The Isola Tiberina, the small island in the middle of the river Tiber, has long been associated with the arts of healing.
As far back as 291 BCE a temple to Aesculapius (the Greek god of medicine) was built on the island. Two years earlier, following a severe attack of the plague in Rome, the Senate had sent a delegation to the Greek city of Epidaurus (said to be the birthplace of Aesculapius) to obtain a statue of the god. The Romans also brought back a sacred snake from his temple. As the delegation were returning up the river Tiber, the snake slithered off the ship and swam onto the island. This was believed to be a sign from Aesculapius, indicating where the god wanted his temple to be built.
The Temple of Aesculapius was very large and surrounded by porticoes, under which the sick and ailing would spend the night in the hope that the god would visit them in their dreams and prescribe a cure. During the course of excavations in the 19th century, several pits containing ex-votos in the shape of human arms and legs were discovered in the vicinity of the temple.
Around the middle of the 1st century BCE, one end of the island was modelled into the prow of an ancient Roman ship. We can still just make out, carved in relief, Aesculapius (also known as Asclepius) holding a staff entwined with a snake. Snakes slough off their skins and are thus rejuvenated, which is why a snake winding round a staff is still widely used as a symbol of medicine.
Although no traces of the ancient temple have yet been found, it seems certain that it stood on the site of the medieval church of San Bartolomeo all’ Isola.
Home to the ancient Fatebenefratelli hospital, which was founded in 1585, the Isola Tiberina remains a place of healing.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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