Curiosities about Tiber Island

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The Tiber Island is one of the locations in Rome that enchants the visitors the most, because of its holiness. Its obscure origins tingle the visitors’ interest and attention. There are two different legends telling the tale of how the island was created, the Aesculapius’s tale and the hayricks one.

Even though the core of the island is the result of the accumulation of volcanic rocks and debris over the centuries, many say that it was actually created by the romans who, during a revolt against Tarquin the Proud, in 510 b.C.. It is said that, after the Tarquins were banished, the Romans thrown several hayricks -belonging to the Tarquin family- into the Tiber and that this event caused the formation of the first layer of the Tiber Island.

Another well-known legend tells the story of the epidemic in 291 b.C.: during the epidemic a ship sailed to the Aesculapius’ God of Medicine city Epiduro, to ask for his help. A snake, for many the symbol of Aesculapius’ embodiment, ran from the temple and once on the ship it escaped, swimming to the island, that from that moment on was consecrated to the god.

Nowadays, on San Bartolomeo’s Square we can admire the church that was, in ancient times, an Aesculapius’ temple, devoted to the snake, symbol of medicine and healing. The well is where the temple original well was. To honour the event, the island was shaped into a trireme (ancient ship) with its bow, stern and its mainmast carved into the rock. Originally, the mainmast was an obelisk, then replaced by a column with a cross on its top, now lost. The column was called “Colonna infame” (column of the infamous) because on it they used to hang the names of “the bandits that, on Easter day, did not attend the Mass”.

But these two tales are not the only ones surrounding the mystic island: legend has it that, in XVII the Confraternita dei Sacconi Rossi – a secretly society in Rome, which names comes from the red cloaks the initiates used to wear – used to inhabit the island: they had the deed of bringing on the island the corpses of those who died into the Tiber waters, and take care of their bodies and their burial when no one claimed their bodies. To this day, on November 2nd, a celebration takes place on the island in memory of “all the nameless deaths” where, at its end, several wreaths of flowers get thrown into the Tiber. The Confraternity, extinguished after the burials moved to the Verano cemetery, was recently reconstituted under the will of the Order of the Fatebenefratelli Hospital.

Not everyone knows that the name of this Order and, subsequently, of the Hospital, comes from an exclamation of its founder, Giovanni di Dio, Portuguese priest that used to walk in Granada encouraging the people to act generously. The most keen observers will notice the medieval tower, called “torre della pulzella”, because of the young woman head statue on its top.

This roman island is a treasure, full of history, legends, mysteries and secrets difficult to unveil.Naomi Roccamo

Naomi Roccamo