Hidden Rome. The Tiber Island and the Brotherhood of the Red Sack.

There is a hidden Rome, different from the one usually known. A Spasso con Sara to discover the Tiber Island and the Brotherhood of the Red Sack.


Our adventure today starts from the heart of Rome and more precisely from the Tiber Island, the only island of the Tiber, the river of the Capital.

From its mythical origin (according to a legend it was born from a pile of sheaves of wheat belonging to the Tarquini and thrown into the river by the Romans after the expulsion of the last king, Tarquinio the Superb), the island has been the protagonist of the history of the city since its foundation. Thanks to the Ponte Fabricio (the one that leads to the Ghetto) and the Ponte Cestio (which connects it to Trastevere), it became the meeting place between the people of the north and those of the south, encouraged the birth of trade and cultural relations and played a key role in the development and growth of ancient Rome.


The Tiber Island with the Cestius and Fabricio bridges in a famous engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Credits: isolatiberina.it)


A magical island

But a halo of mystery, of magic, surrounds it since the third century BC.

Several Latin writers tell us that at that time the Eternal City was plagued by a terrible plague. On the advice of the Sibylline Books, ten wise men embark on a journey to Epidaurus, the Greek city where the sanctuary of Aesculapius, the god of medicine, is located.


Reconstructive hypothesis of the temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus (Credits: jorgerovira.blogspot.com).


Once at its destination, a large snake, interpreted by the Romans as a zoomorphic translation of the god, boards the ship. The Romans left again and, having landed on the Tiber Island, the snake, coming out of the ship, indicates the exact point where to build a temple in honor of Aesculapius. When the work is completed, the plague is eradicated.


The Tiber Island during the Roman Age. In the centre, the temple dedicated to Aesculapius. According to some Latin authors, the island was given the characteristic shape of a ship, in memory of the episode that occurred in the third century BC. (Credits: romanoimpero.com).


The Hospitaller vocation of the place

Next to the temple, on the remains of which the medieval basilica of San Bartolomeo all’Isola was built, the Romans had also built a series of hospitals where priests took care of the sick.

The therapies practiced on the island were of various types: surgical interventions, herbal medicines and/or natural substances, and especially the incubatio, the healing of the sick through dreams, induced by the administration of particular drugs or herbs or, perhaps, by a suggestion of hypnotic type.


Graphic reproduction of the interior of a sanctuary of Aesculapius. Therapy of the incubatio (Credits: lucania1.altervista.org).


This hospital function has been perpetuated over the centuries, so much so that on the Tiber Island stands today the Hospital Fatebenefratelli, one of the most famous of the Eternal City, founded in the sixteenth century by the order of the Hospitallers of St. John of God (called precisely Fatebenefratelli).


The Fatebenefratelli Hospital of Rome on the Tiber Island (Credits: ilgiornale.it).


The Confraternity of the Red Sack

The Island, therefore, has always been associated with life, to which one returned after recovery, but also with death. In fact, the cures put in place by the priests did not always have the desired effect.

And the red thread of death links the Tiber Island to the Red Sack, the confraternity founded in 1760 by the will of three craftsmen.

Their initial aim was, in addition to alms in silence and prayer, to go every day through the stages of the Way of the Cross (which at the time still arose inside the Colosseum) to acquire suffrages in favor of the souls of Purgatory. For this reason, they wore a long red coat, the color, that is, the blood of Christ. Their “uniform” included, then, a cordon to the waist, to which was hung a rosary, and a hood with two holes for the eyes.


The characteristic red dress (here in a modern version) of the Red Sack brothers (Credits: www.trastevereapp.com).


From 1768, the Red Sack were welcomed by the Franciscan Friars Minor at the Basilica of San Bartolomeo all’Isola and, in 1780, they bought a room with three naves on the ground floor of the left wing of the convent that they transformed into the Oratory of Our Lady of Sorrows, their historical home.


“Under” the Tiber Island: the Crypt of the Red Sack

The underground chapel of the Oratory of Our Lady of Sorrows is one of the “hidden” and lesser-known places in Rome. The crypt can still be visited today and the atmosphere there is really suggestive.

Having acquired the new headquarters and obtained official recognition from Pope Pius VI Braschi in 1784, the Sacconi Rossi began, in fact, to devote themselves completely to the dead. During the night, supported by the light of torches, they recovered the bodies of people drowned in the Tiber and gave them a worthy burial.

The bodies, taken from the waters of the river, were lowered into the crypt through a trapdoor and placed inside some marble tanks (still visible today, although covered with large slabs) filled with a layer of lime. The body, so stripped down, was reduced to a heap of bones that were either used to compose decorative elements (such as the chandeliers that we can still admire) or were neatly arranged in small niches along the walls. The custom, strange at first sight, follows what happened in other places in Rome in the eighteenth century, as in the case of the famous Capuchin Crypt in Via Veneto.



Bones arranged in the niches of the crypt (Credits: rocaille.it).


Most of the bones preserved belonged to members of the confraternity who, in some cases, were even dressed to continue to attend and attend the ceremonies and meetings of the brotherhood. For this reason, in the crypt we find a body with the characteristic red dress of the confraternity.


A skeleton preserved in the crypt that still wears the characteristic dress of the confraternity (Credits: diceche.blogspot.com).


The Re Sacks today: the annual commemoration of the dead

The confraternity, which came to almost complete extinction in the sixties, still exists today but has clearly ceased its activity of collecting corpses in the Tiber. Instead, some liturgical rites that had great importance in the past have been perpetuated.

And, in fact, at sunset on November 2, the day on which all the dead are commemorated, the Tiber Island, illuminated with oil lamps, is the place where the Red Sack hold a unique ritual. It is a night torchlight procession on the banks of the river accompanied by special prayers for the souls of those who drowned and the throwing of a garland of flowers in the waters of the Tiber.


The commemoration of November 2 by the confraternity (Credits: twitter.com).


Posted by Sara Pandozzi

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