Not far from the glorious, 1,900-year-old site of the Pantheon and the world-famous Baroque-style Trevi fountain, one tabby cat lounges in the sun atop a thick slab of marble while a pair of black kittens tumble and roll beside an ancient column. Further along, in the cool shade of an umbrella pine tree, a Siamese stray quietly snoozes.
In a rare exception for Italy’s monument-encrusted Eternal City, this is not a kingdom belonging to Romans—but instead, their old feline friends, who strut and saunter around some of Rome’s oldest relics as though they are rulers of the place.
Rulers, they might well be. The Largo di Torre Argentina in the center of Rome, where Julius Caesar is believed to have been stabbed to death in 44 B.C., is home to four crumbling Republican temples, the remains of Pompey’s Theatre, as well as a sanctuary containing up to 200 cats.
“I adore cats,” says Silvia Viviani, the 80-year-old who founded the volunteer-led shelter, which spays, neuters, and feeds strays, in 1994. “I find them fascinating, lovable and, loving, supremely elegant, the most beautiful animals in the world,” she adds. “Nay, they are my personal evidence of the existence of God.”
For decades cats have prowled the streets of Rome in huge numbers, partly due to Italy’s ban on killing homeless cats. But their prevalence can also be linked to the fact that cats are classed—like pigeons—as wild, meaning that the state doesn’t neuter them. Adding to the enormous population is the fact that generations of Romans have been abandoning unwanted kittens at historical ruins across the city. Estimates suggest that there are easily more than 100,000 of the strays in Italy’s capital.
“Stray cats in Rome have always found shelter mainly in the huge archaeological districts of the city.”
In reaction, Viviani, who leads the full-time operation, feeding and vaccinating the animals, as well as encouraging adoptions by the public, launched what she has dubbed the “United Nations for Cats,” in acknowledgment of the key care work of the Feline Colony of Torre Argentina. Perhaps fittingly, all of these strays were given the status of Roman Biocultural Heritage by the Municipality of Rome in 2001, meaning that if five or more cats live together in a “natural urban habitat” they can’t be moved away.
“Stray cats in Rome have always found shelter mainly in the huge archaeological districts of the city,” explains Viviani. “The Torre Argentina area was particularly [popular] for getting rid of unwanted cats and was more popular for this practice than the Colosseum itself. Here they were abandoned. But here they ought to be rescued, cared for, and above, all sterilized.”
The project was catalyzed by the gattare, Roman dialect meaning the “cat ladies” of the neighborhood, who are known to push shopping carts laden with snacks around to feed them, leaving plastic plates of cat nibbles on the pavement.
Once a somewhat derogatory term, according to Viviani, the gattare now view their name as an aristocratic title, such as grand duchess or princess, or even queen. “They come from every path in life,” she says. “They are young or old, rich or poor, housewives or managers, students or retirees.”
One of them, Giulia Senni, says that she has been tending to a group of a dozen street cats that inhabit her neighborhood of Garbatella, to the south of the city, for more than a decade. “They’re like family,” says the 46-year-old school teacher. “I’ve watched them grow up and grow old. They all have individual characters and personalities. I wouldn’t dream of abandoning them.”
Every single day, volunteers feed, clean, and nurture the many abondoned cats found in and around Torre Argentina—a vital service in a city that has in recent years struggled to deal with overwhelming amounts of unwanted pets. According to the sanctuary, it has identified and sterilized more than 50,000 cats across the city since 2010.
But the future of the sanctuary is up in the air. Luxury Italian brand Bulgari is set to spend some €500,000 restoring the surrounding ruins and opening up access to the public. Last year, Rome’s mayor Virginia Raggi announced that work would be done to open the Torre Argentina’s ruins up to visitors by 2021.
“I’ve watched them grow up and grow old. They all have individual characters and personalities. I wouldn’t dream of abandoning them.”
It remains to be seen how this could affect the so-called feline colony, but the sanctuary has remained defiant about its future, even as it has struggled financially during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Of course there are people who would make a toast with champagne if we could be evicted from this place,” says Viviani. “But without us, the cats would still be on the site, just undernourished, sick, and not spayed or neutered by anybody.”
History, however, suggests the cats are likely to land on their feet: it is not the first challenge they have faced. Excavated in 1929 during the time of Mussolini, the shelter sits directly above the remains of what archaeologists identify as a temple from the second century B.C. Some authorities have, in recent years, called for the closure of the sanctuary, citing the effect the large animal population has on the conservation of the ancient holy site. But a petition in favor of the sanctuary gained over 30,000 signatures in 2012, providing enough awareness and public support to save it.
These cats, it appears, might just have nine lives. And the Torre Argentina cat sanctuary, among the ruins, the columns, the pines, and the cypresses of the ancient place, is lovingly doing its bit to ensure it’s kept that way, one cat at a time.
“Any human thing has a beginning and an end,” says Viviani. “But we have been here these last 25 years. Why not another 50, or one hundred more?”