The Island in the Tiber in Rome

Rome's Isola Tiberina.
Below Ponte Cestio, connecting Isola Tiberina to the right bank. Carlo Portinari photos.

Isola Tiberina: The Island of Rome

By Carlo Portinari

In June, when the weather casts an enchanting aura over Rome in anticipation of the coming sultry season, an oasis of peace and serenity lies below ground level in the heart of the Eternal City - the Isola Tiberina, the Tiber island. In medieval times it was referred to as Lycaonia, perhaps because a statue found on the Ponte Cestio bridge reputedly originated from that region of Asia Minor which became a province of the Roman Empire in 373 AD.

The single-standing arch of the broken Ponte Rotto (originally Ponte Emilio), Isola Tiberina lower end
The single-standing arch of the broken Ponte Rotto (originally Ponte Emilio), Isola Tiberina lower end

There’s no doubt that the city owes her intrinsic nature to her river, having prospered from commercial expansion springing up around the strategic fording point. However, this channel of water has been deprived relentlessly of its historical prominence and connection to the bustling city above since the embankments (‘muraglioni’) replaced the original docks.

They were erected in the late 19th century following the annexation of Rome to the Italian Kingdom to reduce the periodical destructive floods occurring during the rainy season. However, this resulted in a lasting scar on the Tiber, limiting its function to a 'hushed-up' water flow and destroying a strong bond with the Romans.

Curiously, in spite of the fact that the Eternal City makes the opulence of her water supply a symbol of wealth (probably outnumbering any other city in the world for monumental fountains, drinking fountains and aqueducts), you hardly perceive the existence of the river unless you stumble across the Lungotevere, the three-lane thoroughfare on both banks lined with tall plane trees.

Highlights of the Island's Attributes
Nowadays, Lycaonia shows only a glimmer of the Tiber’s turbulent past and has become an icon of a stranded world, the most underrated ambience (by her own inhabitants) of Rome.

Kids near the bridge
Kids near the bridge

So, what sort of reward will a local or visitor receive from making their way to the Isola Tiberina? When I went there, the first thing that captured my imagination was the impression of being happily cut off from the rest of the city and thrown into a new dimension filled with a magical atmosphere, a microcosm that soothes the senses.

After a few hours spent strolling around some of the city's 'rioni', the typical city centre districts, I was lured to a location detached from the nearby buzz. Arriving from the left bank, I crossed the Ponte Fabricio, wending through groups of tourists in search of questionable bargains from street sellers of imitation fashion accessories.

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Before climbing down, I craned my neck over the balustrade to get a better view of the scene. I noticed a man wallowing beneath the Ponte Cestio arch that connects the island to the right bank.

Ponte Fabricio is also called Ponte dei Quattro Capi (bridge of the four heads) because of the two marble pillars with two-faced Janus herms standing on its parapet.
Ponte Fabricio is also called Ponte dei Quattro Capi (bridge of the four heads) because of the two marble pillars with two-faced Janus herms standing on its parapet.

He obviously preferred a shady spot near the brink, using a step as a recliner and his backpack as a pillow. From his comfortable pose, he seemed to be lying on a velvety mattress of rose petals instead of solid travertine slabs.

I descended to river level via the steps flanking the 'Fatebenefratelli' hospital, which embodies the legacy of the function - a 'healing house' - attributed to the island since the third century BC, when a temple dedicated to the cult of Aesculapius was built.


Stimulating Relaxation

On reaching the mooring area, car horns were but a feeble background as they rebounded to the sky above, keeping noise pollution to a minimum. With its enduring flow, the vision of the current at close range dispelled any concerns or fatigue, alternating my mood between elation at the sight and cherishing this special moment.

Heading to the upper section, my strength, as if hit by a wave of energy, was reinvigorated by a continuous breeze blowing through the twisted silhouette of the channel. Along the platform, a throng of idling sun-seekers, relaxing on slabs of flattened rocks which pave the island's rolling slope, were soaking up the arrival of longer days and warm sunlight.

Everyday bustle on Ponte Fabricio, connecting Isola Tiberina to the left bank
Everyday bustle on Ponte Fabricio, connecting Isola Tiberina to the left bank

Like a pirate crew in the bow of a vessel, another group perched on the grassy slice of the top slope. Crossing the peak, the other side was covered by the shadow of the hospital block commanding this part of the isle.

