Friday, April 12, 2013

Tiber Island

The Tiber Island has always fascinated me, to the point that I included a short chapter about it in my first book: The Sights of Rome. The island, however, and its basilica of St. Bartholomew deserve a much closer look. This is the project which I have been working on for the past year and which has finally come to pass. I am pleased, therefore, to announce to all the "Sights of Rome" readers the publication of my fourth volume in this series of books about the Eternal City: TIBER ISLAND AND THE BASILICA OF ST. BARTHOLOMEW. The front and back covers are today's photos.

This is a soft cover book of 96 pages filled with photographs and prints totaling over 140 items. The island and the basilica are often overlooked by tourists who have only two or three days in Rome and want (rightly so) to see the major and famous attractions such as the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican, etc.  Hopefully this little volume will inspire people to include a short visit to the island and its basilica, both of which have a long and interesting history filled with fascinating curiosities and anecdotes. As a kind of preview of the book, I am including in this post the Introduction written by me and the Foreword written by don Angelo Romano, rector of the basilica.

The book was printed in Rome in March of this year, and is being distributed primarily in this city. Copies are available in the United States only by mail – the same as my guidebook, THE BASILICA OF SANTA MARIA IN TRASTEVERE – as follows:

Send a personal check or money order made out to Kimberly Breaux to:

Kimberly Breaux

6709 Loreauville Rd.

New Iberia, LA 70563

(Kimberly is my niece and will fill your orders promptly and efficiently).

The price is the same for both books, so when ordering specify whether you want the new Tiber Island book or the Santa Maria book . . . or both!

1 book             $10.00 plus $2.00 shipping

2 books           $20.00 plus $3.00 shipping

3 books           $30.00 plus $4.00 shipping

(add $1.00 shipping for each additional book)


For my friends in Rome, both of these books are available for 12 euros each at:


The Almost Corner Book Shop, Via del Moro, 45  (tel. 06 58 36 942);

The Open Door Book Shop, Via della Lungaretta, 23  (tel. 06 58 96 478);

Minimum Fax, Via della Lungaretta, 90/e  (tel. 06 58 94 710);

The gift shop in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (only the Santa Maria book here);

The gift shop in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island (only the Tiber Island book here).




The Tiber Island is a remarkable piece of real estate in the very center of the Eternal City. Older than Rome itself, it is steeped in history and legend, charming and at the same time mysterious. Two ancient Roman Bridges connect the island to the mainland, and the remains of a third ancient bridge loom hauntingly just a few yards downstream, a reminder of centuries past. One of the few remaining medieval towers of Rome still stands on the island, challenging the charming bell tower of the little church of San Giovanni Calibita just across the street from it. The church, in turn, is incorporated into the Fatebenefratelli hospital which has been a part of the island since 1584.


But the centerpiece of the island, and of this book, is the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, a thousand-year-old church founded by the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III in the tenth century. Built over the third century B.C. Temple of Aesculapius, the basilica holds the remains of several saints, including the body of St. Bartholomew the apostle. Despite its age, the church still touches present-day reality since it was chosen by John Paul II in 1999 as the permanent memorial of the martyrs for the Faith in the twentieth and twenty-first century.


The island and the basilica are the source of many interesting curiosities. Why is there a cannonball embedded in the wall of one of the chapels of the basilica? What is the story of the ancient water well which still exists in the basilica? How did the island come to have the form of a ship? Why does one of the bridges have the odd alternate name: Bridge of the Four Heads? Why is there such a close bond between the Catholic neighborhood of Trastevere on one side of the island and the Jewish quarter on the other side? What connection is there between the visit to the basilica by Pope John XXIII and the 1960 Olympic Games? What bizarre story explains how a saint came to be buried in the basilica as a result of trickery? Why is a painting in the church of San Giovanni Calibita known as  "miraculous"?


The ninety-seven pages of this book are beautifully illustrated with photographs and prints totaling 140 items. This is an ideal book for someone who wants enough information about the island and the basilica, but not so much as to be  a burden. It can be enjoyed in connection with an on-site visit or a virtual visit from the comfort of your home.


Buona lettura!


Vincent Drago

Rome: March, 2013





I gladly welcomed Vincent Drago's proposal to write a preface  to his book on the Tiber Island. In the history of Rome, the island holds a very special place and merits attention which is all too often not forthcoming. It plays a key role in the history of a city founded on the Tiber. It is a place where one can grasp the complexity and beauty of Rome's historic center.


At first sight everything can appear chaotic: within a few square yards you find two important hospitals, two churches, a police station, an oratory, a synagogue, a restaurant, two bars and a medieval tower. The island underwent a radical transformation due to the demolition carried out after 1870, which drastically changed the physical relationship between the city and the river. After the razing of the homes along the Tiber, the island today is a place of healing, prayer and pleasant strolling. Many Romans were born in the maternity ward of the Fatebenefratelli hospital, others barely know the island. The tourist flow is less than in other parts of the city, and there are no great works of art known to the general public.


And yet the island has a special fascination which does not derive only from  nostalgia for "Rome-of-the-past" or from other stereotypes. Through growth, depletion and displacement, history – just like the Tiber over the millennia – has in part demolished, in part stratified and transformed the island. The result is an authentic interweaving of buildings, histories, places and memories. But it is not only the history of stones: the island, although it has very few residents within its small territory, is defined first and foremost by the level of its human relations. Its social fabric is what makes its history unique, like that of Rome. This is its true secret, hidden in the depths of a past almost too important, and a present little known. 


The island is a microcosm which testifies to the capacity of the Romans to live together, their tolerance (hidden by a veil of apparent skepticism), the ability to support one another in difficult times. Among several examples, I would recall the most important one which took place during the Nazi occupation of Rome between September, 1943 and June, 1944. There were three places on the island where the Jews who fled deportation and the death camps could seek refuge: the Fatebenefratelli hospital, the Basilica of St. Bartholomew and the Israeli orphanage. For months hundreds of Jews were aided and protected, at a time when the Nazis were promising rewards to those who would betray them and severe punishments to those who would hide them. And every year, on October 16, the anniversary of the deportation of the Roman Jews to Auschwitz in 1943, there is a silent march across the island to the Portico of Octavia. The Community of St. Egidio and the Jewish community of Rome recall in this way, together, the horror and violence, so that it might never be repeated. It recalls a deep wound in the human fabric of the city, to defend and reinforce that art of living together which is one of the special traits of this city.


The island is a piece of history, complicated and fascinating, and it takes passion and intelligence to penetrate its secrets: qualities possessed by Vincent Drago who has produced a much-needed guidebook.


don Angelo Romano

Rector of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island


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