The Isola Tiberina has always been a mysterious place, shrouded in legend, surrounded by the river and linked inseparably to the origins of Rome. The island is heralded by the "Ponte Rotto" (broken bridge), the "Pons Aemilius", the first stone bridge in Rome, restored several times because of the turbulence of the Tiber, which at that point has won the battle leaving only a few remains.
This remarkable piece of land in the middle of the Tiber was called "Intra duos pontes" (between two bridges) by the Romans; the island was connected to the terra firma by two bridges that were originally wooden. One is the Cestio bridge, built in 46 BC by Lucius Cestius and restored numerous times over the centuries because of the flooding of the river, so that what was a single-span bridge ended up with three arches; it was also called Ponte San Bartolomeo and "ponte ferrato" (bridge strengthened with iron).
The second bridge, Fabricio, preceded by the Caetani Tower, which belonged to the family that had transformed the island into a small fort in the Middle Ages, was also called "Ponte dei Giudei" (bridge of the Jews) because it was near the Ghetto. It is associated with a terrible legend: the double Herms of the bridge are said to be the heads of four architects entrusted by Sixtus V with the restoration on the island; they evidently had a disagreement with the Pope and were beheaded at the end of the works!
In reality the marble heads are eight in number and the anecdote is probably due to the pope's notoriety as a "beheader", that had distinguished him for his policy of harsh repression of crime.
The origins of the Isola Tiberina are to be found in the numerous legends surrounding it: it was supposed to have arisen over an ancient ship, whose shape it still maintains, further accentuated by the Romans, who to feed the legend built a stone prow and stern on it, giving it the shape of a warship, with the obelisk in the centre of the island like a ship's mast!
Ad yet, since prehistory, the island was not at the mercy of the current, it was well anchored to the river-bed and was the easiest point to ford the river towards the trade routes to the North and South; not by chance the first and oldest port of Rome, the place where Aeneas disembarked, arose just opposite the island.
According to another legend, the island was said to have arisen on the mud accumulated over the crops of Tarquin the Proud, thrown into the water by the people with a feeling of liberation and protest, after driving the hated Etruscan tyrant out of Rome. The historian Livius tells us that in 229 BC the Romans had gone as far as Greece, to Epidaurus, where the great sanctuary of Aesculapius, god of medicine, stood, to ask the oracle how to put an end to the plague that had broken out in the city.
The priests of the god had given the Roman ambassadors a sacred serpent which, as the ship approached the Tiber port, had dived into the water and crawled to the island, hiding in the thick vegetation. Thus the Isola Tiberina was consecrated to the god of medicine and from then on acquired the fame, reinforced by the presence of a spring of health-giving water, that distinguishes it to this day, of a place of healing and hospitals. During the plague of 1656 the entire island was transformed into a lazaretto.
The Romans built two temples there, one dedicated to Faunus, protector of women giving birth, and the other to Veiove, who guaranteed oaths.
The Temple of Aesculapius, with the ditch full of serpents consecrated to the god, which the priests had the task of feeding, stood where the church of San Bartolomeo stands today, with its baroque façade, but built around the year 1000 by Otto III, who dedicated it to St. Adalberto.
Next to the temple was a portico where "incubatio" was exercised, a therapeutic practice which consisted in keeping the sick in the cold without food for a few days so that they would be purified and then recount their dreams to the priests, who would diagnose the illness, in a rudimentary but perhaps effective forerunner of psychoanalysis!
In line with the vocation of the Isola Tiberina, in the Middle Ages a xenodochio was built to host the pilgrims, the poor and the sick and later it became the hospital that is still functioning today: its name, "Fatebenefratelli" (do well brothers), is said to come from the sing-song exhortation that the friar-physicians of the order of San Giovanni di Dio, who healed the sick in the hospital, repeated as they went along the streets, and perhaps it was not without effect, as the "Fatebenefratelli" considerably improved the precarious and unhealthy conditions in which they had found the hospital.
It was again they who endeavoured to restore the other church on the island in 1584, that of San Giovanni Calibita, a 5th century hermit who lived in a hut (Kalybe in Greek). On the façade of the church is a copy of a fresco portraying the Madonna della Lampada (Madonna of the Lamp), protagonist of various miraculous events, including one in which the lamp, submerged by a flood of the Tiber, was not put out! It was the same Madonna who later shed tears on seeing the Napoleonic invasion!
Life in the middle of the Tiber has not always been easy, especially because of the very frequent floods. But in 1870, with the Unity of Italy, the island was actually at risk of disappearing because of the crazy idea of levelling it down to the river bed, a proposal which fortunately was never put into practice.