Every tourist visiting Rome senses it: Rome's cats are different. Unlike the cuddly and sometimes aloof balls of fur you're likely to know and love, Rome's cats, the ones you see, are largely feral, prowling ancient monuments as if they owned them and answering to no one.
There are estimated to be 300,000 feral cats in Rome living in over 2000 colonies. You might think that the city fathers would be alarmed by these numbers, but Rome's city council has recently come out in favor of the cat's existence in Rome by citing their ancient heritage: "There is a deep-rooted affection for these cats who have an ancient bond with the city." The city council even went so far as to protect the cats, in 2001 naming cats living in the Coliseum, the Forum and Torre Argentina a part of the city's "bio-heritage."
With so much support, you might wonder about the underlying social interactions between cats and humans in the Eternal City. Well, here's the skinny: the fat tabbies lolling at the base of those Roman columns are fed in the lean times by the doting Gattare, or "Cat Women." Not everyone in Rome, of course, holds a fondness in their hearts for their neighborhood Gattara--or for the cats--but it hardly matters to the healthier ones, who augment their meals outside the finest of Rome's eateries. In summer there are pigeons, mice and lizards to be had in the excavations and nearby fields as well. (In antiquity, the cat was highly valued for just this activity--defending mankind against rodent borne diseases like the plague. In Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat, Donald W. Engels argues that the millions of cats slaughtered alongside the heretics they were associated with during the inquisition may well have contributed to the severity and spread of the plague.
So beware of hysteria-borne religious prejudice, the unintended consequences of arbitrary hate can be deadly.)
Torre Argentina and the Cat Sanctuary
Another way humans interact with Rome's cats is through a unique Sanctuary in the very place that Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C., the Torre Argentina. The sacred area of the Torre Argentina, which contains some of Rome's earliest temples, was first excavated in 1929.
Cats moved into the protected below-street level shortly after--to be followed by the "gattare," the most famous of which was Italian Film star Anna Magnani.
The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary began later in a "cave like excavated area under the street" which was used as a night shelter for cats and a storage place for food. Through donations from visiting tourists and fundraising efforts, the sanctuary evolved into a professional operation, taking care of the cats by feeding, spaying and providing medical assistance while sharing funds with the poorer sanctuaries around Rome when they were available.
How you can get involved with Roman Cats
Money is always needed, especially now that tourism to Europe is down. But, as a fan of volunteer vacations, let me alert you to some Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary volunteer opportunities. According to the site, the sanctuary needs help not only taking care of the cats, but also seeks administrative help, tour guides, and "Foster Parents." Qualified people working at the sanctuary might even be able to get inexpensive housing in Rome. See the How You Can Help portion of the website.
Read on about how you can see Italy's best sites and how cats work themselves into the cultural landscape through the "Cats and Culture Tour."
The Cats and Culture Tour
(The article below describes the 2004 Cats and Culture Tour--for information on future tours, see the Friends of Roman Cats, where you'll find information on tours and donations.)
While researching for this article, I came across an interesting website offering a "Cats and Culture" tour, the Friends of Roman Cats.
Susan Wheeler of Friends of Roman Cats supplied us with the following details of the tour.
(Note: Prices aren't yet set due to the extreme fluctuation in the Dollar/Euro exchange rate. Check the site for updates.)
The idea for our 'Cats and Culture' tour developed in part because of our appreciation for the fascinating history of the cat in Italy. Also, stray cats are treated quite differently in Italy than in the US. Italy is a no-kill nation; healthy stray cats and dogs can't be killed. We would like Americans to see how cats are cared for in such a different cultural setting, where they are accepted as part of the urban landscape.
The tour will be 14 days long and will have a maximum of 24-26 people. We will fly into Malpensa Airport near Milan and spend the first (second) night at Stresa on Lake Maggiore where we can visit the Borromean Islands on the lake. The second day we will take a bus to Cremona to see the beautiful Piazza del Comune and visit a cat Sanctuary in an old convent.
We will then go to Padua to see Giotto's masterwork in the Scrovegni chapel.
We will then go on to Venice to see both the architectural and artistic sites of that unique city as well as a model cat sanctuary on the Lido and a cat colony that is maintained in one of the biggest Venetian hospitals.
After Venice, we will bus to Florence for several days.
We will tour the city and visit the Uffizi and other art sites. One morning we will cross the Arno and to visit a cat colony that lives in the graveyard of the ancient church of San Miniato which looks down over the city. From the church, we will walk down through olive groves, past some little houses for feral cats to find refuge, through the city walls to the world famous Boboli Gardens. He we will go 'behind the hedges' to visit the 60 some cats that are fed there every day.
After Florence we will spend a night in Arezzo, then go on to Rome where we will spend our last 31/2 days. We will plan visits to the Vatican Museum, the Villa Borghese, visit the forum and the historic center, plus the cat colonies of Torre Argentina, the Protestant Cemetery and the Coliseum.
We are having a more immediate event in San Francisco on Feb. 22. It is our 3d annual "Blessing that Our Animals Give Us" party, which is a variation on the Blessings of the Animals event held in Italy in mid January.
The Friends of Roman Cats
The Friends of Roman Cats is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization that welcomes your contributions. Their website offers some great information on the very best places to find cats in Rome (and do some sightseeing at the same time), Check the blog news page for further information on the Cats and Culture Tour.
Rome Resources on Europe for Visitors
Rome Map - Interactive Map of Rome - here's Rome condensed down to the areas most frequented by tourists, with notes on some hidden places.
Rome - Travel in the Wild, Old, Eternal City
Getting to Rome from Fumicino Airport (Leonardo da Vinci)
Palazzo Velabro - Apartments in Rome (review)
Rome (Links to offsite Content)
Hotel Rental Agencies
Ostia Antica - The Ancient Port of Rome (links)
Looking to get started touring Italy? Best bet is to start with our Italy Map and Travel Essentials. For photos of Italy, see all our our Italian photos in our Italy Photo Gallery.