History and secrets of the only island of Rome
Who said there are no islands in Rome? Today I am going to talk about the only island of the Tiber river, which we can find right in the heart of Rome: the Tiber Island! (in Italian: Isola Tiberina).
What’s the origin of the Isola Tiberina?
Romans in antiquity liked to tell stories through myths and legends. There are more than one for the origins of the Tiber Island.
One of the legends takes place when the Romans deposed the last Etruscan king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud. In 509BC the Romans finally kicked him out of the city, together with the whole Tarquin family. Then they took the grain from their private land in the Campus Martius and dumped it into the river. And to ensure it would sink deep down the water they also added stones to it. According to this legend, this mass of debris formed the island
Another legend says that during a flood a boat stranded in the middle of the river. Then sand and mud accumulated and eventually formed the island.
Legend n. 3 (the most credible one)
But the most famous and respected legend is another one.
In 291 BC a terrible plague hit the city of Rome, and wiped out most of the population. The Senate was desperate and after long time trying to find a solution they made a decision. They decided to send out a delegation of wise men to Epidaurus in Greece. The delegation had to ask for help to the priests of the God Asclepius, the god of medicine.
The wise men then returned to Rome by boat, and when they arrived in the vicinity of the Tiber Island something happened.. The boat stranded onto the shores and one of the snakes jumped on the island. The Romans interpreted this event as a sign from the God Asclepius. Therefore they decided to build a temple and dedicate it to the god of medicine.
To remember the mission, they gave this strip of land the shape of a boat and they incorporated the remains of the original boat in the travertine stones blocks: an obelisk in the center of the island was representing the main mast, the temple of Asclepius at the stern and the bow of the boat a bust of the God, a bull’s head and a snake rolled around a stick, the symbol of medicine – and used even today as the symbol for pharmacies!
Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina) today
The temple of Asclepius was a precursor to later city hospitals. Since then and throughout the middle ages, the Tiber island became a shelter for many ill people; and in 1548 the Fatebenefratelli hospital was built on the island, extending its original function still today.
On the island, we can also find the church of Saint Bartholomew, the headquarter of the Red Sacks confraternity (“Sacconi Rossi” in Italian), which launched in the mid 1700s. Since then it took care of the abandoned dead bodies found on the banks of the Tiber.
You must imagine that at the time there were a lot of dead bodies of those who were killed, drowned or committed suicide. The Confraternity gave them an honorable burial in the cemetery located underneath the church.
It still exists today, however they don’t collect bodies from the river anymore. Each year on November 2nd they make a commemorative procession with candles, to remember those who are not with us anymore.
Food on the Isola Tiberina
Last but not least on the Tiber Island there is also a very famous “osteria romana”, a typical Roman restaurant that belonged to one of the most iconic characters of Rome, Sora Lella, an actress which represented the quintessential Roman woman, and the most typical roman grandma, genuine, straightforward and witty.
I recommend you watch her on Youtube to have a sense of the kind of character she has represented for the Romans. Have a look at this video when she cooks the chicken in “the Roman way” . She gets upset when the man suggests to use a different recipe. 🙂
I hope you enjoyed this little tour of the Tiber Island, and provided you with some inspiration for your future trips to Rome.
This is one of the places most tourists miss when they visit Rome. So next time you’re here, make sure you’ll pop round here too!
If you liked this post please comment below. Let me know if you have been on the Isola Tiberina already, and what you liked the most about it.
Thank you for reading and see you soon! Ciao! 🙂