ROME (Reuters) - A prediction that a huge earthquake would destroy Rome Wednesday prompted fear in some people and giggles of ridicule in others but officials assured the populace that the Eternal City would not be rubble by midnight.
The Internet-driven story of an impending tremor has dominated blogs, social networks and talk shows for days, so much so that authorities from the mayor down have issued statements saying earthquakes are impossible to predict.
That did not deter thousands of people from staying away from work and heading for the countryside or the parks.
According to the consumer group ADUC, some 20 percent of Romans did not go to work and rural hotels outside the capital reported higher than normal bookings. Rome's notoriously heavy traffic did appear lighter than normal for a Wednesday in May.
One neighbourhood that came down with a bad case of earthquake fever was Chinatown, where many shopkeepers kept stores shuttered and put up signs saying they were closed for weddings, inventories or "serious family problems."
"They have all gone away because they are scared of the earthquake," said Bangladeshi street seller Shouman who usually receives his cheap goods from a Chinese salesman.
An Italian barman in the same neighbourhood wore a hard hat while he served coffee as a gesture to show he thought the predictions were absurd.
The fear was caused by a faction of followers of Raffaele Bendandi, who died more than 30 years ago.
The self-proclaimed scientist, who used a mix of seismology and cosmology and said he had forecast numerous earthquakes, calculated that a "big one" would hit Rome on May 11, 2011.
The majority of Romans were sceptical and by midday the earth had not moved.
"Nothing is going to happen," said delivery man Vittorio Giansanti, giggling as he went about his work in the Piazza Vittorio neighbourhood.
Bendandi, who died in 1979 at the age of 86, believed earthquakes were the result of the combined movements of the planets, the moon and the sun and were perfectly predictable.
In 1923 he forecast a quake would hit the central Adriatic region of the Marches on January 2 the following year. He was wrong by two days but the nearly precise prediction won him the nickname "earthquake predictor" in the media.
Bendandi's fame grew and in 1927 he was awarded a knighthood by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. During his career his theories were studied by astronomers and seismologists but roundly debunked.
To shake up the mood even more, another faction of Bendandi's disciples said Bendandi had never pinpointed May 11, 2011, as the date for the big one.
They said that according to the positions of the planets, the actual earthquake would be on April 6, 2521.
Additional reporting by Gabriele Pileri; Editing by Barry Moody and Andrew Heavens