Isola Tiberina; a ship built of stories

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Sometimes an island pops up in an unexpected spot.

In the hectic city centre of Rome, the Tiber splits in two to create space for an island: Isola Tiberina. Just as in the rest of the Eternal City, this islet is steeped in legendary anecdotes. It abounds in spectacle and horrors that dull its true history.

Isola Tiberina is moored like a ship in a bend of the river, the concrete stem riveted to one of Ponte Garibaldi’s piles.

Myths speak of Tarquinus Superbus as the central figure of the island’s genesis. Farmers threw their corn harvests in the River Tiber, furious at the iniquitous policy of their ruler. However, the stream of the river did not carry away the corn, but held it in one place and thereby formed Isola Tiberina. A more bloodthirsty version describes that not corn was thrown in the river, but the body of Tarquinius. Sludge and plants stuck to the corpse, which grew into an island.

The truth is not as sinister. Like all of Rome, the island consists of volcanic rock.

In popular speech, Ponte Fabricio is called the Jewish Bridge or the Four-headed Bridge. Rome’s oldest stone bridge connects the Jewish ghetto with the island. Four stone heads represent two Janus faces. Details have lost their recognition, faded and hollowed by the the ravages of time. Or perhaps these are not Janus faces, but the faces of the four architects Pope Sixtus V had ordered to be beheaded? It was their punishment because they failed to agree on the restoration work of Ponte Fabricio.

Rome counts over 900 churches, so it is no surprise that the small Tiber Island has its own house of worship: the Basilica San Bartolomeo all’Isola. The cathedral is dedicated to Bartholomew the Apostle, one of Jesus’s apostles, and martyr. He was skinned alive, hence his effigies with a knife or an arm with flayed skin like a rolled up shirt sleeve. Other historians claim he was not skinned, but crucified, upside down, his skull cleaved. His split skull is kept in the Frankfurt Cathedral and his bones are held in the island cathedral on Isola Tiberina.

In ancient times, a temple in honour of Asclepius, the god of medicine, stood where the Basilica is now. The pre-Christian legend recounts a ship that fared from Epidaurus in Greece along the River Tiber, carrying a statue of Asclepius. Or, according to another narrative, he came accompanied by a holy snake, the symbol of Asclepius. When the ship passed Isola Tiberina the snake was called into being and slithered onto the island. That was an abundantly clear sign for a temple to be built. To enforce the event, the island got a ship’s side made of travertine and an obelisk, to depict the mast of a Roman galleon. ‘Deliriant isti Romani’: A mad lot, those Romans.


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