Sulfur: odor of rotten eggs, matchhead, volcanoes, gunpowder, and Lucifer down there in Hell’s fire and brimstone.
Also the smell that pervades thermal spas. Along with minerals such as sodium chloride, iodine, and calcium, sulfur is a key component of many therapeutic waters. Linked as it is with fire and corrosion, sulfur also has a storied association with the healing of numerous ailments, particularly respiratory and skin-related ones.
I’m “taking the waters” in Equi Terme, an Italian thermal center in the northernmost part of Tuscany, about an hour from my home. (Here in Italy in the autumn of 2019, a doctor’s prescription is all that’s needed for just about anyone to do what I’m doing; the cost of a fortnight’s worth of treatments is negligible.) During prehistoric times—fifty thousand years ago—the area around Equi Terme was inhabited by cave-dwelling humans and very large bears. The village itself was settled by ancient Romans; they built the first thermal center there. Starting in the mid-fourteenth century, Equi found itself under Florentine rule. The village lumbered along thereafter, propelled by events and forces beyond its control, until it crossed the border into the twentieth century, from which it does not appear to have advanced. Equi gives off the air of a place entirely stalled out. Not quite melancholy, not quite withdrawn, it seems to have accepted with equanimity its profound irrelevance. It simply sits still.
Equi’s decrepit train station (shutters drawn, door locked, parking area near-empty) communicates a very pure indifference to travelers. You can arrive or you can depart; nothing changes either way. This absence of concern is not unwelcoming; to me, it’s a relief. I have no need of greetings when I go to the second floor of Equi’s un-fancy spa, follow an attendant to a small room with a generously sized bathtub, listen for the door closing behind me, ease myself down into the acque termali, inhale sulfuric vapors, and feel as though I’ve stepped out of profluence and into stasis. I, too, simply sit still, and let the waters work upon me.
When burned, sulfur turns blue.
In gaseous form, it is an insulator.
Sulfur dissolves all metals but gold.
One naturally occurring sulfur compound is an iron sulfide called pyrite. Also known as fool’s gold because of its metallic sheen and golden hue, it was a source of ignition for firearms in the late Renaissance—particularly the wheellock pistol, a self-igniting gun with a rotating steel wheel.
The wheellock was also called a puffer.
Guncotton is the name of a highly flammable compound developed in the early nineteenth century. A so-called projectile driver, it enabled ammunition to be fired.
By the mid-nineteenth century, guncotton was considered too volatile and dangerous to use as a propellant. Over the next few decades, manufacturers developed a smokeless gunpowder that wouldn’t detonate unless compressed. Although ammunition produced with it wasn’t fully smokeless, the cartridges were smaller, lighter, and of higher velocity than their precursors.
None of this would’ve been possible without sulfuric acid—a colorless, odorless, syrupy, highly corrosive liquid. Sulfuric acid is also known as vitriol.
What we now call “water cures” were first devised several millennia ago.
In places where hot, mineral-rich water bubbled up from the earth, the ancient Greeks and Romans built thermal centers. There, people could convene to inhale, drink, bathe, and revel in the acqua termali. Ancient spas had libraries and gardens; they were social gathering-spots. Soldiers were sent there to recuperate.
That didn’t last. During the Middle Ages, water of any kind was often viewed as suspect, a spreader of sicknesses. Many people didn’t bathe for months or even years. The old thermal centers fell into ruin, and it wasn’t until the Renaissance that they started coming back into fashion in Europe. Doctors reevaluated the Roman baths from a scientific as well as aesthetic point of view, studying the chemical composition of thermal waters and prescribing them for diverse healing purposes. They made efforts to determine the mineral content of various waters, and published findings on treatment modalities. By the nineteenth century, spas were both curative and social centers—largely upper-class redoubts, where taking the waters was a matter of seeing and being seen. Ordinary people hunted for streams, pools, and caves where they could pursue water cures without needing to pay for them.
The man who invented the fully automatic submachine gun popularly known as the Tommy gun was John T. Thompson, a U.S. Army officer. His middle name, Taliaferro, was his Italo-American mother’s surname.
Thompson designed his weapon to serve as an efficient means of eliminating enemy soldiers flushed from the trenches during World War One. The gun was called a trench broom. American criminals and police alike deployed Tommy guns during the Prohibition years, as did the IRA in Ireland, the Nationalists in China, and various constabularies in Central and Latin America. Mobsters referred to the Tommy gun as the Chicago typewriter, the organ grinder, or the chopper.
