A History of Isola Tiberina, Rome in 60 Seconds

Photo of Emma Law
Hub Writer18 October 2017

It might be one of the world’s smallest inhabited islands, but Isola Tiberina is not short on history. Legend has it that this tiny isle was formed after angry ancient Romans threw the body of their tyrant leader, Tarquin the Proud, into the river Tiber. Today, the island’s charming cobbled streets, 10th-century basilica and summertime open-air cinema mean it deserves a spot on any tourist’s itinerary.

The island itself is shaped like a ship, and at one time even had a travertine limestone bow and hull (some sources say marble was also used). The ship-shaped additions were made to celebrate the story of how the Temple of Aesculapius, came to be built there.

Legend has it that a ship carrying a statue of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, was sailing up the Tiber river when a snake escaped and headed for the island – a sign from the god himself to build a temple there. The rod of Aesculapius, a wooden staff entwined with a snake, is still a symbol of medicine today – look out for a carving of it at the base of Ponte Cestio which links the island to Trastevere on the east side of the river.

Today, the Basilica of St Bartholomew stands on the site of the 3rd-century-BC temple. In keeping with the island’s association with healing, visitors can see the remains of an ancient well inside the church. Residents from across Rome would come here to be cured of ailments by the restorative powers of the water.

Although it had somewhat supernatural beginnings, more rooted in potions, elixirs and ancient rituals than scientific analysis, medicine is still a key part of Isola Tiberina’s identity. The island’s hospital, run by the Roman Catholic order Fatebenefratelli (literally translating to; do good, brothers), has been treating patients since 1585.

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