A fistful of fishermen venturing to fish in the polluted water had made this tract their refuge. My eye fell on their fishing gear, complete with shopping bags in which I could only distinguish plastic bottles refilled with 'turps' - probably white wine!

Site for Romance

Arriving at the lower end, I chose a spot on the first low-lying step near the edge. Directly in front of me stood the single-standing arch of the broken Ponte Rotto (originally Ponte Emilio), backed by the iron architecture of 19th century Ponte Palatino, the latter in stark contrast to the deteriorating Renaissance outline of the former.

The whole scene resembled a post-doomsday picture, bushes claiming any scattered earth on the remnants of monumental human activity.

Fishing in the Tiber, near the island.
Fishing in the Tiber, near the island.

A young couple entered the screen of the film I was visualising and sat a feet from me. Both wore black T-shirts, black sunglasses and jeans, and she held a map. With legs crossed, she lay with her head on her partner's lap, alternating between tinkling with her phone, cuddling and chatting with him. He, in his turn, lifted his glasses onto his head and looked at the single arch; then his glance followed the current in full swing.

Nearby, a woman in a casual outfit with a trolley was chatting with two girls. All from Venezuela, as I understood from their conversation, they were enjoying a last glimpse of Rome before heading to the airport. In small clusters or couples, tourists and locals moved like crabs on the rocks to find their spot for relaxation or romance, whether on a projection between two plane trees or above the staircase of a medieval building (now the location of the fluvial police).

Source of Inspiration

An American-looking girl with beautiful reddish freckles sat not far away, leading me to think she was trying to catch my eye, but I realised how foolish I was when she took a sketch pad and a set of colored pencils from her bag and began to draw.

19th century Ponte Palatino next to the single-standing arch of the broken Ponte Rotto (originally Ponte Emilio), south of Isola Tiberina
19th century Ponte Palatino next to the single-standing arch of the broken Ponte Rotto (originally Ponte Emilio), south of Isola Tiberina

To my left, a solitary student wearing a jeans shirt perched at the edge of the opposite embankment under a small tree, fully engrossed in reading a book. A gust of wind gently lifted her sleek, light brown hair in a fashionable way as if to emphasise the moment.

Similarly, a man in a vest sunbathed on a sturdy block of tufa below the dock level, his back curved in concentration over his literature. Returning to the steps, the vigorous sound of the weir flushed away the rattle of heavy traffic congesting the Lungotevere above.

Transfixed by inspirational nooks, crannies and natural lights, other students were committed to translating emotions into drawings. A couple of friends commenced a trivial conversation shielded by a travertine pillar; someone on the right embankment was enjoying a panoramic view of the sunlit isle.

Standing below the Ponte Cestio arch, a man was playing a trumpet. The melody permeated the atmosphere, invisibly intensifying the aura of the island.

Interestingly, I recently read something by Jorge Luis Borges, who stated that 'As a writer one needs to do nothing but wait for the thing he is looking for to happen and then simply write about it when it comes.' This statement is true regarding the 'Island of Rome'.

A lighthouse in the Tiber

Isola Tiberina offers everyone an upbeat impulse hidden behind an easy-going attitude and doesn't appear to present a single gloomy facet except perhaps the lack of public toilets, although that is common in Rome and Italy. Much like all islands, where one can often find more time to relax and think, Lycaonia has the privilege to showcase an undisputed charm. It's a small-scale outcrop of serenity, romance and leisure wrapped in deep-rooted historical and mystical elements.

Meanwhile, the city continued its daily bedlam whilst teeming with self-complacency in contributing to shape the river environment's 'shanty' appearance as well as demoting the Tiber to a backwater.

As dusk overtook the last beams of daylight, the lamps on the island were the only thing to prevent the riverbanks from falling into a rarefied darkness to which the Tiber would otherwise be doomed. Then the river becomes a hideaway for the homeless or, for those observing it from above, an alluring view plunging deep into one's innermost thoughts.

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Carlo PortonariCarlo Portinari is a passionate traveler and naturalist who has turned these interests into a profession, specialising in custom-designed trips to Italy and particularly to Rome. You can visit his blog at www.romebee.com.

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