During World War Two, over a million military Tommy guns were handed out to Allied troops. Highly effective during close combat, Tommy guns also proved useful for patrols behind enemy lines and in street fighting. The guns could fire between 600 and 800 rounds per minute, with a firing range of 150 meters. They used .45 caliber cartridges as ammunition—each with a propellant charge and projectile (bullet, in common parlance). To perform its function, the propellant charge required nitrocellulose, produced with the aid of a sulfuric acid catalyst. “A mouthful of lead”: what a victim got from a Tommy gun.
Equi Terme lies at the base of a gorge, directly below the dramatic Pizzo d’Uccello (Bird’s Peak) in the Alpi Apuane.
This portion of the Apuane mountains cuts through Lunigiana, a little-known area of northern Tuscany. Lunigiana isn’t Chianti-and-sunflower Tuscany; it’s the rugged, mountainous, riverine part of the region. Few people come to Lunigiana for its own sake. It’s a pass-through, historically and geographically fascinating yet mostly overlooked. As for Equi Terme, the village’s spa has never had the cachet of luxurious Italian thermal centers such as Saturnia, nor does it suggest the faded elegance of Salsomaggiore with its late-nineteenth-century imperial architecture. Equi’s thermal center is small, nondescript, and of middling reputation.
When you enter the spa, you find an old, red, large weigh-yourself scale by the door. Down a hallway near the check-in window, a glass vitrine showcases the spa’s cosmetic products, whose packaging is humdrum. At the back of the spa is a tiny bar that serves excellent coffee and mediocre pastries. Outdoors, an oval-shaped thermal pool (open only during the summer months, as its water isn’t particularly warm) is flanked on one end by a mulberry tree and a tall sycamore. Since it’s late October, cool and damp, the sycamore’s hairy sepals are now littering the ground. The scattered orbs remind me of cannon-shot—as though the sycamore had launched them at the mulberry.
When I lie in a tub on the spa’s second floor and stare at the windows before me, I see nothing: the glass is opaque.
I’m in a small private room; the tub takes up half of it. Overhead, a fluorescent lamp casts a slightly oily light. The room’s walls are of white tile, the floor’s gray; the window ledges, like the steps leading up to the spa’s second floor, are gray-streaked marble. Near the tub is a radiator over which a white towel, clean but frayed, has been draped; in one corner of the room is a pale-gray plastic chair on which I’ve strewn my clothing.
The tub’s fixtures recall Soviet-era plumbing in large Russian cities—rudimentary but serviceable. Short rubber hoses emerge from the spigots; a hand-held sprayer (not of the latest vintage) allows attendants to clean the tub after each use. The tubs are indeed clean: the dark ring left by the water gets scrubbed away after each session, and the tubs are refilled quickly with water set at whatever temperature the spa’s doctor has prescribed. Although the attendants are scrupulous about temperatures, one day I was told I could add hot water if my bath cooled—which I did, not only because I prefer my baths quite warm, but also because the room’s marble and dimness lend it the air of a cool, calm tomb.
The water level reaches to just below my shoulders. If I press downward to submerge myself more fully, the water presses back. Sometimes I feel I’m in a tiny sea, one that’s been siphoned off from some vast subterranean ocean of mineral-rich water and placed in a vat just for me.
When the twenty-minute buzzer sounds, I have to leave the tub.
Pliny the Elder wrote of sulfur’s medicinal and fumigant properties.
Medieval alchemists praised its cleansing properties, particularly for ailments of the skin. By the late eighteenth century, Sicily’s large deposits of sulfur provided huge quantities of the element to French manufacturers of soda ash, crucial to the making of soap.
In the nineteenth century, sulfur was also touted as a laxative. By that time, sulfur had become indispensable to various human activities and productions—with cleansing and purifying at the top of the list.
Always, though, there was ammunition. Which, one might argue, is also a purifier. A means of ridding oneself of something. Of someone. Of multiple someones, quickly.
Fire away, sweep ‘em out, mop ‘em up.
Another name for the Tommy gun was the annihilator.
Perched in a small upland valley framed by mountain peaks, the village of Vinca is about a twenty-minute drive from Equi Terme. To reach it, you ascend an austerely beautiful road whose views compete with multiple curves and switchbacks. Flanking the road are huge chestnuts and elms; rocky streams run under several small bridges. The road ends abruptly at the village.
Vinca has fewer than 150 full-time residents. About a third of its old stone houses are abandoned.
