La Isola Tiberina
Rome has such a complicated and multi-layered history, that besides the ancient architecture and the seat of Catholicism, there are bound to be some things that are just plain weird. One of my current favorites is called la Isola Tiberina in Italian and Tiber Island in English. According to ancient legend, either Tarquinius Superbus, or his son, Sextus Tarquinius—whose rape of Lucretia undid the both of them—was thrown into the Tiber (the river that runs through Rome) and silt built up on the body until there was an island. Continuing in the myth, from then (around 500 BC) to about 300 BC, the island was a cursed place. According to Wikipedia:
Accounts say that in 293 BC, there was a great plague in Rome. Upon consulting the Sibyl, the Roman Senate was instructed to build a temple to Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, and sent a delegation to Epidauros obtain a statue of the deity. The Romans obtained a snake from the temple, which curled around the ship’s mast as soon as it is aboard, deemed as a good sign. Upon its return trip up the Tiber river, the snake slithered off the ship and swimming onto the island. This was seen as the god’s own choice for his temple’s location, and the temple was built on the island, thus ending the plague.
There are a number of mythical stories in various cultures where animals engage in some specific act and are taken as a powerful sign that something should be built. Whether it be an island or a capital city, I like these stories very much. Nowadays, the island is a nice place to spend an hour or two on a sunny afternoon. There’s not much except a basilica and hospital, both predating 1000 AD. But its ship-like embankments provide a sunny, albeit stony, place to lay for a while.