The Isola Tiberina rises in the middle of the River Tiber, along the creek that divides Trastevere from the area of the Piazza Navona. According to the legend, it was born from the accumulation of mud over the crops that the Romans threw into the river after they had driven Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome, out of the Urbe.
In the ancient times, this place was called with different toponyms. The most ancient one was "Isola Lycaonia", for the probable presence of an anthropomorphous statue, representing the homonymous Southwest Asia region, on the Ponte Cestio. It was also called "Isola di San Bartolomeo" and "Isola dei due Ponti", in the vulgar tongue, for the presence of the basilica of San Bartolomeo and of the Ponte Cestio and the Ponte Fabricio, respectively.
With the expansion of Rome, the various wooden structures of the Isola Tiberina, such as the arcades of the two bridges, were substituted by marble and masonry and the whole structure became a place dedicated to medicine. It is still today, as it can be inferred from the presence of the Fatebenefratelli hospital.
The legend, which was reported by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, also says that the diviners decided to carry the effigy of Asclepius, the god of medicine, from Epidaurus to Rome in order to fight the plague that hit the city around the year 294 B. C. Nevertheless, the god itself appeared under the form of a big snake to the ambassadors who had gone to Greece.
It autonomously went on the boats and led them to the River Tiber's mouth, where the snake landed on the Isola Tiberina.
The Romans built and dedicated a sanctuary to Asclepius and carried out rearrangement works along the river with embankments and earthworks that, thanks to travertine surfaces and to an obelisk raised as if it were the main mast of a Roman galley, made the Isola look like a big boat moored along the Tiber.
Because of the expropriations of the noble materials that lasted for a long time since the Middle Ages, today a few evidences have remained of the decorations and surfaces of the "Nave di Esculapio" here, while several fragments of the central obelisk still exist and are kept inside the Museo Nazionale of Naples.