The air up there is utterly clear, as is the silence.
Bread made of bran and flour milled in Vinca is coveted throughout Lunigiana. The circular loaves are low and large; they smell slightly of malt. Their slices toast up marvelously and are excellent slathered with butter. The bread and a massacre are what Vinca is best known for. Starting on August 24, 1944, German soldiers in the 16th SS Panzer-Grenadier Division undertook a three-day-long elimination of the village’s inhabitants. About 175 people were executed.
The word “vitriol” derives from the Latin word for “glassy,” a good visual descriptor for certain sulfuric compounds. (Iron sulfate, for instance, is a glassy green.) Chemically speaking, vitriol is synonymous with sulfuric acid. The word is also an alchemical acronym for Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem, which can be roughly translated as “visit the interior of the earth, rectifying (purifying) you will find the hidden stone.” Alchemists pictured vitriol at the earth’s center—acidic and corrosive, a dissolver of contaminants. It was deemed an agent of transformation.
In non-chemical contexts, vitriol refers to harsh, caustic criticism or accusation. It often precedes or accompanies fights, hostilities, warfare.
Sulfuric acid is used in water-treatment processes. And to make detergents. It’s a purifying agent. But it’s also used to make explosives, so it’s an agent of obliteration as well. Which brings us to a conundrum. Cleaning up means taking out the trash; treating means decontaminating, getting rid of the bad stuff. But what trash? Which impurities?
Although I began taking the waters mainly for the experience of doing so, I’ve hoped the series of baths might alleviate a mild but chronic sciatic pain in my right leg. That hasn’t happened.
I’m not perturbed by this, however. I enjoy the hour-long drive to Equi Terme, which takes me on windy roads through a handful of sleepy villages and along the banks of the Lucido River. I like the quiet of the town itself; it lets the rushing sounds of several small cascades coursing through Equi work their strange calm upon me. If I arrive a bit early, I walk to one of these waterfalls and, eyes closed, listen for a bit. Then I go do what I’ve come here to do. After checking in at the spa’s front desk, I head upstairs and wait to be called. The attendants know who I am, what temperature the water should be, how long to set the timer. All I have to do is undress. I’m not in Equi as a tourist or day-tripper; I’m here for this.
The chief effect of the acque termali seems to be not physical but existential. Each morning, I step out of my life and into a steaming tub. Closing my eyes, I sink into the water. It laps at my earlobes. Its scent pervades not just my nostrils but my whole body. While immersed, I cannot sustain any thinking; causality escapes me. Perhaps my amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotional memory and with olfactory associations, is becalmed by the smell of sulfur. Perhaps that realm of my brain reacts as if it’s being rectified—whatever that might mean… Whatever the reason, I am spared the matter of mattering.
When I visited Vinca for the first time, I watched a hawk swoop elegantly to the ground. Then I heard a cry. Then nothing: silence had returned.
I imagined the hawk’s talons. Their grip pressure is between 200 and 400 pounds per square inch. The birds snatch their prey and carry it off, or pin it down and impale it with their beaks. They’ll start eating the prey before it’s fully dead. Quickly. Wasting no time.
The Germans commenced their killing spree in Vinca as an act of reprisal for an attack by Italian Partisans, six days earlier, on a German truck convoy.
After the war, surviving villagers gave testimony to the courts during trials in which some German officers and Italian collaborators were convicted, although most didn’t serve their entire prison terms. The massacre was brutal. Several villagers were decapitated or impaled; some were stripped nude. A pregnant woman was gutted, her fetus tossed aside like so much trash. Elderly inhabitants were shot point-blank on the doorsills of their homes. Soldiers played a game they called “shoot the robin”: take a baby, throw it skyward, shoot it like a clay pigeon. A wailing two-year-old was picked up and hurled like a stone, said a survivor.
One of the Germans played an accordion as the killers went door to door.
The slaughter took several days. Beginning in villages below Vinca—Equi Terme among them—the work involved several dozen truckloads of soldiers. Alerted to the possibility of the Germans’ arrival, Vinca’s residents scattered uphill if they could, or they hid in the village, to no avail. Local collaborators—Fascisti Repubblichini—led the Germans up mountain paths that the former knew well, for they’d walked them with their fellow citizens. They pointed out all the likely hiding-spots.
One resident escaped being killed by hiding in a hole in the trunk of a huge chestnut tree. Its damp darkness was his only haven for two whole days. Before passing out from fear, he said, he saw an enemy soldier walk right past the tree, carrying a gun.
