Thursday, February 6, 2014

Floods on the Tiber

Today's photos

1. The normal appearance of the river, the Tiber Island and its two bridges.

2. More or less the same view on Feb. 2, 2014.

3. Ponte Fabricio with a normal river level.

4. Ponte Fabricio on Feb. 1, 2014.

5. Ponte Sisto with the Tiber in normal mode.

6. Ponte Sisto on Feb. 1, 2014.

7. Ponte Cestio as it appears normally.

8. Ponte Cestio on Feb. 2, 2014.

9. The downriver tip of the island is completely submerged.

10. One of the markers on the façade of S. Maria sopra Minerva (See translation below).


All of Italy, including the Eternal City, has been drenched with heavy, long-lasting rains more or less steadily since January 31. When this happens, our normally calm, peaceful little river, the Tiber, suddenly takes on a much more menacing appearance, as the photographs above show. I thought this might be an opportune time to spend a few words about our river, its floods and in particular the effect of these floods on the river's main attraction – the Tiber Island.


Rome, because of the river which snakes through its historic center, has a long history of floods going back to Ancient Rome and beyond. These inundations have been carefully recorded over the centuries, including stone markers on the walls of buildings which show the height which the water reached on certain dates. There were originally 125 of these markers, the first one dating back to the flood of November, 1277. There are still about 90 of them in existence, including two on the Tiber Island.


We don't have to go too far back in time to find one of the most disastrous floods in the city's history: December 28, 1870. The height of the water from that inundation is recalled by 46 stone plaques around the city, more than any other flood in the history of Rome. Just to mention a few famous places where the markers can be found, you can see them in Piazza del Popolo, Via del Corso, Piazza della Rotonda (the Pantheon), Piazza Navona and Castel Sant'Angelo. Several markers from various floods can be seen on the façade of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva which, along with the nearby Pantheon, is the lowest section of the city.


Some of these plaques are very simple, like the one in Piazza Navona which reads, in Italian: ALLUVIONE DEL DECEM 1870 (The flood of December 1870).  Others are very elaborate such as one of the several which are found on the façade of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (photo #10) which reads, in Latin:






(Hear follows a cute little design of a hand pointing to a river)






In the year of the Lord 1580 on the eighth day before the Ides of October (Oct. 8) in the seventh year of the pontificate of Pope Clement VII the Tiber rose to this point and the whole city would have been covered with water if the Virgin had not brought swift help to it.


A curiosity


The date of this 1870 flood is significant in the history of Rome. It occurred just over three months after the Italian troops of unification breached the walls at Porta Pia on September 20 and took the city away from the Papal State, declaring an end to the temporal power of the Pope. The flood was the first major emergency which the new secular city government had to deal with. It also resulted in the first significant construction project of the city, perhaps the most extensive one in its history – the retaining walls which we see today on both sides of the Tiber.


These walls, although they have deprived the river of much of its beauty and charm, have saved the city from further flooding. The Tiber has never been so high as to top these embankments which took over two decades to build, straddling the nineteenth and twentieth century. The closest it has come was on December 17, 1937. Although the waters on that occasion did not top the retaining walls along the banks of the river, they did invade the Tiber Island which is not protected by walls and hence is vulnerable to flooding. Two stone markers on the island indicate the height of the water during that flood, one outside the emergency room of the Fatebenefratelli hospital and one in the portico of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island.

The pictures of high water which you see in today's photos were taken on February 1 and 2, 2014. During periods of high water, like the current one, the gauges on the river are constantly monitored by the experts. When the level of the water reaches 13 meters on the gauge, it is considered a piena ordinaria, an "ordinary flood". This year the level did not get beyond 12 meters, so there was no real danger of flooding from the river. (Flooding from rain is another story)! Compare that "ordinary flood" level with the following four examples: November 14, 2012 – 13.50 meters; December 13, 2008 – 13.54 meters; December 17, 1937 – 16.84 meters; December 28, 1870 – 17.22 meters.


A curiosity


The Romans have a somewhat less scientific method to tell when the city is in danger from the river. If you look at the picture above of Ponte Sisto, one of the bridges in the Trastevere neighborhood, you will see a large round hole (occhialone) in the middle of the center arch. Any Roman will tell you that when you see water flowing through that opening, a disastrous flood is at hand. Fortunately, this has not happened since 1937.


Although the current high water of the river has not reached the dangerous 13 meter level, it has provided us once again in these days with a spectacular sight, particularly around the Tiber Island which looked something like a floating building, or a large cruise ship parked on the river. Dozens of tourists and Romans alike, including yours truly, braved the rain to record the event in pictures. Sandbags were brought to the island to help protect the hospital, but thankfully they were not needed. In the flood of 2008, the emergency room at the upriver tip of the island was closed as a precaution.


The waters are now receding and the danger to the island and to the city appears to be over. . . at least for now. The flood season is not over yet, and the next critical point will come with the Spring rains and the melting snow to the north. It will take quite some time to remove all the debris which the flood waters deposited on the bike/running path along the right bank of the river.


The Tiber Island is, at any time of year, a very interesting place to visit, but most tourists in Rome never set foot on it. I strongly recommend that you acquire and read my guidebook entitled Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew. It's an easy read, has lots of photos and prints and, as we say in Italian, costa una bazzecola (it costs peanuts). If the history of Rome could be expressed as a mosaic, the Tiber Island would certainly be one of the most important tesserae. 


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