At present, the island has no private residents. The last one was an American, Milton Gendel, who had an apartment in Castello Pierleoni-Caetani from 1958 until 1983. Parts of the Castello date back to the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, the Caetani family donated it to the Franciscan friars. When, in the early 1980s, it passed on to yet another proprietor, who wanted to renovate, Gendel had to move out.
Still, he continues to be concerned about the island, and he's a font of information about its history and present status. In fact, when I called him recently, it turned out that he's the prime mover behind that mysterious closed museum. With the help of prominent Italians as well as organizations in England and the United States, Gendel is computerizing enormous amounts of historical data, which--Deo volente (God willing)--will be turned into a chronology of the island and displayed on computer screens in the museum. Eventually Gendel hopes to program entries for each year since 292 BC.
He's eager for Americans to support the project, explaining that Yanks have been key presences on the island. The pre-feminist figure Margaret Fuller, a contemporary and friend of Emerson and Thoreau, came to Rome as a correspondent for the New York Tribune. But in 1849, as Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi and his troops defended the city against a French attack, Fuller put aside journalism and was appointed director of the Isola Tiberina Hospital, where many of the wounded were treated.
Following Margaret Fuller's example, I dropped my journalistic neutrality and asked how to join the Tiber Island History Museum Assn. Membership, Gendel said, cost about $75, which entitles me to an impressive replica of the medallion first minted for Emperor Antoninus Pius in 149, showing the mythical snake swimming ashore.
Unlike the snake, I'm content to use the bridges rather than swim to Isola Tiberina when I'm in Rome. But I don't dismiss the myth of the island's healing properties. To the contrary, I count on a visit to Isola Tiberina to restore me before I head back to the enchanting maze of the mainland.
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When in Rome
Prices and phone numbers: The country code for Italy is 39. The city code for Rome is 6. All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 1,402 lira to the dollar. Hotel rates are for a double room for one night. Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only.
Getting there: Delta, TWA, USAir and Alitalia airlines offer daily direct flights to Rome from Los Angeles.
Where to stay: Hotel Excelsior, Via Vittorio Veneto 125, telephone 4708 or (800) 325-3589, fax 482-6205. A sumptuous spot whose fame predates "La Dolce Vita" days. Rate: $290 and up. Hotel Margutta, Via Laurina 34, tel. 322-3674, fax 320-0395. Rooms 50, 52, 54 have private terraces. Simple, charming; on a quiet side street. Rates: $100 to $110, including breakfast. Both hotels are about a 20-minute walk from Isola Tiberina.
Where to eat: Ristorante La Campana, Vicolo della Campana 18; tel. 687-5273. A lively spot whose loyal regulars range from movie stars to students, Gore Vidal to Martina Navratilova; $65. Spiriti, Via Sant'Eustachio 5; tel. 689-2499. Serves simple dishes such as melon and prosciutto, salads, light pastas and desserts for as little as $20. Both restaurants, on the Old Jewish Ghetto side of the Tiber, are about six blocks from Isola Tiberina.
For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 550, Los Angeles, 90025; (310) 820-6357.