In the Middle Ages and the early modern period, the thermal baths at Baden im Aargau played host to scores of distinguished visitors. These esteemed guests had access to exclusive baths and bathing areas with special amenities, and some of these areas are still preserved today.
Andrea Schaer is a freelance archaeologist, cultural historian and author.
The baths at Baden im Aargau have been a popular attraction since the High Middle Ages. The place name “ze Badun” (near the baths), which was documented as early as the 11th century, shows how important the thermal spas were in that period. Archaeological remains indicate a large-scale expansion of the Baden baths during the 11th and 12th centuries. Not only were renovations made to individual baths constructed in the Roman era and possibly in continuous use since then, such as the St Verenabad, but a number of new hot springs were also opened up.
Bathing pools were created at the newly opened springs. To begin with these pools were probably open-air, but pavilion-style bathhouses were soon constructed around them. The bathhouses gave bathers protection from the weather and also afforded a certain degree of seclusion. Nearby the pool areas were the earliest accommodation facilities, which were probably relatively unsophisticated at first.The bathing pools in those days were large communal pools. Individual pools sat directly above the spring catchment. Not only could the freshly upwelling water be enjoyed in its purest form, but the continuous gushing water and the rising gas bubbles gave the sensation of being in a bubbling whirlpool bath. These baths were called “Kesselbäder”, or kettle baths; in Baden, “Kessel” was the usual term for the spring catchment. There is little doubt that the “Kesselbäder” were the most exclusive of all bathing facilities. Only the “Hinterhof” and “Staadhof” inns and the “Ochsen” and “Bären” guesthouses, and the St Verenabad, which served as a bath for the poor, were able to offer this amenity.Architect Mario Botta has preserved the “Kesselbad” of the “Hinterhof” in the basement of the new Baden thermal baths, and it is open to the public. In the medieval period, it was the inn’s largest pool. Despite its name, however, it was not directly above the spring, but about 40 metres away from it. The water was channelled to the pool via a pipeline made of wooden tubing (known as Teucheln), and fed into the “Kessel” through a feedline (a Düker) in a lead pipe under the pool. This was the only way that the Hinterhof – which at the time was the main spa inn – could offer its guests the ultimate bathing experience.From the middle of the 14th century, the Habsburg rulers began to transfer ownership of the properties in the Baden baths, complete with springs and water rights, to the innkeepers. As a result of this, and probably thanks also to the ever-growing demand for more and more spa facilities and accommodation in the hugely popular spa town, inns and bathhouses started coalescing into single units. The bathhouses were now enclosed bathing cellars.
In “De Balneis”, the compendium of baths printed in Venice by Tommaso Di Giunta, Zurich polymath Conrad Gessner described one of these bathing rooms in the Baden inn, later the Hotel Ochsen, in 1553. Gessner calls the bathing room, which was reached by descending several flights of stairs into a basement, “Hell”. What Gessner doesn’t mention is that the spring that has its source in “Hell” and feeds the bath there is called, as befits a life-giving mineral spring, Paradiesquelle (Paradise Spring)!The archaeological and historical investigations of recent years have not only made it possible to pinpoint the exact location of the bathing room Gessner described, but have also shed light on the remarkable architectural history of the building.
The bathing room originated as a bathhouse built in the 13th century, probably on the site of an older predecessor. This bathhouse contained a communal bath fed by the Paradise Spring. The trapezoidal bathhouse, built against the steep slope, at one time featured three early Gothic travertine arches opening onto a courtyard or onto the Bäderplatz (the present-day Kurplatz), which may have been larger at the time. A balcony above the bathroom could be entered through an archway. This may have been one of the galleries described in 1416 by the Florentine humanist Giovanni Francesco Poggio Bracciolini.
The bathhouse above the Paradiesquelle is probably the “Beschlossene Bad” (balneum clausum) described in a number of documents in the 14th century as a Habsburg entailment, reserved for a select group of bathers.In the 16th century the bathhouse was incorporated into the buildings of the Gasthaus Ochsen, a smaller private bath was added and the archways were sealed over. This is the state in which Conrad Gessner would have seen the room. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, a change in bathing culture led to the large communal baths above the Paradiesquelle being abandoned. The bathhouse with the built-on private bath was now divided into six small bathing rooms, and baths were also built in the adjacent basement areas. With minor modifications, these baths remained in operation into the 20th century as therapeutic baths. They are currently being incorporated into the structure of the rehabilitation clinic being built at the site. The rooms are not open to the public.
The “Kesselbad” and the bathhouse in the “Ochsen” give a vivid picture of the development of the bathing infrastructure in the town’s bathing pools, inns and hotels from the High Middle Ages to the 20th century. North of the Alps, they are unique witnesses to Baden’s history as a spa town and to continental bathing culture.
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