ROMAN ITINERARIES – RIPA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 44
RIPA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 44
The Ripa District Itinerary 44 is focused on one of the most modern Districts of Rome in its actual structure. Indeed, in 1921, due to a resolution that reorganized the division of the districts of Rome, the Ripa District lost two large areas to the south-east, which gave birth respectively to the Testaccio District and the St. Saba District: it was since 1743, the year in which Pope Benedict XIV reigned, that such an important change in the topographical and administrative division of Rome had not occurred.
The coat of arms of the Ripa District is a white rudder wheel on a red field: this is a clear reference to the relationship between the Ripa District and the river ports on the Tiber, both the oldest ones, like the Tiberine Port on the left bank, and the most modern ones, like the Ripa Grande Port on the right bank.
The District offers several zones very rich in archaeological and historical memories, such as the Velabro, the Forum Boarium, the Circus Maximus, the Aventine and the Tiber Island. Even the names of the streets often recall ancient traditions, such as Via dei Cerchi, which is the border with the Campitelli District and that in its name recalls the Circus Maximus reduced over time to a ruin, so that its large arches were nicknamed “circles” by the Romans.
The Ripa District, in its promenade overlooking the Circus Maximus or St. Mary in Cosmedin, recalls the cheerful sequence of the movie Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck: it was thanks to it that the Mouth of Truth, once known only by the Roman people, acquired its legendary fame. The Circus Maximus also owes its greatest glory to the colossal Ben Hur, in which it is shown as a wonderfully reconstructed stage packed with cheering crowds in the famous sequence of the chariot race.
The Velabro, the landing on the Tiber and the Aventine are the places of the legendary origins of Rome: here, on the Aventine Hill, Remus counted the vultures in the sky, here the heroes of mythology landed, here the merchants did business with their goods, here Atilius Regulus embarked on his last honorable mission, here St. Augustine disembarked in search of spiritual salvation, here the Goths embarked loaded with loot.
It was in the Ripa District that the Byzantines devoted to the cult of images found refuge, it was in this ward that the Jews buried their own dead, and it was always in this area that first the Templars and then the Knights of Malta established their Roman headquarters. Here the roses bloom, and here Mussolini opened the large streets that were to connect Rome to the sea.
It was right here (where the first port on the Tiber would later be founded) that the first “tourist” to Rome, Aeneas, arrived. He immediately met the first “Tour Guide”, Evander, who accompanied the Trojan hero on a real guided tour through the destiny of the future city.
The Ripa District has always been a place of medicine, first of Aesculapius and then of St. John of God, but in front of the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, a place of pain and hope, opens the hospitable and friendly Roman tavern of Sora Lella, sister of the great Italian actor Aldo Fabrizi, where even today you can taste one of the best carbonara pasta in Rome.
The Ripa District, however, was also the area of the port, with its corrupted habits, its taverns and its prostitutes: perhaps for this reason the great patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, from the top of his monument, lowers his frown and does not smile.
Our itinerary starts from the Monte Savello Square, the same starting point of the previous Itinerary. On this square, overlooked also by the already examined Savelli Orsini Palace, you will find the meeting point of four districts of Rome (Ripa, Campitelli, Pigna and Sant’Angelo), a topographic detail indicated by the column dedicated to the Fallen in the First World War, who were Roman citizens of the above mentioned districts.
Piazza Monte Savello – Isola Tiberina
THE FABRICIUS BRIDGE
Now take the Fabricius Bridge, which joins the left bank of the Tiber with Tiber Island. The Fabricius Bridge was built by the curator viarum Lucius Fabricius in 62 BC and is the oldest of the bridges of Ancient Rome that exist today. It consists of two travertine arches and an arched passage in the middle pier, built in tuff and intended to reduce the pressure applied by the waters of the river in flood: there were two other arches at the heads of the bridge, but they were respectively incorporated in the Tower of the Maiden and destroyed by the construction of the Tiber walls. On the arches of the bridge are still legible the large inscriptions made by Lucius Fabricius, which remember him as the builder of the bridge itself, accompanied by smaller inscriptions that recall the restoration made in 21 BC by the consuls Marcus Lollius and Quintus Lepidus. On the parapet of the bridge there is an inscription that recalls a restoration carried out in 1669, during the papacy of Innocent XI.
