Legend has it that the Tiber island was created in a peculiar way: after driving out king Tarquinius Superbus and as a mark of their hatred towards the tyrant, the Roman populace cast all his crops into the Tiber and the mud that accumulated on them formed the island itself. In actual fact, a tufa bank, like the one of the nearby Capitoline hill, is the geological foundation for the sand deposits brought there by the river’s current. From the remotest times, the need for the peoples on both banks to ford the river made this island crucial because the river was not deep here. Over the centuries, despite its later sacred character, the island was inserted in the trading activities of the nearby port by building its bridges and embankments.
Another ancient tradition tells why the island has always been associated with caring for the sick and also explains why it was also called the Stone Ship. In 291 BC, Rome was stricken by a terrible plague that had claimed many lives and, after consulting the Sibylline Books, the priests sent a delegation to Epidaurus, the centre of worship of the cult Aesculapius, god of medicine. The ambassadors returned to Rome bringing back a serpent, an animal sacred to the god, with them on their ship. As Ovid writes in Metamorphosis, as the ship came alongside the Tiber island, the serpent jumped out and a temple dedicated to Aesculapius was erected on the place where the snake had taken refuge.
The Tiber island has the very shape of a ship and the legend, confirmed by archaeological evidence, told that the whole perimeter containing the sacred buildings was conceived to look like a vessel with its bow facing the current and its mast symbolically represented by an Egyptian obelisk. In actual fact, a careful study of the remains shows the construction of wharves and access ramps, but it is still enjoyable to stand at the hypothetical bow of this stone
ship and imagine oneself moving due to the optical effect of the current that divides into two on contact with the island. The island has always been a “place of health”. In ancient times this function was exalted by the building of shrines and temples, now long gone, dedicated to varies deities, and by the many votive offerings from the sick found. In more recent times, the tradition continued with the construction of the Basilica of San Bartolomeo in whose entrance staircase was left an ancient well of salutary water – a place of hope for the many disabled. Moreover, in 1582 the island’s other church, dedicated to San Giovanni Calibita, was entrusted to Spanish friars who set up a hospital that is still functioning today under the name of “Fatebenefratelli”, from the litany that the good friars used to chant when going out at dusk to ask for alms.
The Tiber island is connected to the mainland by two ancient bridges: the Pons Cestius linking the Trastevere suburb to the island, and the Pons Fabricius, also known as “dei Quattro Capi”, whose access is guarded by the medieval Torre Caetani, links the island to the Ghetto area.