Isola Tiberina Rome (Tiber Island)

The Isola Tiberina is a picturesque islet in the river Tiber in Rome. It is located between the districts of Trastevere (on the south side) and Sant’Angelo (on the north side). It is connected to the districts by the bridges Ponte Cestio and Ponte Fabricio respectively. A large part of the island is occupied by the Fatebenefratelli Hospital.

Tiber Island Rome

History and description

Tiber Island Rome
Tiber Island, seen from the Ponte Garibaldi

Seen from a distance, the island, which is 270 meters long and 67 meters wide, it resembles a big boat in the middle of the river. The Romans noticed this too and built a wall of travertine marble around the island to reinforce that impression. When an obelisk was put in front of the temple of Aesculapius (see below), the impression was complete.

According to one legend the Isola Tiberina is supposed to have its origin in an accumulation of bales of corn that were thrown into the river Tiber when the Romans chased the Tarquinians out of the city.

However, at the end of the 19th century, when works were carried out to get the Tiber under control, the basis of the island was seen to consist of volcanic rock.

A second legend claims that, in the year 291 BC, when an epidemic had broken out in Rome, a boat was sent to Epidauro, which was the holy city of Aesculapius (the most important Greek God of medicine), to ask for help. While the sacred rites were being performed an enormous snake, supposedly a transformation of Aesculapius himself, swam to the ship, which then returned to Rome. Upon its arrival the snake, coiled around a floating branch, swam to the Isola Tiberina and disappeared. From this, the Romans surmised that this was the site where Aesculapius meant to have a temple built in his honor. The snake coiled around a stick is still the symbol of medical help.

The temple was inaugurated 2 years later. It was probably located at the present site of the Church of Saint Bartholomew.

The real reason the island was associated with health and healing was probably that people were brought here who had infectious diseases, since it was closed off from Rome proper. This happened in ancient times with people who were deemed to have no chance of survival. During the Middle Ages victims of plague epidemics were brought to the island to be buried.

The island was very important for the development of Rome, since it formed a sort of natural bridge, connecting the two main commercial roads of the time, the Via Salaria and the Via Campana.

What to see

Ponte Cestio Rome
Ponte Cestio and Isola Tiberina

The Ponte Cestio and the Ponte Fabricio are among the oldest bridges in Rome. The Fatebenefratelli hospital built in 1584 to help plague victims still exists and now has a very famous children’s ward.

Christians later replaced the obelisk with a column topped with a cross. In 1867 it was again replaced by a chapel decorated with statues of Saints.

On the travertine marble walls that were supposed to make the island look like a boat, somewhere you can still see a relief of the serpent entwining the stick.

The San Bartolomeo all’Isola Church was originally dedicated to St. Adalbert, a friend of Emperor Otto III, who ordered its construction in 998. The remains of the apostle Bartholomew were also buried here, and because Adalbert came from Prague and was therefore not a Roman, the church was dedicated to the latter in the 12th century.

The bell tower of the church is called the Torre dei Caetani and dates from the 12th century.

In the Piazza San Bartolomeo all’Isola before the church stands the Colonna Infame. This can be translated as the “Column of Disgrace”. Until the mid-19th century the names of people who had not fulfilled their Easter duties were written on this column.

The second church on the island is called San Giovanni Calabita and is less well known. The current version dates from the 16th century. The main attraction of this church is the Madonna della Lampada.

Tiber Island Rome

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