At the beginning of the bridge you can see two four-faced herms, placed there probably at the end of the 15th Century with two other similar ones: the bridge is indeed known as the Bridge of the Four Heads, because the herms show four heads attached by the nape in which it is perhaps possible to identify the faces of Apollo and Dionysus. Legend has it that the two double herms of the Bridge of the Four Heads recall four architects, commissioned by Pope Sixtus V to restore the bridge and unable to reach an agreement on the work: the legend says that the Pope was so furious to give the order to behead them, keeping alive the memory of his order with those marble heads. This is obviously a false legend, dictated by the fame of “head-cutter” that surrounded Pope Sixtus V, who remained famous for having harshly repressed crime in the Papal State.
THE TOWER OF THE MAIDEN
Before entering the island, observe on the left the Caetani Tower, once the property of Countess Matilde from Canossa, the same one who forced Emperor Henry IV to spend three days barefoot in the snow to make peace with Pope Gregory VII. The tower is nicknamed “della Pulzella” (of the Maiden) because you can see, set in its masonry, a small marble female head, believed for centuries by the Roman people to be the portrait of Matilda herself, while in reality it dates back to the I Century AD.
THE TIBER ISLAND IN THE ANCIENT TIMES
After crossing the Fabricius Bridge you can walk on Tiber Island, whose history is lost in legend. The stories of the most archaic Rome narrate how the island itself is the result of the grain of King Tarquinio Superbus that the Romans, chased the hated Etruscan tyrant from Rome, threw into the river refusing to eat it.
Actually, historically speaking, the Tiber Island marked since the XV-XIV Century B.C. the place of an easy ford of the river from one bank to the other, along that commercial way that connected Southern Etruria with the Latin peoples and with Campania. Next to this easy point of passage of the Tiber emerged a first modest town, for all those who wished to combine the traditional agricultural and pastoral activities with the commercial one. It is not by chance that just in front of the island rose the first and oldest port of Rome where, according to the myth, Aeneas would have landed.
THE TEMPLE OF AESCULAPIUS
The historian Livius tells us that on the island, in 229 BC, took refuge the snake sacred to the god of medicine Aesculapius, that the seers had brought to Rome from the Greek city of Epidaurus, where stood the most important sanctuary of the god, to whose oracle the Romans themselves had gone to ask how to end a terrible plague that had killed countless people in the city. The priests of Aesculapius delivered the sacred snake to the ambassadors of Rome and the reptile threw itself into the water just as the ship had already arrived near the docks of the Tiber Port, going to hide in the dense spontaneous vegetation of the island. For the Roman priests, the episode was a clear message of the will of Aesculapius: it was necessary to consecrate the Tiber Island to Aesculapius and his therapeutic cult.
With this legend, the Tiber Island began to be inextricably linked to the universe of medicine and hospitals, suffering and hope.
Where today you can see the elegant Church of St. Bartholomew, at the time of ancient Rome there was the Temple of Aesculapius, inside which, next to the statue of the god, there was the pit where the sacred snakes were daily fed by the priests. Around the temple the Roman architects built long porticoes intended to offer shelter to those patients who underwent the practice of the “incubatio“: it consisted in spending the night sleeping under the porticoes after a few days of purification and fasting and then, upon awakening, in the narration of the dreams to the priests. The interpretation of these dreams allowed the priests to make a diagnosis of the disease, in the hope of reaching a therapy and sometimes a premonition on the outcome of the disease itself. The Romans built on the island other minor temples: to the god Tiberinus, to the god Faunus (protector of the parturients) and to the god Veiove (guarantor of the oaths).
