If you like to stroll along the banks of the Tiber River, as I do when the weather is fine, you’ll eventually encounter the small river island known as Isola Tiberino.
The Tiber Island is the only island in the southern bend of the Tiber river. The purposely boat-shaped island is approximately 270 metres (890 feet) long and 67 metres (220 feet) wide. It is and has been connected with bridges to both sides of the river since antiquity.
In antiquity, an ancient temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, was built on the island.
Ancient sources say there was a great plague in Rome in 293 BC and the Senate consulted the Sibyl who instructed them to build a temple to Aesculapius. The Senate sent a delegation to Epidauros to obtain a statue of the deity. As instructed, the delegation went on board a ship to sail out and obtain a statue.
They obtained a snake from a temple and put it on the ship. It immediately curled itself around the ship’s mast, which was deemed as a good sign by them. Upon their return up the Tiber river, the snake is said to have slithered off the ship and swam onto the island. They believed that this was a sign from Aesculapius, a sign which meant that he wanted his temple to be built on that island.
This location may have been chosen for the Aesculapius Temple because it was separate from the rest of the city, which could help protect whoever was there from plague and illnesses.
The island eventually became so identified with that temple, that it was modeled to resemble a ship as a reminder of how it came to be. The Romans added travertine facing by the banks to resemble a ship’s prow and stern, and erected an obelisk in the middle to symbolizing the vessel’s mast. Walls were put around the island, and it came to resemble a Roman ship. Faint vestiges of Aesculapius’ rod with an entwining snake are still visible on the “prow”.
In 998 San Bartolomeo all’Isola (with a different original name) was built over the Aesculapius temple’s ruins on the eastern side (downstream end) of the island.
The island is still considered a place of healing because a hospital, founded in 1584, was built on the island and is still operating. It is staffed by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God or “Fatebenefratelli”. The hospital was built on the western half of the island.
Interior ceiling and apse of the Basilica di San Bartolomeo:
Today the island is a popular place to stroll on a fine day, to dine in the couple of trattorie, or to have an ice cream. African hawkers of knock-off goods line the 2 bridges, selling their wares until officials come along.