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 shape of a prow of an ancient trireme. We can still just make out, carved in relief, Aesculapius (also known as Asclepius) holding a staff entwined with a snake, which remains a symbol of medicine to this day. The rod of Asclepius is often mistakenly confused with the caduceus, the staff that is entwined with two snakes, which is an attribute of the god Hermes/Mercury.
Although no trace of the ancient temple has yet been found, it seems certain that it stood on the site of the medieval church of San Bartolomeo all’ Isola.
Home to a hospital, which was founded in 1584, the Isola Tiberina remains a place of healing.