What kind of gun, the man was asked during his appearance in court.
A Thompson, he said.
In pre-gunpowder times, hot pitch—a resin heated before use—was a common thermal weapon, typically launched at or poured over enemies.
Another such weapon was Greek fire, a combustible compound launched from a flamethrower. First used by the Byzantine Greeks during the seventh century, it enabled the Byzantine Empire to protect Constantinople from several Arab sieges. Greek fire’s constituent materials remained a closely guarded military secret, though quicklime and sulfur were most likely among them.
Greek fire ignited upon contact with water, and kept burning blue while it floated.
In the sixteenth century, an Italian alchemist named Isabella Cortese came up with a recipe for a substance not unlike Greek fire. Her concoction was intended for recreational purposes, not military ones. Made of sulfur, alcohol, incense, coal from a willow tree, camphor, and wool, the substance described by Signora Cortese could burn underwater.
Her recipe was published in I Secreti de La Signora Cortese, a manual of cures and remedies. The author asked her readers to burn the book once they’d assimilated its secrets. She did not indicate what substance would set the manual afire.
Garlic, skunk spray, and grapefruit have highly particular smells, each due to organic compounds within them that contain sulfur.
A molecule called triatomic sulfur gives the metamorphic rock known as lapis lazuli its distinctive blue color.
Sulfur vulcanization allows natural rubber to be hardened into products such as car tires.
Molten sulfur was once poured into carved designs in wood furniture, as an inlaid decorative feature.
Hydrogen sulfide first dulls and then deadens the sense of smell. You can keep on breathing it without realizing it, at which point the compound’s severe toxicity will lead you straight to death.
I think I now know what I want the baths to do for me. I want them to let me loll in water, out of all notions of time. Without having to decide or choose, initiate or follow through, account for or be accountable to. I want the waters to give me a break. Just a brief pause.
In the tub I do not feel awful about those Italian infants and children—little agents of transformation and purification, obliterated by Tommy guns in no time at all. I do not accuse myself of passivity in the face of current injustices. I do not ask myself, is this self-care or self-indulgence? I do not act or react.
Sulfur temporarily inures me to all this. Taking the waters causes a kind of stupefaction.
Only when I am toweling off does the world once again sink its talons into me.
Equi Terme’s stone houses clamber up its few slender, twisty streets. Over them looms the 1,800-meter peak of Pizzo D’Uccello.
To one side of the village are the Grotte d’Equi, a series of subterranean caves and pools into which, after one of my baths, I ventured along with several other people and a guide. As it happened, none of the lights installed in the caves could be turned on; something had gone awry. After the guide rustled up some flashlights, we took the tour, mounting and descending steep narrow steps that led into several small chambers full of stalagmites and stalactites. We illumined them with our flashlights as excitedly as if we were the first people to discover them.
One man in our group stayed mostly silent, remarking now and then on the caves’ deep shadows.
Pointing at a mineral formation, our guide explained that each stalactite grows only 0.005 inches a year. Don’t touch, she said, these things break very easily. And don’t touch the wet cave walls near them, either. The oils on your hands will disrupt the process of their formation.
I had to resist the urge to snap off a stalactite and slip it into my pocket. To curl my fingers around the result of millennia of extraordinarily persistent activity on the part of dripping water, and absorb a lesson from it. A stalactite is a particular kind of accumulation, enacted by gravity and time. Drop after drop, subterranean water carries mineral deposits downward, eventually creating a kind of hollow mineral tube known as a “soda straw.”
Staring at the tubular formations, I pictured each one’s hollow interior, that peaceful emptiness extending downward so very slowly. And I thought of the baths, of my mindless bobbing in those vaporous waters.
The guide urged us onward with her flashlight. Mind the path, she said, it’s a little bumpy.
I followed the man ahead of me, the silent one. After a few uneven steps, he reached out and spread his palm wide and flat on the glistening wall—to right himself, I suppose. But there he’d done it: obliterated the possibility of new transformations. Wiped them out, just like that.
In my mind I see his hand-print as if it were mine. As if, stupefied, I’d left it there myself.
Martha Cooley is the author of two novels—The Archivist, a national bestseller published in a dozen foreign markets, and Thirty-Three Swoons—and a memoir, Guesswork. Her third novel, Buy Me Love, will be published in June. A Professor of English at Adelphi University, she has published short fiction, essays, and co-translations in numerous literary magazines.