THE TIBER ISLAND AS A SHIP
Probably influenced by the ancient legends and stimulated by its naturally elongated shape, the Romans decided to decorate the two ends of the island with a marble reproduction of the bow and stern of a ship, thus transforming the island itself into a real stone ship.
THE TIBER ISLAND IN MODERN TIMES
With the transfer of the capital of the empire to Constantinople, the barbarian invasions and the diminished maintenance, the ancient buildings of the island went towards an inevitable decadence: In the 11th Century, the Emperor Otto III, present in Rome to assert the authority of the Holy Roman Empire against the papal supremacy, built a church on the site of the Temple of Aesculapius, dedicating it to his friend St. Adalbert, who died a martyr in Gdansk, whose relics arrived in Rome to be later joined by those of St. Bartholomew the Apostle to whom the church would be dedicated.
The struggles of the great medieval Roman families for the control of the city led the Caetani family to fortify the island and to build a hospice for needy or sick pilgrims.
The modern age saw the destruction of almost all the Caetani’s fortifications and the transformation of the hospice into a hospital, surrounded by a garden of orange and myrtle trees. The Tiber Island thus assumed its present appearance, resisting the proposals that emerged around 1870 when, with Rome becoming the capital of Italy, someone planned to completely flatten the island (fortunately for us, this crazy project was not followed).
THE CHURCH OF ST. JOHN CALIBITA
In front of the Tower of the Maiden stands the Church of St. John Calibita, connected to the hospital of the same name, better known in Rome as the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, a name derived from the call of exhortation that the monks of the Order of St. John of God repeated wandering through the city: “Fate bene, fratelli” (“you do well, brothers“).
The founder of the Order, Joao Cidade, had suffered an experience of faith during his stay in a hospital in Granada: from this conversion he drew all sensitivity to the suffering of the patients, crammed up to five per bed, with the sheets changed three times a year and the food intended only for those who could afford it. The Fatebenefratelli Hospital changed the fate of the patients, giving them back the necessary dignity: with them the patients had a single bed each, a daily medical examination (many of the friars were doctors) with their medical records and daily meals.
The Church of St. John Calibita, however, is dedicated to another saint, much older, who lived in the 5th Century, who abandoned his father’s wealthy home when he was young and went to live as a hermit in a hut (“Kalybe” in Greek), being recognized by his mother only shortly before his death. A story that recalls that of St. Alexius, of which we will speak in the next Itineraries.
Only in 1584 the church was assigned to the Fatebenefratelli Order, which renovated it. In any case, the current façade dates back to 1711, designed by Romano Carapecchia, with the elegant volutes connected to the tympanum.
THE VIRGIN OF THE LAMP
On the left of the façade you can notice a small fresco, copy of an older one preserved in the church. It is the replica of the so-called Virgin of the Lamp, who was the protagonist of two famous miraculous events. The first happened in 1557 when, because of a flood of the Tiber, the Tiber Island was submerged: the lamp that burned in front of this Madonna, however, was not extinguished, but emerged from the water still lit. The second miracle occurred in 1796, when the frescoed Madonna began to cry, grieved by the offenses that the French revolutionaries and Napoleon’s armies were causing to the Church of Rome.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The interior of the church has a single nave, with the ceiling painted by Corrado Giaquinto in the 18th Century with the Glory of St. John of God.
The famous and miraculous Virgin of the Lamp is on the first altar on the right, accompanied by two angels painted in the 17th Century by the Cavalier d’Arpino. In the presbytery you can see the Martyrdom of the Saints Porto, Ippolito, Ercolano and Taurino, painted by Corrado Giaquinto, while on the high altar there is a precious altar frontal of the 18th Century, made of mother-of-pearl and polychrome marbles, with a canvas representing the Madonna with the Child Jesus and St. John of God.
If open, go to visit the cloister, decorated with paintings with the Stories of the life of St. John Calibita, and the Hall of the Assumption, frescoed in the 17th Century by the Austrian painter Giovan Paolo Schor with on the high altar the Flagellation of Jesus painted in 1640 by Mattia Preti.
