Monday, March 10, 2014


There are places that have been forgotten and then through some happenstance, rediscovered. Rome is full of such examples.  The Auditorium of Hadrian existed only in antique references, but recently has been discovered and identified during the dig for the new Metro Line C currently plowing underground through the Centro Storico.  And then in contrast there are those places that have persisted with an uncanny sense of continuity.

Isola Tiberina, high water from winter rain
The Isola Tiberina, a little lump of brick and stucco buildings that poke up from the river, is such a place.  Originally, it was not much more than a sandbar at a bend in the Tiber - a neglected place (except by criminals and unsavory types) until a catastrophe happened.  So often in history it takes a catastrophe to get things going, and in the case of the unfrequented Isola, the catastrophe came as a plague which swept through the city of Romulus in 293 BC.  A delegation was immediately dispatched to the sacred temple of Aesculapius, the god
of medicine and healing in Epidaurus, Greece, to seek help.  When the ship returned to Rome in 291 BC with one of the snakes sacred to Aesculapius as cargo, the precious cargo escaped and slithered away to the unsavory and uninhabited Island.  An Omen. Yes, an Omen.  When things don't go according to plan, it is an Omen.  

A temple to Aesculapius was built on that sand bar, and the island became a center of the healing arts.  In the 1st century BC, the sandbar was reshaped by a travertine embankment sculpted to look like a boat in honor of the origin of its mission.  After millenia of wear, Aesculapius and his snakes on the prow of the boat are still visible.  At the center of the Island, an obelisk was erected representing the mast of the ship.  Today, the obelisk is gone, replaced with a more christian monument.  Aesculapius' temple has been replaced by the church of San Bartolomeo,  who by association with this locale is now the patron saint of medicine and healing.   (The inscription on the facade of the church proudly proclaims that the body of St Bartolomeo the apostle "is here").  Opposite the former temple/ current church,  the island is dominated by a hospital of the Fatebenefratelli (the do-good brothers), founded in 1584, continuing the very ancient tradition of hospice and  healing the sick on this island.

travertine prow, Isola Tiburina, 1st century BC
detail, Aesculapius + snake, travertine prow
San Bartolomeo, Isola Tiberina

When I reach a point where things aren't going as planned, I mutter the word "Omen".  It was, after all, one of those slow moving catastrophes that seem to plague our lives that landed me here in Rome. 

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