham Friedrich Rikli, was an influential politician and owned a successful dye works. Arnold Rikli began his professional career at the age of 20 as an assistant at his father’s dye works. But even then, the young man had very different interests from those of his father. He was passionate about naturopathy, and carried out experiments with natural healing methods.
Old town of Wangen an der Aare in a drawing by Ludwig Rudolf von Effinger, ca. 1845.
Old town of Wangen an der Aare in a drawing by Ludwig Rudolf von Effinger, ca. 1845. Swiss National Museum
For context, bear in mind that we’re talking about the middle of the 19th century, when industrialisation and agricultural innovation had many unwanted knock-on effects. There were issues such as worker impoverishment, and adverse effects on health. Rickets, asthma and tuberculosis, but also illnesses caused by vitamin deficiencies, blighted the day-to-day lives of many. Rikli realised this, and based his healing methods on the curative power of water, air and sunlight. In order to get out from under his father’s thumb, he married at the young age of 21 and left his home village a year later. In 1845 he and his brothers Karl and Rudolf established a yarn dyeing operation at Seebach in Upper Carinthia. At Seebach he felt a much closer connection with naturopathy and “Wasserheilkunst”, the healing power of water, as he called it: “I began to advise our sick workers on hydriatic types of application.” He also experimented with new equipment, and designed an original device for giving bed steam baths. Rikli was known in the area as the “Wasserarzt”, or water doctor. Initial good results with his healing methods prompted him to focus entirely on this area.
Portrait of Arnold Rikli, ca. 1870.
Portrait of Arnold Rikli, ca. 1870. Vojko Zavodnik
In 1854, at the age of 31, Arnold Rikli finally stepped away from the dyeing business and relocated so that he could devote himself entirely to his passion. He didn’t go back to his homeland because, with the attitude to nudity in prudish Switzerland, it would not have been possible for him to achieve his vision. So Rikli and his family settled on the shores of an Alpine lake in Veldes, and he established his own sanatorium. At that time, the area was part of the Habsburg monarchy and was located in the Upper Carniola region. Today, the place is called Bled and is in Slovenia.
Bled as a postcard subject, ca. 1935.
Bled as a postcard subject, ca. 1935. Národní muzeum
Self-made man Rikli had great success in treating mostly chronic, non-life-threatening symptoms, and he soon gathered around himself a group of devotees, the “Riklianer” (they were jokingly also referred to as “Rikli Indians” because of their scanty clothing). Rikli prescribed combined water-air-sunlight therapies for his patients. That sounds a bit more abstract than it actually is. In concrete terms, he recommended something very simple to his patients: he wanted them to spend time naked in the open air in the Rikli air parks, doing exercises and swimming. Rikli also recommended a vegetarian diet. The “Sonnenarzt”, the sun doctor, as he was called, always received the sick barefoot and wearing minimal clothing. There are pictures showing him wearing nothing but a set of underpants that looks like a nappy. What seems weird, or even silly, today was bold and controversial back then. Rikli was the pioneer of nudism per se, long before naturism, Freikörperkultur and nudism existed as formal concepts. In his cures, he relied on the alternating stimulus of water, air and sunlight, which he believed would restore physical and mental balance. Rikli reduced his motto to a rhyme:

Water is good, of course, but it won’t do it all; air is better, and sunlight best of all!

Arnold Rikli
The “sun doctor” was in his element in Veldes, ca. 1875.
The “sun doctor” was in his element in Veldes, ca. 1875. Vojko Zavodnik
The self-proclaimed doctor Rikli, who had never seen the inside of a university, didn’t make any friends with his attitude and behaviour. For one thing, he went against the prevailing moral standards, especially in strictly Catholic Veldes, by encouraging naked bathing. Some local residents even equated him with the devil. He also made some serious mistakes. Pompously overestimating his own capabilities, he treated cases of serious illness, and his types of therapy failed: smallpox patients died under his treatment! Rikli scoffed at academic medicine as a “fantastical therapeutic theory”, disputed the efficacy of vaccinations, considered operations unnecessary and fundamentally doubted the value of scientific studies. As a result he was frequently condemned by legitimate doctors, and was dragged in front of the courts on numerous occasions. These people called him not “Sonnenarzt” (sun doctor), but “Narrenarzt” (charlatan). Rikli didn’t care; he disseminated his sometimes crude views in medical publications, which were widely circulated. Rikli concluded after years of struggle that “People would be much healthier if we didn’t have any doctors.”
Rikli’s therapies involved a lot of skin. Not everyone was happy about that.
Rikli’s therapies involved a lot of skin. Not everyone was happy about that. Vojko Zavodnik
Rikli’s boundless self-confidence as a naturopath was based on his successes. His real target clientele for his treatments was not the workers from the factories, but well-off citizens from the big cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who could afford his relatively expensive cures. 56 “Lufthütte” (air huts) were available for patients’ use, and in 1895 it became necessary to build a second set of spa treatment rooms. Thanks to Rikli, Veldes (later Bled) soon developed into a leading spa town. The Swiss naturopath put the region, previously almost untouched by tourism, on the international map; even Yugoslav President Tito made Bled his summer residence. Today, the picturesque town with its lake is one of Slovenia’s main tourist drawcards.

The germ of Monte Verità

Among those who came to Rikli’s sanatorium for relaxation and recuperation were renowned writer Franz Kafka and anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner. Another who came to have treatment at the sanatorium was a former army officer, Karl Gräser. In Rikli’s sunlight and air huts, Gräser struck up a friendship with Ida Hofmann, a piano teacher from Transylvania, and Henri Oedenkoven, the son and heir of a prominent Belgian industrialist. What the three had in common was that they despised bourgeois conventions and sought a life of freedom. The trio discussed their beliefs and ideas, and in 1900, together with a group of other individuals who wished to opt out of society, they established their own institution, Monte Verità in Ascona, also featuring “light and air huts” based on Rikli’s model. While Monte Verità became world renowned, Rikli’s spa facility in Bled fell into obscurity after the collapse of the Danube monarchy, and vanished behind the Iron Curtain. In recent years, however, that has changed and Slovenia is actively wooing visitors from Switzerland.
Arnold Rikli’s air huts were copied in many places.
Arnold Rikli’s air huts were copied in many places. Vojko Zavodnik
Not just in Ticino, but in many other places as well, Rikli’s air huts set a precedent.
Not just in Ticino, but in many other places as well, Rikli’s air huts set a precedent. Internet Archive
The country honoured the Swiss pioneer in natural health treatment with a commemorative coin, the Medalja Arnolda Riklija. And in Bled itself, “Rikli’s sport days” have been a regular event for many years. Other events including the “Rikli tennis tournament”, “Rikli hikes”, the “Rikli mini golf tournament” and the “Rikli chess tournament” have also been held. And there is a Rikli monument in the forest. Today, the name Rikli is everywhere in the spa town.

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