THE FATEBENEFRATELLI DENTIST
The Fatebenefratelli Hospital was rebuilt in the 18th Century and restored several times in the last Century: what remains of the original building is the ancient pharmacy, with the collection of beautiful vases of rare medicinal products.
Among the most illustrious doctors who worked in this hospital, the chronicles of Rome remember the friar Giambattista Orsenigo, who worked as a dentist in the hospital between 1867 and 1903. Orsenigo did not use any tools, but extracted the teeth with only the incredible strength of his fingers, so that often his patients did not have time to realize it: among his customers there were Giuseppe Garibaldi, the poet Giosuè Carducci and even Pope Leo XIII. The chronicles assumed a vaguely macabre aftertaste when it was discovered that the monk had the habit of keeping all the teeth extracted: at his death were found three chests full.
THE SQUARE OF ST. BARTHOLOMEW
At the time of the Ancient Rome, in front of the Temple of Aesculapius there was a small obelisk, symbolizing the main mast of the ship into which the Tiber Island had been transformed. In the Middle Ages the obelisk collapsed and broke (the fragments can be found in Paris, Munich and Naples) and in its place a column was erected, on which every August 24th the names of all the Roman citizens who had not taken communion on Easter Sunday were exposed to public scorn. In 1834 the engraver Bartolomeo Pinelli, angry to have been included in the list and to have been indicated as a miniaturist (a profession much less dignified than that of engraver), took his cart and crashed against the column, knocking it down.
The broken column was then replaced in 1869 by a small monument, made by the sculptor Ignazio Jacometti, surmounted by a small cross and adorned with statues of Saints Bartholomew, Francis of Assisi, Paulinus of Nola and John of God.
THE CHURCH OF ST. BARTHOLOMEW
On the square stands the Church of St. Bartholomew, which over the centuries has undergone numerous restorations following real catastrophes, such as the terrible collapse that struck it in 1557 for the already mentioned flooding of the Tiber, with the water that dragged away even the medieval ciborium and the Pope who decided to transfer to the Vatican the relics of the saints, until then kept in the church.
The façade of the church, animated by arches, niches, pilasters and volutes is a beautiful example of the beginning of the Roman Baroque: it was realized by the architect Martino Longhi the Elder, who chose to keep the high bell tower, erected in 1113, a small jewel of Romanesque art.
Enter the portico of the church, noting the epigraph testifying to the restoration work carried out by Pope Paschal II, the plaque indicating the level reached by the waters of the Tiber in the 1937 flood, and the two commemorative plaques mentioning the plenary indulgences that can be obtained in the church for the souls in Purgatory.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The interior of the church is divided into three naves by two rows of ancient columns, probably belonging (at least in part) to the ancient Temple of Aesculapius. The present floor, which replaced the original one in cosmatesque style, dates back to 1739, while on the wooden ceiling of 1624 you can see the Assumption of Mary with St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata and St. Bartholomew refusing to worship the deities of the pagans.
The welfare and hospital traditions of the Tiber Island are also reflected in the Church of St. Bartholomew, as demonstrated by the first two chapels on the right, frescoed with episodes from the Life of St. Francesca Romana and the Life of St. Charles Borromeo, two saints who performed great work of assistance to the sick.
In the third chapel, all the frescoes are dedicated to the Life of St. Francis of Assisi, represented together with St. Bonaventure also on the altarpiece, because the Church of St. Bartholomew is administered by the Franciscans.
THE MARBLE WELL
The artistic jewel of the church is located in front of the steps of the transept we can observe an extraordinary marble well of the 11th Century, carved from the shaft of an ancient column, which according to the tradition would be located in the exact point where was the source of water sacred to the god Aesculapius: it has a series of aedicules divided by twisted columns, in which are carved St. Bartholomew, St. Paulinus of Nola, Jesus and Emperor Otto III. On the stone of the well you can read the ancient inscription: “Let those who are thirsty come to the fountain and take a sip of health“. On the top of the well you can still see the marks of the chain that was used to bring down the bucket to get water.
