The San Bartolomeo has perhaps the best location of all the churches in Rome: it is located on the edge of the Tiber Island. The church is opposite a hospital, the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli, and the island has been associated with disease and healing for over 2.300 years, ever since the Romans built a temple dedicated to Asclepius here, the Roman god of healing. The San Bartolomeo is easily mistaken for a simple Baroque church. It certainly looks like one, both on the inside and on the outside, but it is actually much older. The medieval bell-tower gives a clue about its true age. The tower dates back to 1118, and was added to a church that was constructed between 998 and 1001.
In 293 BCE, Rome was struck by a terrible plague. According to the Roman historian Livius, a delegation was sent to Epidauros in the Peloponnese, which had a famous temple of Asklepios (Asclepius or Aesculapius in Latin). People from all over the Greek world travelled to Epidauros to find a cure for their ailments, and apparently they were quite often healed. The delegation had been charged with obtaining a statue of the god, but they seem to have only been given a snake. The snake was sacred to Asclepius: the god is always depicted with a staff with a snake curled around it, still a symbol of medicine and of physicians. Once back in Rome, the snake escaped from the ship and slithered down a hole on the Tiber Island. It was here that the Romans decided to build a temple dedicated to Asclepius. This temple was rebuilt in the first century and part of it seems to have functioned as a hospital.
In 998, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (996-1002) had a Christian church built over the pagan temple. The church was completed around the year 1001. Otto may just have seen it in all its glory: he died only a year later aged 21. The church was originally dedicated to Saint Adalbert of Prague and Saint Paulinus of Nola. Adalbert was a missionary who had been martyred in 997 and canonised in 999. Saint Paulinus (ca. 354-431) was a Roman senator who later converted to Christianity and became a bishop of Nola in Campania. Saint Bartholomew – San Bartolomeo in Italian – was arguably of greater religious importance, as he had been one of the twelve apostles. Bartholomew was said to have been flayed alive (perhaps in Armenia), and he is often depicted with a knife and pieces of his skin in religious art (see for instance the famous statue by Marco d’Agrate in the Duomo in Milan).
Relics that were supposedly those of Bartholomew had somehow ended up in the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily and subsequently in the city of Benevento in Campania. Benevento had been captured by Otto III’s father, also called Otto, and it was this Otto II who had taken these relics to Rome. Otto III had them enshrined in his new church, and somewhere before 1088 the dedication of the church was changed and it became known as the San Bartolomeo. Since the church is located very close to the river, it has for centuries had problems with flooding and water damage. As a result many restorations had to be undertaken, one of which led to the addition of the current bell-tower in 1118. The bell-tower is now one of the oldest elements of the church.
A major flood in 1557 caused so much damage that the San Bartolomeo had to be abandoned for more than two decades. It was not until 1583 that Pope Gregorius XIII (1572-1585), the man who introduced the Gregorian Calendar, ordered the church to be restored. The restoration involved rebuilding the right side wall, which had been completely swept away by the flood. The San Bartolomeo more or less acquired its present appearance between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The job to decorate the side chapels was given to Antonio Marziale Carracci (ca. 1583-1618) – not to be confused with his more famous uncle Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) – and he managed to complete four of them before his untimely death. The church was given a new facade in 1639 and more work was carried out between 1720 and 1739 and in 1852.
In 2000, the San Bartolomeo became a place of worship associated with “modern martyrs”. Catholics from all over the world who during the twentieth century were persecuted and killed because of their faith are honoured here. The six chapels in the nave are all related to martyrs killed in different parts of the world during all sorts of persecutions. We for instance find references to Catholics killed during the Spanish Civil War, by the Nazis or by the Communists. The Polish priest Jerzy Popiełuszko is an example of the latter: in 1984, he was murdered by agents of the Security Service. He was beatified in 2010, and the rock that was used to kill him is kept as a relic in the church.
Things to see
The piazza in front of the church is charming. It is dominated by a monument commemorating the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). The buildings on the left side of the square now house the Ospedale Israelitico Roma, Rome’s Jewish hospital. These buildings used to be part of a Franciscan convent which was suppressed in 1873. There used to be buildings on the right as well, but these were demolished at the end of the nineteenth century because there were problems with the river again. To the south of the piazza is the Ponte Cestio, leading to Trastevere. To the north we find the Ponte Fabricio, Rome’s oldest stone bridge that is still standing. It was built in 62 BCE and leads to the Campo de’ Fiori area.
The church facade used to be decorated with mosaics made in the twelfth and thirteenth century, but almost none of these survive. Most were damaged or destroyed in subsequent floods. Apparently a fragment of a mosaic showing Christ giving his blessing has survived and is now hidden behind the current, seventeenth century facade. The room in which it is located is unfortunately not accessible for tourists (here is an image of the mosaic). The current facade makes it very clear what this church is all about:
“IN HAC BASILICA REQVIESCIT CORPVS S. BARTHOLOMAEI APOSTOLI”
(“In this basilica rests the body of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle”)
The interior of the church can be summed up in two words: simple Baroque. The two most interesting objects can be found in the sanctuary. First, there is an original eleventh century wellhead on the stairs leading to the altar. The well itself is much older and was already in use in the temple of Asclepius. The priests drew water from it and presumably used it for their ceremonies. The well is, apparently, 10.25 metres deep and at the moment there is no longer any water in it. The well-head is decorated on all four sides. These show Jesus Christ, either Adalbert or Paulinus, Emperor Otto III with a miniature version of the church and Saint Bartolomew with a book and knife.
The altarpiece is a modern icon about the persecution of the “modern martyrs” (see above). It is not very interesting, but the altar itself is. It is actually an ancient porphyry bathtub. This rare marble was quarried in the Egyptian desert and is immensely valuable (sarcophagi of kings and emperors were made of it; see for instance Theoderic’s mausoleum in Ravenna or Constantina’s mausoleum in Rome itself). The remains of Saint Bartholomew are enshrined in the bathtub, which has carved handles and a lion’s head.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 153;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 274-279;
- San Bartolomeo all’Isola on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 From Italian “Fate bene, Fratelli”, “do some good, brothers”.
 The Ponte Rotto behind the church is actually older. It was built as the Pons Aemilius between 179 and 142 BCE, but it was severely damaged by floods in the sixteenth century and then abandoned. A section of it can still be seen today.