Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina)
The Tiber Island has always been a place of mystery, wrapped in legend, surrounded by the river and forever tied to the origins of Rome. Since prehistoric times, the island has been the easiest point of crossing the river towards the commercial roads to the north and south of Rome and it was certainly not by chance that the first and most ancient of the city’s river ports was born right in front of it.
This singular piece of land in the middle of the Tiber River was called by the Romans “between two bridges”. In fact, the island was connected to the mainland by the Cestium bridge on one side and by the Fabricium bridge (called also the Bridge of the Jews for its proximity to the Hebrew Ghetto) on the other.
There was a terrible legend having to do with this second bridge: there are four marble heads per side on the mainland end. It was said that they were the heads of four architects hired by the pope Sixtus V for the restoration of the island and that, since they were evidently not in total agreement with the pope, at the restoration’s end —they were decapitated! At any rate, there are eight marble heads and they come down to us from the Roman era. The gruesome anecdote is probably due to the pontiffs fame as a “head-chopper” because of his heavy hand in regards to the repression of crime.
The Tiber Island has extremely old origins that can be sifted from the numerous legends regarding its beginnings: apparently it was built on the ruins of an ancient ship, the shape of which it still retains. The Romans, to give more credence to the story, built a stone bow and stern, giving it the look of a warship —with an obelisk in the middle for a mast!
The presence of hospitals on the island is tied to another ancient legend; the historian Livius wrote that, because of a terrible plague that had befallen the city, the Romans traveled all the way to Epidaurus, in Greece to ask the oracle there how to stop the epidemic. The priests at the largest sanctuary of the god of medicine, Aesculapius, gave the Roman ambassadors a sacred serpent. Returning home, just as the ship was pulling into the port of the Tiber, the snake jumped ship, swam to the island and disappeared into the thick vegetation.
A temple was dedicated to Aesculapius on the island: it had a pit full of snakes sacred to the god, that were fed by the priests. So it was that the island was consecrated to the god of medicine and since that time has been famous as a place of hospitals and healing. Actually, the island was an excellent place for the purpose because it offered guaranteed isolation from the rest of the community; in fact, during the plague of the 1600s, the entire island was transformed into a quarantine hospital. In the year 1000, in place of the temple of Aesculapius, the church of Saint Bartholomew was built, although it now has a Baroque façade.
Next to the temple there was a portico where a rather particular therapy was practiced, the "incubatio": this consisted of keeping the sick out in the cold and without food for several days so that they should be purified. The poor souls then had to recount their dreams to the priests who would duly diagnose: a sort of rudimental form of psychoanalysis. As for its efficacy…well, we’ll probably never know.
The Romans built another two temples on the island: one was dedicated to Faunus, who protected women giving birth. Even today, the hospital on the island is well-known for its excellent maternity ward.
In line with the island’s ancient vocation, during the Middle Ages, a structure was created to serve pilgrims, the poor and the sick, and later became a hospital that still functions to this day. Its name, "Fatebenefratelli"—which means “do well or do good, brothers”- seems to come from the singsong sort of mantra that the friar-doctors of the hospital would repeat continuously as they moved through the streets. Over the years the "Fatebenefratelli" improved the precarious and unhealthy conditions in which they had found the hospital and it was they who took care of restoring the second church on the island, that of Saint John Calibita. On the façade of the church there’s a copy of a fresco of the Madonna of the Lamp, protagonist in two miraculous events; it seems that the flame of the lamp in question, when submersed by the flooding Tiber, refused to go out and later, the Madonna was seen weeping just before Napoleon’s invasion of Italy!
The island is also famous for what remains of a legendary bridge, Ponte Emilio, better known by the Romans as "Broken Bridge": it was actually Rome’s very first stone bridge, restored and repaired several times due to damage caused by the turbulent Tiber but the river finally got the better of it, leaving only the few surviving remains we see today.
Life in the the middle of the Tiber wasn’t always easy, particularly because of the frequent periodic floods that have been part of Rome’s history for more than 2600 years. Strolling through the center you may notice plaques on many of the houses that record the extraordinary levels reached by the flood waters. Sometimes the Tiber flooded more than 17 meters high inside the city, often arriving right in the center of town, forcing people to get around in boats! The hospital on the Tiber Island was many times on the verge of being submerged but not everyone knows that the portholes that close the windows on the first floor are watertight and flood-proof! It was in 1870, after one of the most disastrous floods, that the decision was made to build up the banks of the Tiber with the high walls of travertine we see today. If, on the one hand, they have helped avoid further flood damage, on the other, they inevitably changed the face of Rome and its relationship with the river.
Someone actually proposed to flatten out the Tiber Island to widen the riverbed. Fortunately, the extravagant idea never took hold and the island is still there, a picturesque place of care and healing, romantic walks and a privileged viewpoint to observe the blond Tiber up close.