THE CANNON BALL OF ST. BARTHOLOMEW
On the right of the transept, you can enter the Orsini Chapel, adorned with two styliphoric lions and with frescoes painted in 1628 by Giovan Battista Mercati depicting scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary.
Looking on the left wall, you will notice a cannon ball with a diameter of 14 centimeters that hit the Church of St. Bartholomew during the French siege of June 1849: the church was crowded with worshippers, but miraculously the bullet did not hit anyone present.If you want to see another cannon ball with a curious story, book the Museums and Galleries Tour and choose the Colonna Gallery.
THE OTHER DECORATIONS OF THE CHURCH
The altar of this chapel preserves the relics of St. Theodora, guilty of having betrayed her husband who loved her so much; repenting of her act of infidelity, she left the conjugal house, disguised herself as a man and as such managed to enter a monastery under the name of Theodore. Here he led a life of penance and prayer, until one day a young mother accused her of being the father of her child. Theodora, instead of revealing who she really was, declared herself guilty and offered to raise the child: the truth was discovered only at the time of her death.
The high altar of the church was donated by Pope Pius IX to replace the previous one, damaged by the already mentioned flood: inside there are now the relics of St. Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles, whose feast falls on August 24th. Usually depicted holding the knife of his decortication and his own skin (you can see him in the Sistine Chapel in Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Last Judgment), the Saint became the patron saint of tanners and of those who work with leather. To the right of the altar are the tombs of Saints Adalberto and Paulinus of Nola.
To the left of the transept is the Chapel of St. Paulinus, whose relics were brought back to Nola in 1909 at the behest of Pope Pius X. The chapel belonged to the Confraternity of the Millers, since around the Tiber Island there were numerous water mills that ended up blocking the waters of the river when it was in flood, sending them to pour more easily into the city.
THE TRADITIONS OF ST. BARTHOLOMEW
There are two important traditions related to the Church of St. Bartholomew.
The first one is linked to the so-called Barberini Codex of the Vatican Library, which narrates a famous episode related to the privilege of immunity enjoyed by this church. A prisoner, walking in the vicinity of the church, jumped on its grating, claiming loudly to be safe because he was standing on a privileged place of immunity: the cops tried to pull him down by force, but the friars rushed to his aid and with hoof beats drove away the policemen, who were even denounced as violators of the ecclesiastical privilege.
A second tradition linked the Church of St. Bartholomew with that of St. Mary of the Garden in Trastevere. From this second church the Brothers of the Red Sacks, chanting and hooded, went towards St. Bartholomew at the first shadows of the evening of November 2nd, proceeding with flaming torches and carrying in their hands skulls and shinbones. When they reached the Church of St. Bartholomew, they blessed the waters of the river in memory of the people who died in the Tiber and threw a flower wreath into it.
THE CESTIUS BRIDGE
To leave the island, from the opposite side to the one from which you arrived, it is necessary to cross the Cestius Bridge, erected in 46 BC by Lucius Cestius, brother of Caius Cestius who had the Cestia Pyramid built as a tomb, near the Ostiense Gate.
The bridge suffered the constant impetus of the river and was restored several times, until in 370 AD the emperors Valentinian, Valens and Gratian rebuilt it almost completely, inserting their inscriptions on large marble slabs still affixed to the parapets. One of these inscriptions reminds us that the materials used for the restoration were taken from the Theatre of Marcellus: this indicates that in the IV Century A.D. the aforesaid theater was already in disuse and very damaged. Alongside these ancient inscriptions, you can also see another from the 12th Century, celebrating the restoration of the bridge by Benedetto Carissimi, who in 1191 led a popular revolution against Pope Celestine III, conquering the Capitol and ruling Rome from there for two years.
The Cestius Bridge had only one central arch flanked by two smaller ones, but for the reconstruction of the Tiber embankment, between 1888 and 1892, the bridge was dismantled and rebuilt with three arches of which the sides are almost as wide as the central one.