The Scourge of Father Tiber: Flood Markers in Rome

June 2, 2015
By Tyler Spaeth '16

spaetht-The Scourge of Father Tiber: Flood Markers in RomeWhen we arrived to Rome nine weeks ago (wait….really?), the Tiber river appeared quite menacing. The current was swift — carrying branches and other debris down the river— and the water level rose above the bike paths that are now populated by bicyclists, runners, and pedestrians. For the modern Roman, however, the ominous Tiber is restrained by the massive walls on each bank, which were constructed beginning in 1876. The Early Modern was not so lucky — vulnerable to the whims of Father Tiber, Rome was devastated by a series of floods throughout the 16th century.

While Rome no longer has to worry about floods, traces of past devastation remain in the form of flood markers. One such example can be found on the facade of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Located next to the Pantheon, Santa Maria sopra Minerva is half a kilometer away from the Tiber, but only around fifteen feet above sea level. At this site, there are six flood markers: the bottom three are from 1422, 1495, and 1890, while the top three are from the 16th century (1530, 1557, 1598). High on the wall, the 16th century markers all contain an engraved hand marking the water level, the date of the flood, and the Pope who reigned during that period (picture 2). While the Tiber had flooded throughout Roman history, the 16th century was an exceptionally destructive period. It took until the 20th century before Romans could deploy both the resources and technology to finally tame the powerful Tiber.