It happens sometimes, while walking around Rome, to turn the corner and cross, without having an immediate awareness, invisible boundaries of the city that we notice only by contrast, when we realize we are alone in a background of a thousand-year-old scenario that has nothing to do with the present time.
This is what happened when, leaving behind me Piazza Mattei, one of the most beautiful and most photographed squares in Rome, I took Via di Sant’Ambrogio and at number 17, I found myself in front of the dark brown door of Acqua Madre: Mario Gammino’s hamam.
On the threshold, the hypnotic water’s roar from a fountain inside a travertine basin restored by Mario himself marks for me the passage into another dimension: silent, soft, light, perfumed. Liquid. Now it would be delightful to meditate in this aura of quietness that overcomes me but it’s the first time I meet Mario.
Anyway, entering the hamam, the questions I had prepared disappear from my head. I suddenly find it very difficult to maintain the role of interviewer, which is why I’m there. I realise it but I can’t do anything about it. Indeed, this awareness makes me feel embarrassed. Mario looks at me. He understandably expects a few questions after the “Buongiorno!” and I expect that too, to be honest. Instead, after having waited for a few seconds too long for an intelligent sentence, the only thing I can say as it is really time to say something is: “should I take my shoes off here?”
The tradition of the hamam was born in the Greco-Roman culture with the Thermae (Baths). In Rome, the first Baths were built by Agrippa in 25 B.C. in the area between Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via di Santa Chiara, right where now Vincenzo’s shop is. They were supplied by the so called “Virgin Aqueduct”, the only Roman aqueduct still working and which today feeds, among others, two famous fountains: the Trevi Fountain and the Barcaccia. The remains of this Baths are still visible in via dell’Arco della Ciambella and of course, since we are in a city that makes recycling a way to build itself eternally, inside these ruins, today there are houses.
Mario’s hamam too has been many other things before it became a hamam. The rooms downstairs were the old wash rooms of the building which dates back to the 18th century. The relaxation area, the space with the chaise lounge, was its inner courtyard, now enclosed by a large glass-panels. Even Mario had bought it to keep the tools of his work and then, probably deciding to “follow his genius” to paraphrase Marguerite Yourcenar, he transformed the warehouse into “Acqua Madre”, the place separated from the rest of the city by a dark brown door.
“No one – he says – believed that such an original idea could survive in such a hidden and secluded street in the centre of Rome, and also I sometimes thought I’d jumped into a too big adventure. However, while restoring this place, I felt that his true vocation was to build a hamam. And thirteen years have passed already since the opening-day”.
Mario is a kind person. We visit the massage rooms, the changing rooms (greek-latin: apodyterium), the rooms for lukewarm (latin: tepidarium), warm (latin: calidarium), cold (latin: frigidarium) baths. Maybe he doesn’t mind that I speak very little. After all, within these walls that are devoted to the care and well-being of the body, it is the feeling that dominates. In order to listen to it, you should do exactly what I do: be silent. I wander under the brick arches where the air is heavier, touch the travertine benches next to the water bowls with my fingers, lose myself inside this steam that makes things softer and kind.
When the tour finishes, something inside me finally wakes up and tries to go back up, climbing on any excuse just to stay a little longer in this enchanted place. But we’ve already arrived at the entrance and the attempt immediately loses momentum under the regular sound of the water flowing in the travertine pool. Next time! – I think.
When the dark brown door closes, I still stay a few minutes wandering around the silent street of Sant’Ambrogio, the antechamber of my personal Stargate today. Then I take a big breath, put on my sunglasses and turn the corner on Piazza Mattei again.