For those who don’t know, Rome has an island too. Yes, an island in the river Tiber, straight in the city center. Don’t be surprised…We have everything here! It is one of the most charming places in the city, always quiet except during raining season when it always risks to be flooded
Of course, it’s story couldn’t be just normal, it’s Rome guys, it is indeed long and really interesting, starting from the very beginning, its origins … actually it’s an island made of a tuff core with alluvial ground on top….Boring, right? And that’s why we have a better story to tell about how this island was actually made…
According to the legend, everything started in 509 B.C. when the son of Tarquin the Proud, the last of the Seven Kings, raped the noblewoman Lucretia from Ardea, causing the revolt of the Roman people (well done guys!) and the overthrow and exile of his father, i.e. the end of the Roman monarchy. Destroying something that was own by the declined tyrant after the revolt it’s a must, hence Roman people gathered up the wheat from the king’s fields in Campus Martius (in a rural society harvest was the Wealth) and threw it into the river: spike after spike, this became the Tiber Island!
Time goes by and we don’t know how this heap of grain was used until the year 293 BC when Rome was struck by a terrible plague. The Senators, in charge to protect the citizen of Rome, used the most suited solution in case of serious crisis… Emergency safety rules? Quarantine for the sick people? No way. They needed a super consulence for this serious issue. So they consulted the Sibylline Books, a collection of Greek oracular utterances purchased by the Tarquin himself by a sibyl The response was clear and … effective: built a temple dedicated to Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing!
Anyway building a temple for a new god was something that needed a procedure: Romans sent a ship to Epidaurus, seat of the most celebrated healing center in the ancient world, to ask for the statue of the god. What they got was a snake, symbol of the god (hence supposed personification of him), who jumped on the boat and curled itself around the mast.
Once in Rome the snake slithered off the ship and went on the island: a superstitious Roman couldn’t have asked for a better response! Indeed this was for sure the best position for an hospital as it was provided with a natural spring, running water and an insulation that offered a secure belt in case of quarantine: the snake apparently knew what’s what
In 298 BC the temple was inaugurated: the whole island was modeled with travertine structures to resemble a ship (few remains are still visible on the south side) and a obelisk was the mast.
Around the temple were porches used as an hospital. Well, the snake knew where to built an hospital actually, but not exactly as an hospital works …
At that time the idea of healing was the incubatio: people went to temple and spent the night under the porches … while they were sleeping the god went around healing the people or leaving them prescriptions or drugs. Of course only if they had left an appropriate offer for him.
What Happened After the Romans?
Despite its efficiency in healing people (just kidding :-D) the temple landed up as all the pagan temples when the empire became Christian: closed and abandoned. We don’t know exactly what happened later. In the 10th century on the island, again due to the position, a fortress was built by the Pierleoni family (a tower still exists). In the meantime the former temple of Aesculapius was turned in a church, that of St. Bartholomew. With the renovated sacralisation of the area the story of the healing water showed up again and a well was built to draw it. Unfortunately, due to the water pollution, instead of heal people it usually made them die, hence the well was closed with a grid that still exists!
The New Hospital
Anyway the position was too yummy for an hospital and a new one was founded here in 1548 (12 centuries later) by the followers of St. John of God. It still exists with the name of “Fatebenefratelli” that means “Do well, brothers”. It sounds funny but indeed wasn’t an exhortation for the doctors: it comes from the sing-song that priests repeated during the money collection Even though is really tempting the idea of seeing a continuity during the centuries in the way this island was used, as healing center since the very ancient time until today, probably this isn’t true. It seems that during the 5th century it was used as a prison…another place that take advantage of the insulation…not exactly as efficient as Alcatraz but a kind of
Teeth and Records
Since the beginning this hospital was renowned for its dentists. The most famous was the Florentine friar Giovanni Battista Orsenico: he owes his fame to the fact that he was able to extract the teeth by hand, without pincers and, mostly, pain. He practiced between 1868 and 1904 and collected ALL the teeth extracted in three boxes: in 1903 they were opened and it turned out that he owned 2,000,744 teeth, that means an average of 185 teeth for day! This lead the friar straight in the Guinness World Records: he still hold the record for the “largest collection of human teeth“!
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The Infamous Column
And finally the last story: what happened to the mast-obelisk that decorated the island? It seems that it fell down in the 16th century and was replaced by a column with a cross on top. It was known later as the Infamous Column as on it was put up the list of the “bandits who didn’t take the holy communion on Easter day” (Oh yes, this really was considered a crime!). One of those was the Roman engraver Bartolomeo Pinelli, famous for his lascivious life, who ended up in the list in 1834. As soon as he saw his name on the list completely freaked out, not much for having been held up as an unbeliever, but for having been defined a miniaturist instead of engraver! This column doesn’t exist anymore: it was broken hit by a chariot (on purpose?) and substituted in 1869 with the monument still visible today.
- View of the Tiber Island – G.B. Piranesi, 18th cent.
- Isola Tiberina – CC BY 2.0 – Maurizio Sacco
- Remains of the travertine prow – CC BY 2.0 – Anthony Majanlahti
- The Temples and Cult of Asclepius – Robert Thom
- Well in the Church of St. Bartholomew – CC BY SA 2.0 – Mararie
- Ignazio Jacometti’s “Guglia di Pio IX” – CC BY SA 3.0 – Blackcat