Nestled between two of Rome’s most famed neighborhoods, Trastevere and the Jewish Ghetto, there sits a tiny island. Blink and you will miss it. Yet, the Tiber Island is far more intriguing than simply acting as a crossing point over the winding river on the banks of which much of modern Rome sits.
This minute break in the currents of the Tiber is a symbol of Rome in itself. From the formation of the city to its uses today, few landmarks in Rome are more fabled amongst the locals than the Isola Tiberina. And what makes this place even more special than its stories old and new? The fact many simply skip over this stalwart of Roman history as they zone in on the historic center.
Formation of the Tiber Island
As is the case for much of Rome, the story of Tiber Island stretches back to the beginnings of the classical antiquity age, which spanned from the 8th century BC to the 6th century AD. Legend states that the final king of Rome, a tyrant named Tarquinius Superbus, was thrown into the Tiber by his loathing subjects. In turn, the silt and dirt that settled around his body supposedly gathered until the island was formed.
This tale could pave the way to an explanation as to why the minuscule island was associated with such negative connotations in Ancient Rome that only prisoners and the sick were condemned to its shores. However, a second, and perhaps more believable, edition of the story recounts the king’s wheat and grain being disposed into the water, rather than his body, resulting in the growth of the island.
→ Take a view of Tiber Island with our Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere Tour.
Transformation of the Tiber Island
Sat between the two ancient bridges Ponte Cestio and Ponte Fabricio, the island was once called Insula Inter-Duos-Pontes (the island between the two bridges). Whichever fable one believes to be true of this island’s formation, if any at all, the transformation of its uses under the Roman Republic cannot be debated.
In the 3rd century BC, a temple was built on the island. It is accounted that the Roman Senate was directed by a Greek oracle to dedicate a temple to Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, in a bid to put an end to a plague in 293 BC. Upon a delegation’s return from Greece, a snake that had been aboard their ship supposedly slithered into the river and onto the banks of the island – a sign to the Romans of their temple’s destination.
The island, separated from the mainland and the plague that once invested it, was eventually crafted into its ship-like shape that we see today roughly 300-400 years later. Moreover, an obelisk was erected as a form of mast to complete the ‘vessel’s’ construction.
Adaptation on the Tiber Island
It is a well-trodden path in the history of the Eternal City. What was established by previous generations was adapted to suit the incumbent inhabitants of the city, none more so than during the height of Christianity in Rome. The Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island was built atop the old temple in 998 AD, during the days of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, the obelisk was removed in favor of a cross-topped column, further cementing and personifying Rome’s latest religious outlook.
Yet, it was not until the year 1584 that Tiber Island gained its iconic feature that still operates today. Once hosting the temple to the Greek god of healing, it is fitting that a hospital has been active on Tiber Island now for almost 440 years. The Fatebenefratelli Hospital has even become such an everpresent within Rome that today many locals maintain that you are not a true Roman if you were not born within its wards!
Most recently, the hospital is said to have been the place where a doctor in World War II “invented” a deadly and highly contagious illness. Nazi officers steered clear of the island and its fictitious “Syndrome K” as Jews came from the Jewish Ghetto, just a stone’s throw away across the Tiber, to shelter within the hospital’s fortress-like walls.
Standing the tests of time
A mix of folklore and truths, Tiber Island has seen changes in the way it has been viewed, used, and remembered since written records began. From stories that revel in revolutions to symbolism that cemented certain regimes, the island has become engrained in Roman culture, history, and society.
It may seem a simple crossing point as you make your way to the main attractions of the historic center from the direction of Trastevere, but Tiber Island is a gateway to understanding the history of the Eternal City. It would be a great miss to follow the crowds in gazing over this island of great intrigue.