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Why Are Cats Almost Sacred In Rome?

Updated on August 5, 2017
adelebarattelli profile image

I am an English-speaking, freelance food writer based in Rome and love writing articles on various aspects of Italian culture.

Felis the semi wild Roman cat
Felis the semi wild Roman cat | Source

The Cat Question

Everyone loves cats but nobody loves cats like Romans like cats and Rome cats love Romans.

But why does Rome have such a high number of cats, so many that they have congregated around certain sites in the centre of the city?.

Residents of the eternal city still today have an affinity for these animals and accept them as part of the landscape as they prowl nonchalantly around the streets.

Perhaps a clue to how they have thrived lies in how ancient people's viewed the cat as a sacred animal. Roman civilisation believed the wild feline or Felis in Latin represented liberty and divinity and they allowed these little creatures to move freely around the sacred temples. It helped perhaps that they eliminated small pests.

Cat sits amongst the ruins.
Cat sits amongst the ruins. | Source

" Time spent with a cat is never wasted"

— Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Anna Magnani

Italys most famous cat lady.
Italys most famous cat lady. | Source

Gattofili

When it was found in the 1950's that a stable colony of felines had returned to place their paws on to the ancient sites of the past, a rescue operation was undertaken by cat lovers, who are referred to in Italian as Gattofili, or Gattari in Roman dialect. The slowly improving economic outlook in Italy and relative post-war stability made it possible to care for cats as pets again. People began on a voluntary basis to regularly feed these fluffy strays.

Among these kind-hearted people were the world famous actress Anna Magnani, who lived not far from the biggest cat colony and would when not working, personally bring leftover food to the growing tribe of hungry meowing friends.

As time past the cats at these locations multiplied and news of these colonies spread across the city. Funds were raised by voluntary associations to instal modern features including a system at certain sites for running water and electric light.

More than four decades later in the mid ’1990's, the various cat assistance groups notably the Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals, received official recognition with the cooperation of ad hoc organisations of kindly strangers offering both material and moral support.

The busy Gattari and Gattare now are involved in specific health care regimes for their purring furry patients. As the numbers have grown a system of selective sterilisation has been organised to keep numbers under control and inoculation regimes have begun on emerging cases of feline aids.

In 2001, four thousand colonies existed in the metropolis. Rome's city administrators recognised feral or Randagi wild cats specifically around Coliseum, the Forum and Torre Argentina as part of the cities heritage, noting the growing interest among visiting tourists.

Felis

Felis Lybica and Felis Silvestris have existed in various sizes for millennia and have spread around the world historically via merchants and trade routes.

Tourism

Today 120,000 cats live across various locations with the largest cat colonies situated near ruins and monuments of historical and architectural importance. They form part of most tourists itinerary, holidaying visitors now see these cats as an integral part of the vacation experience.

Guided tour groups taking photos of little-whiskered friends sitting in the sun lounging on classic carved columns make for irresistible quick snaps, ready for social media postcards. In turn, tourist charity donations and spending in local cafes and restaurants contribute to the maintenance of the historic areas and the support of the cat population.

Let's look in more detail at the two interesting sites.

sleeping cat next to a Roman wall
sleeping cat next to a Roman wall | Source
Largo di Torre Argentina
Largo di Torre Argentina | Source
cats amongst the ruins
cats amongst the ruins | Source

Largo di Torre Argentina

The area that is most sacred for cats is around Torre Argentina. Between the treasure of ancient stone pillars are important archaeological remains that were discovered during three years of research excavations and restoration works. When completed in 1929 the remains of four temples had been revealed.

This showpiece complex now situated in a large recessed square shaped piece of land can be viewed from modern day street level. It reveals bellow the pattern of roads surrounded by fallen stones and pillars. It is easy to see the precision of Roman masons and stone carvers.

But look carefully and you will see living in amongst these ruins a colony of cats. These felines have been living here since the archaeological digs finished. Of course, an entire city lies buried bellow the newer city of Rome. This old site was chosen to be dug up as it was here that an important page of Roman history was written. Julius Caesar, the famous Roman leader was killed by Brutus and other conspirators at or very near this location in 44 BC.

Today the area is dominated by the modern Theater, Teatro Argentina and tram lines run beside the ruins relaunching the site on an international level. This recuperation is perhaps thanks in part to the presence of the four-pawed friends that live among the crumbling walls and alter buildings that once represented the most important sacred building complex of the Roman Republican Age.

Today, as the archaeological site is partially hidden bellow the level of the road it also forms a secure place for groups of cats to shelter a mix of either wild, undomesticated and abandoned pets.

la porta magica
la porta magica | Source
Egyptian cat and Alcheny
Egyptian cat and Alcheny | Source

Pizza Vittorio Emanuelle and the Magic Door

A smaller cat colony exists at this site now a modern park that four hundred years ago formed part of a larger villa complex called Villa Palombara, surrounded by green countryside. It is a mysterious and dishevelled place that has long had an association with the Occult, Wicca and Alchemy.

This is due to an extraordinary site located on the edge of this park. Today this site is referred to as the Porta Alchemica. It is a strange cement filled stone rectangular doorway with odd hieroglyphics and symbols carved into the frame of the door.

Various legends surround this doors creation but its existence is due to two influential thinkers and shrewd businessmen named Giustiniano Bono and Massimiliano di Palombara who both lived in this part of Rome in the 1600's. Unfortunately, according to a story that has been elaborated over time, the gentlemen quarrelled over gold, secrets and money.

Further back in time during times of plague Wicca believers, (meaning the craft of the wise), offered basic herbal cures and they and their cat companions, blamed for disease or charged as heretics, were killed in large numbers. The cats, of course, were removing the rodents that in fact carried deadly infectious disease.

In more modern times especially in the evening cats congregate near this doorway, occasionally meowing into the cool night air.

The magic door bathed in bright sunshine
The magic door bathed in bright sunshine

Cat colonies

If you want to photograph these cats on your trip to Rome here are the two best locations to see them but one can also find cat colonies specifically around Coliseum, and the Forum areas.

  • Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle. Access via ATAC tram 19 or Metro A.
  • Largo di Torre Argentina Access via ATAC tram 8

Largo di Torre Argentina

Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle.

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    • Travel-Wise profile image

      Travel-Wise 3 months ago

      This is a fascinating look at Rome and some of it's rich history. Thanks so much for sharing!