Et Tu, Gatti?
One of the things that Glenn and I love so much about Rome is the unique blend of the ancient and the everyday that permeates the city. Walking its streets, one can accidentally bump into fascinating bits of antiquity on practically every corner. For us Americans, whose ancient history is less noticeable, this is pretty irresistible. For Card Carrying History Nerds (really, I have one), this is the equivalent of Christmas Morning every 500 yards. Case in point, the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary.
We bumped into this unique spot quite by accident on our first day in Rome last fall, not realizing exactly what it was. We had just arrived on the 8:00 AM flight that morning, and were in that blissful post-lunch state of getting reacquainted with our beloved city when we were literally stopped in our tracks by an interesting collection of ruins in the middle of a busy intersection.
We were definitely interested, and took our time walking around the large rectangular area. As we walked, we noticed quite a few cats (that would be gatti, in Italian) making themselves at home amidst the weeds and the ruins.
It wasn’t until we talked to our beautiful tour guide, Margherita, the next morning, that we got the full story.
This area wasn’t just filled with your garden variety ancient Roman ruins. No, the Largo di Torre Argentina boasts the remains of four Republican era Roman temples, and the remains of Pompey’s theater. Bonus points to anyone who knows what happened at Pompey’s Theater? (And no, you can’t use Google. This is not an open-book test.)
Well, as a matter of fact, it was in this general area that Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March, in 44 BC. (Okay, 10 more points if you know when the Ides of March is.) It is believed that the deed took place in the portico of the theater, where a session of the Senate was to be held. The rest of the story you probably remember from your high school Shakespeare. Caesar was stabbed 23 times, and the Roman Republic slid into decline.
An artist’s 3D rendering of what the theater would have looked like in Caesar’s time, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Impressive, yes? But as I said, the Republic was not to last forever. The theater was eventually buried by – I hate to use a cliché – the sands of time.
As I was researching the rediscovery of the theater, I was particularly fascinated by this description of the temples and the theater that I found on Wikipedia. It stresses the fact that the ancient and the modern exist side by side in Rome:
The remains of the east side of the quadriporticus, and three of four temples from an earlier period often associated with the theatre can be seen on the Largo di Torre Argentina. The fourth temple remains largely covered by the modern streets of Rome. This archaeological site was excavated by order of Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s. The scarce remains of the theatre itself can be found off the Via di Grotta Pinta underground. Vaults from the original theatre can be found in the cellar rooms of restaurants off this street, as well as in the walls of the hotel Albergo Sole al Biscione. The foundations of the theatre as well as part of the first level and cavea remain, but are obscured, having been overbuilt and extended. Over building throughout the centuries has resulted in the surviving ruins of the theatre’s main structure becoming incorporated within modern structures.
But how did all those cats get there? And what’s their story, anyway?
Apparently after Mussolini’s excavation of the site, the city’s cats decided that it was a pretty cool place to hang out, and they moved in and started doing what cats do. Today, there are an estimated 200 or so cats living in the area, which has become an official no-kill cat shelter. The cats that call this place home are well taken care of by the gattare, or “cat ladies” of Rome. (No, I didn’t say crazy cat ladies.) They are fed, spayed or neutered, medically cared for, and adoptions are encouraged. Margherita informed us that although there have been many attempts to rid the area of its feline community, so far the cats have won the battle, and this spot is considered one of the most beloved public places in Rome.
I guess the gatti were more fortunate than Julius Caesar…
A few days after we first discovered the site, we walked by it again and decided to take a closer look. We actually walked down below street level and visited the facility.
Did I mention that I love Rome? Caesar, Mussolini, and cats, connected to the same real estate.
(How many cats do you see in the blog header photo at the beginning of the post? I count at least 5, and possibly 6.)