Cats in Rome

by Danilo Brunetti

The best guides in Rome are perhaps the many cats that call the city home. Follow these furry felines to discover the city’s secrets.

The true rulers of Rome are its cats. These imperturbable caretakers of the ancient ruins roam freely among the columns, taking in the sun and rolling around on their backs, often appearing in the photographs of many calendars for sale in souvenir shops. Just take a trip to the Colosseum (where the walls echo with the roars of their more ferocious cousins), the Roman Forum, the archeological area of Largo Argentina, or Piazza Vittorio to spot these graceful creatures strolling lazily around, oblivious to the amused gaze of passers by, and indifferent to the history that surrounds them.

The vast number of cats in Rome makes it difficult for Romans to imagine any of the ancient monuments without the presence of its cats, who are an important element of the city’s history. These much photographed felines are adored by Romans for their haughty attitude and independence, and perhaps even more for their innate nature, which in many ways resembles the character and way of life in Rome. Cats have populated Rome from its earliest days, the most probable hypothesis for their origin being that Cleopatra brought a couple with her from Egypt when she followed Caesar to the Eternal City in 46 BC. However, the Egyptian worship of cats was not reproduced in Roman ichnography; instead the decorative mosaics in ancient Roman villas depict the cat as a simple domestic animal capturing its prey.

Cats in the Middle Ages had a hard life, when they were burnt alive along with the “witches” who cared for them, as they were considered accomplices. Luckily, these days cats have regained their earlier dignity and are now well looked after, either by their faithful owners or by the feline-loving volunteers of Rome’s official cat sanctuary, located in the ruins at Largo Argentina.

The typical Roman cat is tawny, like ‘Romeo, the Colosseum cat’ who the white Duchess falls in love with in the classic Disney cartoon film The Aristocats. There are of course many other types of cats in the city, from the tabby to the spotted calico, all equally lazy, unreliable and, according to some, too placid or tired to be useful in hunting for mice. A curiosity: look up to the ledge of Palazzo Grazioli on the aptly named Via della Gatta where an Egyptian feline sculpture (found during an archeological dig) looks toward the place where a hidden treasure supposedly lies. Only Rome’s cats, tenants of the ancient monuments, know the secret map to this and other treasures in the city. Follow them to find the way.

Peek down into the archaeological site of Torre Argentina—recently restored and at last open to the public—and you’ll see more than the fragments of temples dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC. You’ll also find cats, lots of them! This sacred area was excavated in 1929, and almost immediately the city’s stray felines moved in. Until this summer, cats have had the area all by themselves, where they sprawl on the steps of temples or gingerly perch on tumbled down columns. For over 60 years, the neighborhood’s friendly cat-lovers fed and took care of their furry friends without any outside support. Finally, in 1995, the project began to receive funding from animal activist groups and came to be known as the Cat Sanctuary. Today, cats from around the city are not only fed and sheltered here, but also spayed, neutered, dewormed, and given shots, all by passionate volunteers. There are said to be more than 100 cats here, although since the site’s opening to the public, they have taken to hiding. How many can you find? T-shirts, magnets, and other souvenirs are on sale, with proceeds going to support the charity. Largo Argentina.