Tag Archives: river tiber


Island of Healing: the Tiber Island

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…

isola tiberina

The Origins

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.

prua isola tiberina

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.

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Pictures Credits:

  • 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



Portunus and Saint Mary of Egypt. Stories of Harbors and Prostitutes

As you may recall, my latest post was about Hercules and his temple in Piazza Bocca della Verità. Anyway in this place there is so much history than we need much more than just a post to discover all the marvelous stories! So today I want to tell you about another corner of this square, nearer to the banks of the river Tiber where, still nowadays, there is a Roman temple perfectly preserved, the Temple of Portunus.

The Temple of Portunus and the Ancient Harbour of Rome



Portunus, as the name says was the Roman god of harbors and doors (portus and porta in Latin): this was indeed the place of the first river port of the city. To be honest the very reason for the existence of Rome itself has to be search in this place: here is the Tiber Island, the most suitable spot to cross the river and natural confluence point of all the most ancient and important roads connecting the mountain region of central Italy with the coast.

The temple was built for the first time at the end of the fourth century B.C. but during the centuries was rebuilt many times…as you can imagine flooding were quite frequent here :)

As all the pagan temple it was abandoned when the Roman empire became Christian.  Anyway in 872 pope John VIII transformed the temple in a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Egypt. Why a female Saint in a port? Well, you’ll see soon that the story of this woman is connected in many different ways to ports and sea…

Why Saint Mary of Egypt?

According to tradition she was born in Alexandria in 344 – that is a port city, by the way; when she was twelve years old, she ran away from her parents house and began  a completely dissolute life, earning by begging or whoring.


After 17 years of this lively life she met a group of pilgrims who were going to ship for Jerusalem and thought: “Jerusalem, why not?…Oh no! I’ve no money to pay the trip… Oh yes, I’m a prostitute so …!”. Ok, maybe not exactly with this words and this thoughts but fonts much more religious than me say that she seduced the men.

Anyway when she arrived in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre she couldn’t enter, stopped by an unseen force. And here begins her conversion: she prayed and finally decided to abandon the dissolute life and live as penitent. Well you should have already understood at this point that she was a girl of extreme decisions: not a simple conversion, may be not a life of prayers, no, she started a walk of penitence in the desert, and not for a month, no, FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE, eating only grass. 47 years – and many kilos lost – later she met Zosimo, a monk of a Palestinian monastery, who described her as a thin (really?) woman and almost naked, covered only by her long white, woolly hair. What did she ask to Zosimo? Food? No way! She asked his cloak to cover her nudity so that she could tell him the whole story. A year later Zosimo came back to the desert and found her death and still cover with  his cloak. According to tradition, a lion dug her tomb with its claws.


The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt

This is the story of Saint Mary and maybe now you are more aware about why the church, near the river and  in a place frequented mostly by sailors and foreign people (do you remember the presence of Greeks?) was dedicated to a former prostitute.

This was much more than just a symbolic dedication. Here was probably the most important brothel of Rome, whose origins seems to begin in the ancient Rome. There are no certain proofs about it, anyway the presence of the port is a significant indication. But there is more: nearby is also set the myth of Acca Larentia.

Acca Larentia

We already met Acca Larentia as the wife of the shepherd Faustulus who found and raised the twins Romulus and Remus. In another version of the myth, she was a prostitute in Rome who (was she tired of her old job? Who knows) went to temple of Hercules and spent there the night praying the god to help her. The next morning when she came out of the temple met the man who later became her husband, an Etruscan rich man named Tarrutius … much more better than The Dating Game!


When the husband died she inherited all his properties that left to the people of Rome at the end of her life. To thank her, Ancus, the third king of Rome, allowed her to be buried in the Velabrum and instituted the annual feast of the Accalia or Larentaria in her honor. Well, the Velabrum was exactly here, the valley between the Palatine hill and the river.

Prostitutes all-over the centuries

If the tradition about Larentia as a prostitute is true, looks like this tradition dates back to the Roman time, up to the Middle Age and, as shown by the presence of the Church of Saint Mary of Egypt, until the modern era.

In fact since at least the 15th century, in the intent to restore the morality of the city of the Pope, the prostitutes of Rome were all relegated in a kind of ghetto, known as the “burdelletto“, the small brothel. Guess what? The chosen place was exactly this one, with the hope that the example of Saint Mary would help the lost women in their redemption!


Once again we have seen as things don’t change so much during the centuries :)

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Pictures Credits:

  • Temple of Portunus – CC BY 2.0 – Anthony Majanlahti
  • Icon of Saint Mary of Egypt – Russia, late 19th cent.
  • Detail of a miniature of Mary of Egypt – France, 15th cent.
  • Acca Larentia by Jacopo della Quercia (Santa Maria della Scala Hospital, Siena)- CC BY-SA 3.0 – Combusken
  • The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt – Giuseppe Vasi, 18th cent.