Tiber island, legends and history of this giant stony ship in the heart of Rome

Updated: December 18, 2013

There are several legends around the Tiber Island, the little island shaped as a ship in the middle of the river Tiber.

One of these brings us back in the period of the ancient Roman emperors. When the reign of the last of them, the hated tyrant Tarquinius Superbus, ended in 495 BC, the romans esiliated him and destroyed his possessions, throwing all his sheaves of wheat in the river. The sheaves were in such a big quantity that they formed a first layer on which the island subsequently formed.

Another legend, even more popular than the first one, associates the island to medicine and to water, as a source of healing. It says that in the year 291 BC, when the population of Rome was pleagued by a terrible disease, a ship with a delegation of sapient roman men departed from Rome to the greek city of Epidaurus, searching for a cure. Epidaurus was a city devoted to the semi-god Asclepius, the healer. When the delegation reached the destination, they started to practice rituals in the temple. It was during one of these rituals that a snake came out of the temple, and hid on board of the ship.

Convinced that Asclepius had mutated into that snake, the delegation quickly returned to Rome, and when they reached the Tiber the snake jumped out of the boat and disappeared in the water, indicating the exact point where a temple had to be built. In fact, the construction started right after, and it was opened in 289 BC. The position of the tempe would coincide with the modern church of San Bartolomeo, and the well that still exists in the altar of the church would coincide with the water source of the original temple.

To remember the miraculous mission, the island was shaped as a trireme vessel, with a prow, a stern, and even a mainmast, that originally was represented by an obelisk, and later by a column with a cross. This column was called the "infamous column", because on it there was a list (that lasted until 1869) of the "bandits that didn't participate to the mess in the day of Easter". The column was broken (accidentally?) when it was hit violently by a chariot, and it was replaced by the current monument made by Ignazio Jacometti with the icons of the Saints: Bartolomeo, Franciscus from Assisi, Paolino da Nola and Giovanni di Dio.

The church near this monument was built for the will of the emperor Ottone III in the year 997 AD, who wanted to honor S. Adalberto of Prague. The costruction was erected above the ancient ruins of Asclepius temple, and when in 1180 the church received the relic of S. Bartolomeo, the church changed its name in San Bartolomeo.

In the medieval age, the legend from the ancient pagan times of the healing water in the church came back, but the water from the well resulted to be insalubrious, and it was killing people rather than healing them, so the well was closed with two iron bars forming a cross, that we can still see today. We can still see the well in front of the altar. It was made out of a section of an ancient column from the XI century, and it has a series of incisions where S. Bartolomeo, S. Paolino da Nola, Jesus and the emperor Ottone III appear. There is also the ancient inscription "lasciate venire alla fonte chi ha sete e trarvi un sorso di salute": let those who are thirsty come to the source, and take a sip of health.

Curiously, in the left wall of the church a cannon ball is preserved. It hit the church in 1849, during the french assault to Rome, when the building was full of people. No one was hurt, so the cannon ball was considered miraculous and was walled up in the same point where it fell. The main altar was donated by pope Pius IX, to replaced the one which was damaged in 1557 by a flood. Below it there is a roman pool made of porphyry, that contains the relics of S. Bartolomeo.

The tradition of the island as a place of healing and medicine was not interrupted with the end of Asclepius tempe. If we leave the church and go back to the piazza, we'll find that there's an hospital on the Tiber Island today. This hospital is called Fate Bene Fratelli and it's managed by a the religious congregation named after Saint Giovanni di Dio, a portuguese friar who used to invite people to make charity for others and also to help their own soul by pronouncing this phrase: "fate bene fratelli!", "do something good, brothers!".

The congregation had also the permit to open a pharmacy, so they opened one just beside the hospital. It is still working today, and inside it there's a collection of beautiful vases with rare medicinal plants.

Since 1599, the hospital had also a strong dentist tradition. It exploded in 1868 where a friar from the hospital of  Florence, called Giovanni Battista Orsenigo, arrived in the Tiber Island and opened his dentist lab. His skills brought him a big popularity quickly, even outside the city. He was able to extract the teeth without using any tool, while he was palpating the sore gums with his bare hands, eliminating pain and fear of the pincers. Orsenigo wanted from the beginning to provide a free service for everybody, all day long. He had all sort of clients, from the most humble ones to the famous poet Giosuè Carducci, to the queen Margerita di Savoia.

All the teeth extracted by the friear were found in 1903 in the city of Nettuno, just one year before the his death, in three boxes he had in a little lab where he was working in the last period. An incredible amount of 2.000.744 teeth were found, results of over 30 years of work! There's also a legend according to which in the material used to pave the lanes of the Tiber Island there were also the teeth extracted by Orsenigo.

On the island there is also a second church, S. Giovanni Calibita, which is attached to the hospital. This is the first you will see if you come from the Fabricio bridge. This church also is founded over an ancient sanctuary, it was called Saccello di Iuppiter Iurarius, meaning "Jupiter guarantor of the oath", from an ancient mosaic with the name of the divinity found below the church.

This church was initially dedicated to San Giovanni Battista, but it took another name in the XI century, when it was dedicated to another San Giovanni, who left his wealthy family in his young age to go to live as an hermit in a hut (kalybe in greek). The building was made in the IX century, when the bishop of Porto, Formoso, went to live in it. In 1119 a first meeting of cardinals and roman clero happened here, where the election of pope Callistus II in Cluny was convalidated. In 1584 the church was assigned to the friars of the order of San Giovanni di Dio.

Along the history, the Tiber Island had other names: "Insula Lycaonia", either because in this province of Asia there was a temple of Asclepius and because on the Cestio bridge there was a statue representing this region, "Sacred Island" for the presence of the temple, "Asclepius Island" and also "San Bartolomeo Island".

Near the Fabricio bridge there's a series of old buildings and a tower. The tower is commonly called "Torre della pulzella" (pulzella is a medieval term used to indicate a young lady), for the small marble head of a young lady embedded in the brick wall, dated to the I century AD.

We must also mention that in this set of buildings lived for a period Matilde di Canossa and also pope Vittore III, who was hiding from the troups of the antipope Clemens III.

This means that the tower worked also as a holy see for a short period. Since 1986, the palace hosts the historic museum of the Tiber Island.

For centuries, until the final constructions of walls on the edges of the river Tiber, on the two sides of the island there were mills installed on rafts. They can be see on the old litographs of this area. They were milling to produce flour taking advantage of the water flow, but later they were destroyed by floods.

Today, the island remains anchored to the ground through its two bridges, Fabricio on the left, the most ancient one and also called "quattro capi", four heads, and Cestion on the right.

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