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The tale of the Tiber Island

For being the smallest inhabited island in the world, in the Tiber Island are layered number of stories.

Legends, historical facts and art. From the foundation of Rome to the present

The Tiber Island is a unique place, deeply connected to the events of the city of Rome.

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Cet article est disponible en français.

The main legend says that the formation of the Tiber Island dates back to the time of the seventh and last king of Rome Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in the sixth century BC.

 THE SEVEN KINGS OF ROME:
 
  1. Romulus (753-716 BC)
  2. Numa Pompilius (715-673 BC)
  3. Tullus Hostilius (673-641 BC)
  4. Ancus Marcius (640-616 BC)
  5. Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (616-579 BC)
  6. Servius Tullius (578-535 BC)
  7. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (535-509 BC)

From that moment on, the uniqueness of an island right in the middle of the river that flows into a large city never stopped intriguing the Romans and influencing the development of the city.

The Tiber Island is a bridge over the Tiber River

The Tiber Island on one side is connected to the district Trastevere through the bridge Ponte Cestio (lat. pons Cestius), on the other to the ancient Jewish Ghetto through the bridge Ponte Fabricio (lat. pons Fabricius). For this reason, in ancient times it was called insula inter duos pontes (“the island between the two bridges”).

Pons Fabricius – Ponte Fabricio

It is the oldest Roman bridge still in use in Rome: it was built in 62 BC, and the original structure is still almost entirely preserved.

Pons Cestius – Ponte Cestio

The bridge pons Cestius connected the Tiber Island with the Trastevere area, and its construction dates back to 44-43 BC.

In the past it was also known as pons Gratiani as it was totally rebuilt in 370 AD by the emperor Gratian.

293 BC: the plague strikes Rome

The first major event that turned the Tiber Island into the one we know, took place in the year 293 BC.

At that moment, Rome was struck by a plague. Finding no cure, and consulting the Sibylline books, the Senate of Rome decided to enlist the help of the god of medicine Aesculapius. A delegation of Romans was sent to Epidaurus (in Greece) where it was the largest sanctuary dedicated to this deity, to bring the god Aesculapius to Rome.

Aesculapius, god of medicine, arrives in Rome

In Epidaurus a snake – symbol of Aesculapius – boarded the ship. That was interpreted as a divine signal that the god of medicine was ready to reach Rome.

When the ship came back to Rome, the snake crawled out to insinuate itself among the rocks of the Tiber Island, and the Romans interpreted this event as the signal that the god Aesculapius had chosen the island in the center of the Tiber as a place to build his sanctuary in Rome.

The temple of Aesculapius was therefore built on the southern tip of the Tiber Island, where today is the church of Saint Bartholomew (San Bartolomeo all’Isola). In front of the temple, a square surrounded by arcades was the place where the sick awaiting recovery were housed.

The presence of the sanctuary of the god of medicine strongly influenced the development and function of the Tiber Island.

Its position in the center of the Tiber, and therefore isolated from the rest of the city, in addition to the presence on the island of a water source considered healthy, made the Tiber Island an ideal place for hospital use.

The Tiber Island transformed into a stone ship

In the 1st century BC the temple of Aesculapius was restored, and the island also underwent a restyling.

The sides were covered with travertine and sculpted to represent a ship, in memory of the one that brought the snake of Aesculapius from Epidaurus to Rome.

The stone ship today

In the island as we see today not much remains of the stone ship but, as usual, paying attention to a few small details can make the past alive.

We can go down to the level of the Tiber and walk all around the Tiber Island. On one side it is easy to recognize the remains of the travertine that covered the island in the past.

In some fragments of travertine we can still identify the ancient decoration: the side of a ship, the god Aesculapius and the snake.

From the temple of Aesculapius to the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola

As often happens in Rome, the temple of Aesculapius was replaced with a church.

The destruction of the temple began in the 4th century AD.

In the 10th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III decided to build a church dedicated to St. Adalbert of Prague, later dedicated to St. Bartholomew, on the site of the temple of Aesculapius.

Over the centuries, the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola on the Tiber Island was involved with renovations and reconstructions, the most important of which in the 1600s gave it its current appearance.

The columns that divide the naves inside the church are those of the temple of Aesculapius.

The Romanesque bell tower dates back to the 12th century, it is a typical bell tower of the medieval churches of Rome.

The Tiber Island today: the Fatebenefratelli hospital and the Israelite hospital

The Tiber Island never stopped to have an hospital function.

Near the church of Saint Bartholomew is the headquarters of the Israelite hospital, which was installed right in this place for its proximity to the Jewish Ghetto, the Jewish district of Rome.

The Fatebenefratelli / San Giovanni Calibita hospital is on the opposite side to that of the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola. In this place from the eleventh century the Benedictine nuns managed a shelter for poor and infirm of Rome. That “hospital” was then entrusted by Pope Gregory XIII to the brotherhood of the hospital monks of San Giovanni di Dio in the 1500s.

However, the Tiber Island is also a microcosm right in the center of the Tiber.

Crossing one of the two bridges that connect it with the rest of the city you reach a place that is really worth to visit.

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