The Cats Of Rome Make Ruins Their Home

A sanctuary for abandoned cats offers them the love they deserve.

Photo by Pat Grove.

In a square block of ancient, sunken ruins in Rome, a group of people smile and laugh as they look down onto the archeological site known as the Largo di Torre Argentina.

Among the ruins, a cadre of intrepid, colorful cats scurry around subterranean passageways, lounge on ancient stone walls, and rub against broken columns.

For visitors to Rome, it’s easy to accidentally stumble upon the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, which has elicited surprise and delight Rome for decades.

Photo by Pat Grove.

“I was amazed at the location,” longtime sanctuary supporter Keith Marshall recalls of his first visit. “The sanctuary is below road level, surrounded by busy roads, shops, and buildings right in the middle of the city. There was even what appeared to be an archeological tour taking place within the grounds, but the cats seemed to take it all in their stride. They genuinely appeared really happy and seemed to love the environment.”

Silvia Zerenghi is the volunteer head of both the sanctuary’s adoption at a distance program and its public relations arm. “The Sacred Area of Torre Argentina was discovered by chance during urban restoration works in the 1920s,” she explains. “It is in the center of Rome, where every stone hides some Roman ruin. The four temples in Torre Argentina were built during the fourth to first century B.C.”

It is also home to the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey, where it is rumored that Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Some of them really know they are good looking and know how to conquer visitors’ hearts.[/quote]

Shortly after the excavation of Torre Argentina, local lore has it that the cats began to appear. The furry felines of Rome have long been drawn to — or abandoned in — the city’s legendary ruins, including the Colosseum, Pantheon, and Forum. “Cats love ruins,” Zerenghi says, “especially those [such as Torre Argentina] situated below the street level: There is no traffic, a lot of holes to hide in and rest, little animals to chase.”

Photo by Pat Grove.

For centuries, these Roman cats have been cared for by neighborhood cat ladies called “gattare.” The felines at Torre Argentina were no exception. For decades, they were looked after and fed by local women, including movie star Anna Magnani.

However, by the early 1990s, the cat population at Torre Argentina was in crisis.

So many cats had been dumped at the site that they numbered almost 100. The colony was taken care of primarily by an actress named Franca and her friends. It was then that two women — former opera singer Silvia Viviani and Lia Dequel — started to contact animal rights organizations around the world and soliciting donations. Soon after, they formally founded the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary and provided the cats with spaying, neutering, medical services, and adoption opportunities.

A kitten at the sanctuary. Photo by Pat Grove.

Today, the Torre Argentina is home to around 130 cats.

Sanctuary supporters are urged to visit, and if they are so inclined, they can adopt their very own Roman cat. The sanctuary even facilitates adoption across borders, supplying the kitty with its very own passport. If your pet card is full, you can sponsor a cat and receive frequent updates on its health and progress.

Marshall and his wife have adopted two cats through the program: Fergus and Famke.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It is literally a suburban oasis for the cats.[/quote]

For some cats, the ruins of Torre Argentina become their lifelong home. But “don't be fooled by this ‘free roaming’ environment,” Marshall cautions. “The sanctuary is extremely well organized, with the sick and injured cats or the very young ones located securely inside and looked after. It is literally a suburban oasis for the cats where they can receive the care and attention and, most of all, the love they deserve.”

Zerenghi agrees that the sanctuary is much more than meets the eye.

“In the beginning, we occupied some caves, without water, without floors, without electricity,” she says. “If you see the pictures of the shelter now, you can see paved floors, air conditioners, a separated room [the nursery] where disabled cats are kept safe. We need a toilet, but we hope sooner or later Municipality will allow us to build one. It is a thorny question: We are in an archaeological area.”

This thorny issue has been eased by the special position cats have long held in Roman society, where they have supposedly lived since being brought over by Cleopatra in the first century B.C. “The law of Lazio, the region around Rome, gives stray cats the right to stay wherever they are born,” Sophie Arie wrote for The Guardian. “Stray cats are protected as ‘biocultural heritage,’ and Romans are obliged to make sure they are fed and given medical assistance.”

Photo by Pat Grove

One of the most haunting, beautiful spots in Rome is the Non-Catholic Cemetery, the lovely graveyard shadowed by the ancient Pyramid of Caius Cestius. It is the eternal resting place of poets Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and countless other wandering romantics. Many a literature lover — including myself — have visited for the culture and stayed for the cats.

Feral cats have reportedly called the cemetery home since the mid-1800s. Local gattare informally cared for the creatures until 1984, when a woman named Matilde Talli began to organize a formal sanctuary and charitable organization known as the Gatti della Piramid. Over the years, brick shelters and wooden huts have been built in the pyramid’s archaeological area.

The sanctuary also sponsors adoption programs and provides medical care.

Maritza Lea Pacella has been a volunteer at Gatti della Piramide for 15 years and cares for the cats several days a week. “Many have been abandoned either on the streets or even at our doorstep. Others arrived on their own,” she says. Evidently the cat word of mouth on food travels fast.”

The cats spend their days lolling on the grass of the cemetery’s green lawn. Visitors are often taken by the “beauty and elegance of these delicate creatures walking around the tombstones with a nonchalant yet superior air to them,” Pacella says. “They are perfectly at ease here; they look like they own the place. They know all the hideouts in the bushes and the tombs.”

They’ve also become pros in dealing with delighted visitors. “They’ve learnt to pose for pictures, and sometimes they let visitors pet them,” she explains. “Some of them really know they are good-looking and know how to conquer visitors’ hearts and strike a pose for the best souvenir picture.”

In popular Facebook groups, members swap stories and share pictures of their favorite felines. There’s just something about the cats of Rome that continues to captivate and connect animal lovers all over the world.

NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

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