The ‘miraculous’ waters of Acquasanta …

20 July, 2010

One of Palermo’s most interesting five-star hotels, the Villa Igiea, sits on a rocky headland overlooking the Bay of Palermo, just north of the city centre.  Below it, at the bottom of sheer rocky cliffs, is the tiny fishing village of Acquasanta, so called because of the curative thermal waters that have flowed through its rocky caverns since ancient times.  By the end of the 19th century, these ‘miraculous’ waters were attracting the rich and famous to the thermal baths that had been established there; now the thermal baths are deserted and the precious waters left to flow into the sea.  Acquasanta has seen better days.  If they come to this part of the world at all, the rich and famous are now likely to remain on top of the cliff at Villa Igea, completely unaware of the existence of the little village of Acquasanta and its precious waters below.  

Villa Igea’s history, however, is closely linked to that of Acquasanta and its healing waters.  There are those who wish that its future might be too.        

Some tantalising remains of Acquasanta’s past still exist.  In a rocky cliff face at the back of  the little beach, you will find a locked iron gate barring the entrance to a cave that contains the remains of the Church of the Madonna of Acquasanta and its thermal spring, part of a complex of thermal caves that exists in the rocky coastline between Acquasanta and nearby Aranella.  Exactly when this cave became a Christian church is not clear.  Some scholars suggest the beginning of the 11th century, a time when Sicily was, in fact, ruled by the Arabs.  It seems that in ancient times, the cave had been used as a pagan sanctuary.    

The church has been abandoned and neglected for years.  Only a part of one of the four altars that originally existed, still remains; the frescos that once adorned the walls have long gone; and the thermal spring that once existed inside the cave is no more.  The waters have been diverted.   A few, very few, of the old tiles remain on the floor, and outside, above the entrance, there are still some maiolica tiles with a design of bunches of grapes surrounding the words ‘Grotta dell’Acquasanta’. 

At the end of the 18th century, the area surrounding Acquasanta and the Church of the Madonna passed to a Sicilian nobleman, Baron Mariano Lanterna who proceeded to build a small, but particularly gracious villa close to the beach, but, surprisingly, facing away from it.  By the 20th century, the Baron’s villa had become a sad, but still beautiful ruin facing the main road just beneath Villa Igiea.  Now, at last, it is being restored, but the restoration is controversial.  The villa is to become a private luxury residence, but who has acquired it and how remains a mystery.  Locals suggest that, as so often happens here, the authorities have disposed of the building illegally and that it will end up in the hands of someone influential who has paid very little for it.   

Close by the Villa are the remains of the thermal baths that were established there in 1871 by the Pandolfo brothers.  By 1891-92, Acquasanta’s thermal waters had won a prize at the National Exhibition in Palermo and the thermal baths were attracting the rich and famous.  A chemical analysis that has been carried out by the University shows that the waters have the same characteristics as the waters of the Tamerici spring at the well-known thermal resort of Montecatini in Tuscany.  Possibly only in Palermo would such precious waters be left to flow into the sea!   

When Acquasanta’s thermal baths were at the height of their fame, the building that is now the Villa Igiea, and the area surrounding it, had been acquired by a wealthy Englishman, a retired Admiral by the name of Cecil Domville.  The locals seem to have regarded Domville as  decidedly eccentric, largely because every morning at the same time he would swim in the sea below his house, whatever the weather and however rough the seas.  I was curious to know more about this man; in particular, how he had come to acquire a picturesque cliff-top house on this idyllic part of the Sicilian coastline.  So far, I haven’t been able to find out very much.  It seems that in 1897 he acquired a rather grand country estate in England, Chantry Park at Ipswich in Suffolk, and a year later inherited a baronetcy from his uncle, William Henry Domville.  It was at about this time that he sold his house at Acquasanta to the well-known Palermo entrepreneur,  businessman and socialite, Ignazio Florio.  It is reported that Domville and his family lived at Chantry Park “lavishly in the Edwardian style” until 1904, when he died in a riding accident at the age of 54.    In the words of Gaetano Basile, a local Palermo writer: “Everyone was amazed that [Domville] died from a banal fall from a horse and not among the breakers”.      

Ignazio Florio did not intend to live in the house he acquired from Domville.  His intention was to capitalise on Acquasanta’s reputation and Palermo’s mild winter by establishing a luxurious sanitarium there.  It soon became clear, however, that the sanitarium was not a viable financial proposition.  As was pointed out at the time ‘Not all millionaires have TB, and most people who have TB do not have the money to frequent an establishment like Villa Igiea’.   After major alterations, the sanitarium was transformed into a luxury hotel.

During the Second World War the area was bombed, and the little church of the Madonna of Acquasanta served as an air raid shelter.  Soon after the War, the mineral baths were closed and, like Villa Lanterna, the premises gradually fell into a state of disrepair.  They too are now being restored. 

Several years ago an article about Acquasanta and its thermal waters appeared in the Italian newspaper La Reppublica.  The article referred to the beauty of this part of the coastline and commented that it would be wonderful if Villa Igiea, probably the only entity in the area in a position to do so, were to  create a new thermal centre, or take over the old one, making use once again of the precious waters that flow through these seaside caverns and restoring Acquasanta to its place as one of Italy’s most sought-after thermal centres.

4 Responses to “The ‘miraculous’ waters of Acquasanta …”

  1. CateM Says:

    I agree that it would be wonderful if Villa Igiea created a new thermal centre! It would surely be a great drawcard for the hotel. Have you swum in the area where the waters flow out into the sea in order to reap the benefits? Is it possible to swim there? I enjoyed your post although it made me feel sad to think of the old thermal centre sitting there in such disrepair.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Acquasanta’s recent history is rather sad. I haven’t swum in the sea there as I gather the waters are now polluted. Higher up in the cliffs though, the thermal waters are still pure. It is a pity they are not being used. The old thermal bath building itself is currently being restored, along with the nearby Villa Lanterna. Hopefully, that might be the beginning of better things. Thank you for the comment.

  2. Antonio Says:

    Amazing tale! I would also like to see the thermal baths again active and would love to partake of them – unless they are still reserved for the rich and famous!

    • kateludlow Says:

      I’m afraid it’s probably going to be a long time before the thermal baths are active again, but at least the building itself is being restored and that’s something. Many thanks for the comment.

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