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Bill Thayer

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S. Bartolomeo all' Isola


[image ALT: A small piazza: toward the right, a square pillar, about 6 meters tall and capped with a pyramid surmounted by a cross, with on each side a sculpture of a standing saint in a circular-arched niche. On the left, a nondescript three-story building; in the background, the façade of a two-story church: the ground floor presents three circular arches, the spaces between them filled by small circular-arched niches framed by columns; the upper story has five rectangular windows, of which the three in the center are surmounted by pediments; and above this central portion a classical pediment. Further back, the upper three stories of a brick belfry, which must be five stories tall, can be seen, with an assortment of arched openings. It is the church of S. Bartolomeo all' Isola in Rome.]

As often in Rome, the early 17c façade conceals a much older church.

The church was founded on the small island in the Tiber, a very prominent location, sometime between 998 and 1001; not just by anyone, but by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. The handsome Romanesque belfry was added in 1113; by 1180 or so, Pope Alexander III already found it necessary to restore the church. After it was severely damaged by a disastrous flood of the Tiber in 1557, a much more fundamental series of restorations was required: first in 1583‑1585, then in 1623‑1624 during which the façade you see here was added; it is variously attributed to Martino Longhi the younger or to Orazio Torriani.

As is usually the case with Roman churches, the deeper inside you go, the older it gets: behind the Mannerist façade, and beneath the Baroque alterations of the interior, a medieval church. Fragments of the 12c pavement remain, as does a medieval marble well in the center of the church in front of the high altar; drop a coin down it, and it will clink after a measurable time: not surprising since S. Bartolomeo was built on the ruins of a Temple to Aesculapius, a place where in Roman antiquity people slept in the hopes of being cured of disease — and their offerings have been found here as well, by the thousands. The crypt of the church, not visitable without special permission, dates back to a very early period.

As usual, a more nearly complete website will be forthcoming, by and by. Right now:


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[ 1 page, 2 photos ]

The things one finds in churches! What is a bronze basin of Arab manufacture doing here, quietly displayed on a wall of the S aisle? For once, we actually know; it should probably even be considered the most important object in the church.


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For the more studious, mind you, some good basic topographical and art history information is immediately available: Christian Hülsen's article on this church in Le Chiese di Roma nel Medio Evo, linked to 2 further important texts — Armellini's Le Chiese di Roma and the article in the 1763 edition of Filippo Titi's guidebook. If you read Italian in fact, this seems to be the single most comprehensive resource online on this church right now, with several pages of solid reliable information.


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Site updated: 12 Aug 05