I’d misread my ticket to the Palatine and Forum Romanum* so rather than spending the morning with the crowds I took a walk round the Capitoline Hill, admired the ancient monuments from above then wandered down to the river Tiber for a quiet picnic.
Isola Tiberina, the island in the Tiber, has a long history as a place of refuge and healing. It is still a remarkably peaceful place, right in the middle of a noisy and sometimes chaotic city.
As a convenient crossing point, the island has been joined by bridges to the bank either side since the first century BC. The early wooden bridges, vulnerable to flood damage, were soon replaced by masonry structures. This is Ponte Fabricio, built in 62BC. The bridge has been renovated a few times since then but the basic structure is the original. Inscriptions on the arch stones are a record of the Roman director of public works signing off the satisfactory work of the bridge contractors in 21BC. According to an article on the fascinating website of the Isola Tiberina Association, the builders of the bridge were guarantors of its safety for forty years and only in year 41 could reclaim the caution money they had paid in advance.
Even before the first bridges were built the island was a place of refuge for the sick with a temple dedicated to the medicine god Esculapio built in 289BC. In 293BC a sacred snake had been brought from the sanctuary of Esculpaio in Epidauro in response to an outbreak of plague in Rome. When the ship docked at Campo Marzio the snake slithered free and dived into the river, washing ashore downstream on the island and so indicating the position where a temple should be built. The island became a place of worship and healing and has remained so ever since. In time the pagan temples were replaced by Christian churches, monks took on the responsibility for care of the sick and gradually improving medical science offered new ways for patients to be treated, rather than simply isolated.
There are still two hospitals on the island, both now integrated with the state medical service. The Fatebenefratelli hospital, established in 1585 is now a modern hospital with 420 beds. The Jewish hospital has transferred most of its work to larger premises elsewhere (now open to all faiths) but still runs surgeries on the island.
When I sat on the steps at the end of the island to eat my lunch I was sharing the space with a party of French students. Looking back from the next bridge a little later, just a handful of people were settled in the shade of the poplar trees or strolling by the river.
(Click for a closer view)
* In yesterday’s post I confidently explained the advantages of spreading a visit to the Palatine and Forum over two days on one ticket. I’d got my facts wrong. On the entrance ticket to the archaeological complex ‘valid for two days’ is helpfully translated into English. The main title at the top of the ticket says Col-For-Pal- Singoli Intero which doesn’t mean entrance for one single person but one single entrance to each place. So on the second day I could have visited the Colosseum but couldn’t go back to the Palatine again.