Rome > Along the Tiber

Along the Tiber

This itinerary unwinds along the Tiber, always a characteristic element of the Roman landscape. Up until the construction of the embankments, in the late 19th century, it was completely navigable and characterised by an unending sequence of buildings that faced onto and were reflected in the water. The river was used for fishing and bathing; the water was used to drink and for motive power.

Our walk starts from the lsola Tiberina, which was of exceptional importance in the history of the birth and development of Rome. In fact, starting in extremely ancient times, the island's presence facilitated the crossing of the river, leading to the building of the first permanent settlements on the surrounding high ground.

According to ancient tradition, the island was allegedly formed in the late 6th century A.D. after the Etruscan kings were driven from Rome, when the people threw into the river, out of contempt for the monarchy, the wheat harvested on the royal properties of Campus Martius. Another legend tells of a large boat grounded in the middle of the river during a flood, and later filled up with sand transported by the current.

In reality the island is situated on an ancient volcanic rock core similar to that on which the nearby Capitol stands, but the shape actually does seem to resemble a ship. This did not escape the attention of the Romans who, in the 1st century B.C., accentuated the shape, modelling the island's sides with travertine and raising an obelisk in the center, like a majestic mast. This “stone ship” was meant to commemorate the healthful ship of Aesculapius, the god of medicine, and his miraculous intervention.

Legend has it that in the 3rd century B.C., during a plague, the Romans went by ship to Epidaurus, in Greece, to learn from the god Aesculapius how to escape the scourge. But when the returning ship was ascending the river, the god’s sacred serpent slipped out of it, at the point where the island was, indicating that that island was to be consecrated to him.

The construction of a building sacred to the god Aesculapius, where the present-day church of San Bartolomeo now stands, determined the definitive destination of the island to a place of medical treatment, also facilitated by its position segregated from the residential centre. Today, still, the Fatebenefratelli Hospital is the building which occupies the island almost entirely, characterising it deeply.

The island is connected to the mainland by two bridges: the Cestio, connecting it with the Trastevere bank, and the Fabricio, or Ponte dei Quattro Capi, which was built in 62 B.C. and is the oldest bridge in Rome which has arrived to us practically intact. From the island it is also possible to see a third bridge, the Ponte Rotto, which collapsed in the late 16th century. In the past the Ponte Fabricio was called Ponte dei Giudei (Bridge of Jews) because it joined the lsola Tiberina to the area of the Ghetto where Rome's Jews lived.

The term “Ghetto” is used to indicate the quarter lying between Monte dei Cenci and the Theatre of Marcellus, lying entirely within the Sant'Angelo district. lt was founded by Pope Paul IV Carafa in 1555,and abolished only in 1870, with the end of the Church State. lt was surrounded by a wall in which there were three gates, opened in the morning and closed at dusk. In an area of approximately three hectares, in the 17th century around 9,000 inhabitants lived there in frightful sanitary conditions.

The Ghetto faces onto the Lungotevere Cenci with the monumental building of the Synagogue, built in 1904, today also the seat of the lsraelite Museum of the Jewish Community of Rome. Behind the Synagogue runs the Via del Portico d'Ottavia, which owes its name to the ruins of the ancient portico built at the end of the 1st century B.C. by the Emperor Augustus for his sister. Inside part of the monument stands the church of Sant'Angelo in Pescheria, socalled in reference to the important fish market held here from the Middle Ages up to the end of the 19th century. The stone tablet used in the market to remind customers of the obligation to give the Municipal Magistrates the heads of any fish whose length was longer than that of the tablet itself is still there.

The church of Sant'Angelo was one of the four churches where Jews had to go every Saturday with the obligation of listening to the sermons aiming to convert them. It was possible to avoid doing so by paying a fine, but more often the Jews preferred to fill their ears with wax!

Today the Ghetto is one of the zones of Rome which, more than any other, has kept the physiognomy, aromas, and flavours of the old city: for a taste of the specialities of authentic Roman and Jewish cooking - carciofi alla giudia (crisp-fried whole artichokes filetti di baccalà (fried fillets of salted cod), coda al vaccinara (braised oxtail “butcher” style).

Continuing the itinerary southward, we reach the zone of the Forum Boarium, the site in ancient times of the cattle and beef market, and the Velabrum, once a stagnant marsh where, according to tradition, the basket with the twins Romulus and Remus was found.
The sons of Mars and Rhea Silvia, the twins were saved by a she-wolf who nursed them. For this reason the she-wolf has become one of the symbols of the city of Rome.

Dominating monuments in the area are the two famous Temples called of Vesta (the one with a circular plan, in reality dedicated to Hercules Victor) and of Fortuna Virilis (in reality dedicated to the river god Portumnus). Following is the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin dating from the 6th century and entrusted later to the Greeks who had fled to Rome from the East. ln fact, the church's name comes from the Greek, referring to the splendid decorations characterizing it.

Beneath the portico of the church, to the left, is the famous Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth), a large stone disk depicting the face of a faun or river god, with its mouth open. It is probably a monumental slab to close a drain but, according to legend, the stone was used to judge people's honesty: whoever told a lie while holding his hand in the mouth would have ended up pulling out only the stump.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck also fell subject to its mysterious charm in the famous film Roman Holiday!

At this point the walk continues towards Castel Sant'Angelo, northward; we can either continue on foot or take a bus. If, on the other hand, we want to take a short break, on the other side of the Tiber, at the entrance to Ponte Cestio, we can enjoy one of the most famous “grattachecche” (water ices) in Rome.

Castel Sant'Angelo was built in the early 2nd century by the Emperor Hadrian, as a monumental tomb for himself and his successors. It is connected to the left bank of the Tiber by Ponte Elio, today's Ponte Sant'Angelo, decorated with ten marble statues of angels with the symbols of the passion of Christ, carved after a design by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The monument's fate was decided in 403, when the Emperor Honorius incorporated it into the city walls, making it into a bridgehead on the river. From the 13th century it became an ”annexe” of the nearby Vatican, and Pope Nicholas lll created the famous “Passetto di Borgo”, a covered corridor connecting St. Peter's to the Castle.

The fortress became famous down through time, especially as a prison; here Benvenuto Cellini and the famous adventurer Giuseppe Balsamo, known as the Count of Cagliostro, were imprisoned.

The name Castel Sant'Angelo with which the fortress is known derives from a miraculous event which took place in 590: Rome was in the midst of a severe plague, and Pope Gregory the Great had organized a solemn procession to pray for its end. When the procession reached the Mole of Hadrian, Archangel Michael was seen flying and sheathing his flaming sword, symbolizing the end of the plague. The statue of the angel, placed on the top of the castle to commemorate the event, was replaced six times.

Leaving Castel Sant'Angelo behind us and again going along the Tiber, we go past the Palace of Justice and reach Ponte Cavour, on the other side of which is the Ara Pacis. The altar of peace was ordered by Augustus to celebrate the peace in the Empire after the conquests of Gaul and Spain. The monument, which originally stood near the present day Via in Lucina in the Campus Martius quarter, was moved here in 1938. Before the altar is the Mausoleum built by Augustus as a tomb for himself and his family. The monument, which fell into abandon, was at various times used as a vineyard, a garden and, in the late 16th century, an area for tournaments and bullfights. At the end of the 19th century it was called “Anfiteatro Umberto", and from 1905 to 1930 it was a concert hall called “Augusteo”. At the end of the 1930s the monument was separated from its surroundings, with the creation of the large Piazza Augusto Imperatore.