Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Hope, health and healing on the Tiber

Kathleen Taylor
Mary McDermott

Chicago, Illinois, United States


Isola Tiberina is a fascinating yet frequently overlooked island in the heart of the Eternal City. It includes ancient Roman ruins, a historic church, and a large major hospital. Viewed from above, Isola Tiberina has the shape of a ship with two bridges serving as oars connecting to the mainland. The island is known for its charm, artistic beauty, and miraculous healing powers.

In 293 B.C., Rome was struggling with the devastating effects of a great plague. The Roman gods were impotent against the deadly disease. In desperation, a delegation was sent to Greece to request the assistance of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine. In hopes of ending their suffering, a numen or miraculous object was to be acquired and sent back to Rome. They received a snake, a sacred animal to the god, and planned to build a temple in his honor. On their return to Rome, the snake slithered off the ship into the Tiber River and wrapped itself around a tree trunk on Isola Tiberina.1 The Romans interpreted this as a sign to build their temple on that spot, which became the official site of Aesculapius Temple and the end of the deadly plague. A sculpted low relief of a snake twisted around the staff of Aesculapius can still be seen today on the island, an image that has come to represent the medical profession.

Isola Tiberina connects the ancient Christian neighborhood of Trastevere and the Jewish quarter of Rome by two remarkable bridges. Despite the historic differences between the Christians and Jews, there has been a strong relationship between the two communities.1 During World War II, the Basilica of St. Bartholomew and the Fatebenefratelli Hospital on Isola Tiberina served as a refuge for many of the inhabitants of neighboring Jewish ghetto.


The Fatebenefratelli Hospital

The Fatebenefratelli hospital is the largest building on Isola Tiberina, exuding charm, exceptional beauty, and amazing spiritual and healing artwork. It was founded in 1584 by the religious order of St. John of God, which continues to staff the hospital today. The name of the hospital originated from the words, Fate bene, fratelli! (Do good, Brothers!). St. John of God was devoted to caring for the poor and sick with compassion and dignity. The mission of the Brothers was to give both medical and spiritual care to those in need. Unlike today’s technical hospitals, the Brothers insisted on providing a comfortable and domestic “home-like” healing environment.

The Fatebenefratelli Hospital Hospital courtyard

A charming courtyard is located inside the hospital, complete with a water fountain, plants, brightly colored goldfish, and turtles. Patients open their windows allowing fresh air to flow through their spacious rooms or simply view the beauty of the quaint courtyard.

Deep in the basement exists a part of history very few other hospitals can claim, ancient ruins. The ruins were discovered in 1994 during the construction to expand the hospital. The renovation was designed to show the ruins through glass walls and panels on the floor, which amazingly co-exist within the present medical services of the hospital.1

Perhaps the most amazing area of the hospital is the richly decorated church, San Giovanni Calibita. This church is lavishly adorned in polychrome marble and can only be accessed from inside the hospital. A famous thirteenth century painting, Madonna della lampada, is preserved in the church. According to legend, this painting, which has an embedded lantern, was found at the bottom of the river during the flood of 1557.1 Although the painting and lighted lamp were submerged, the lamp continued to burn miraculously underwater.

In addition to the stunning church on the first floor, there is a chapel on the second floor with outstanding stained glass windows depicting care of the sick as well as several unique statues of a Brother assisting a patient in a wheel chair and another of a Brother accompanying an amputee.

Today, the Fatebenefratelli hospital is renowned for its obstetrics unit. They register over 4,000 births a year in this busy and favored maternity ward. More than eight out of ten Romans are born there every year. Many expectant mothers become enamored with the tranquility, beauty, and history of the Island. A typical delivery room has large windows and a walkout veranda overlooking the city and river. The hospital is also recognized for having over 2,300 years of service, one of the longest recorded healing traditions. It is also proud of a special visitor, Pope John Paul II in 1981.


The Basilica of St. Bartholomew

Across from the Fatebenefratelli hospital, stands the picturesque Basilica of St. Bartholomew. The basilica was built over the former temple of Aesculapius, where Romans traveled to request healing for their illnesses. German Emperor Otto III founded the basilica in 997 to honor Bartholomew the Apostle. He requested the body of Bartholomew be transferred to the basilica, where it rests to this day. The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew states he was flayed alive and then crucified head down. In religious art, St. Bartholomew is often represented holding his own flayed skin. Perhaps the most illustrious example is presented in Michelangelo’s fresco, The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

Towering over the entrance of the basilica is an attractive steeple monument with four carved sides each representing a saint, all of whom had a connection with the basilica.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II chose the Basilica of St. Bartholomew as the permanent memorial of the modern martyrs. Inside the church, six side alters are dedicated to martyrs from around the world1. Presented on each alter are personal objects belonging to those martyrs. Upon entering the Basilica, two coats of arms are displayed representing the current pope and the titular head of the church. Today, Cardinal George of Chicago, Illinois is the titular head of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew.

One of the most captivating and historic artifacts in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew is on the marble steps leading to the altar, a tenth-century wellhead. The well is made from a Roman column of white marble, which depicts Jesus Christ, Otto III, and two saints. Astoundingly, this well dates back to the ancient temple of Aesculapius, known for its healing properties.

From the historical healing powers of the wellhead, to the holistic and spiritual care provided at Fatebenefratelli hospital, Isola Tiberina encompasses an extensive history linked to the art of healing and medicine. Today, Isola Tiberina is a fascinating island recognized for its current and historical significance as a place of hope, health, and healing.



  1. Bruce, William. Resurveying the religious topography of the Tiber Island. Diss. University of Florida, 2004. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0004894/00001
  2. Drago, V. (2013) Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew: A history of healing and worship. Rome, Italy.



KATHLEEN L. TAYLOR, RN, BSN, MS is a Nurse Informaticist at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center. After receiving her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Northern Illinois University, she was selected into the nurse residency program at Hines VA where she spent a year rotating through several units of the hospital. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing/Health Systems Management from Loyola University of Chicago. She recently traveled to Rome, Italy with a group from Loyola and completed the course Self-Care for Nursing Leaders through the Arts in Rome: Caring for Self and Others through the Arts.

MARY ANN MCDERMOTT, RN, EdD, FAAN is Professor Emerita, Niehoff School of Nursing Loyola University Chicago. She enjoyed many roles at Loyola over 40 plus years. She is currently employed part time as a nurse educator by Hines Veterans Administration Hospital, Hines, Illinois working with their nurse residency program. She is interested in how the arts and the humanities can renew and refresh nurses and has led educational tours to Rome, Italy where Loyola University has a campus for the last two decades. She is a founding member of the Hektoen Nurses and the Humanities group. Dr. McDermott would like to thank our Italian nurse tour guide of several visits to the hospital, Addolorata Vassallo, for allowing us access to this hidden treasure!


Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2013 – Volume 5, Issue 4
Fall 2013  |  Sections  |  Travel

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