Open at Long Last

by Danilo Brunetti

You no longer have to be a cat to visit one of Rome’s most fascinating archeological sites. Tiffany Parks explains.

Millions of tourists and Romans alike have walked past and peered down into (and probably longed to visit) the Sacred Area of Largo Argentina ever since it was excavated in the 1920s. But this extraordinary excavation site, which proudly holds the ruins of four of the oldest temples in Rome ever discovered (the earliest dates back to the 3rd century BC), has never been open to the public, at least not in living memory.

Instead, it has been the playground of Rome’s lucky felines. As soon as the site was excavated in 1929, cats claimed the site as their own, and local cat-lovers fed and took care of them. Fast forward to 1993 when it became an official cat sanctuary and an organized charity was instituted. Now, after a long period of restoration that was funded by the Bulgari fashion house, the site has been open to humans for the first time in over a millennium. In addition to the four temples, the excavation site also incorporates a section of the 1st-century BC Portico of Pompey, where a temporary Curia (senate house) was set up after a fire in the Roman Forum. It was precisely here that Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC, and a tufa base behind the two central temples marks the bloody spot.

Now visitors can physically descend to the ground level of this site—not just in their imaginations. Archaeology enthusiasts and history-lovers can at last study and admire the ruins of the temples at close range, appreciating the details, construction phases, and materials. In addition, underground rooms display a selection of finds from the excavations and demolitions of the last century, including fragments of epigraphs, sarcophagi, architectural decorations, and two heads of colossal statues belonging to divinities venerated in the area.