World & Nation

Italy officials get territorial about cat shelter

Italy officials get territorial about cat shelter
One of the stray cats at the ruins of the Largo di Torre Argentina square in Rome, where a cat sanctuary is threatened with eviction.
(Filippo Monteforte / AFP/Getty Images)

ROME — Tradition holds that Julius Caesar was stabbed in the back, on the Ides of March, in a sunken piazza here in the heart of Rome. More than  2,000 years later, Silvia Viviani feels that the same thing is happening to her, and on the exact same spot.

A cabal of scheming politicians wants her and her followers out of the picture, she says, ejected from the ruins of the Largo di Torre Argentina square where Caesar was assassinated by conniving rivals. But Viviani refuses to budge, and her devotees are stubbornly staying put, if only because they spend most of their time cleaning themselves and napping.


Her loyalists are 200 well-fed, well-groomed cats, which live in the piazza surrounded by ancient monuments. For 19 years, Viviani and a band of dedicated volunteers have lovingly tended to the colony of feral felines, setting up a furry sanctuary in a cave-like space far below street level.

What was once a makeshift storage shed for archaeologists is now a well-lighted underground chamber where computers and cats purr in chorus. Humans (and one badly outnumbered dog) bustle about, checking up on the blind and disabled kitties in a side room or greeting visitors to the ruins who find their curiosity piqued by the unusual inhabitants.


Cat colonies are a common sight on Rome’s tourist trail, enough so that guidebooks mention them and shutterbugs go in search of them. Souvenir stands hawk calendars with photos of fluffy felines clambering over pillars and statues, alongside the just-as-popular calendars featuring sexy priests who look hot under their collars.

But now some officials want the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary out. Although the shelter has been in operation for nearly two decades, they say that Viviani and her colleagues are essentially squatters on an important historical site.

The eviction notice has sparked yowls of protest among animal lovers, made headlines in the Italian press and prompted a lawmaker to comment in Parliament. Viviani suspects that her organization is caught in the middle of a cat fight between national and local officials, and pours scorn on the idea that her four-legged wards could cause any more damage to Italy’s heritage than the two-legged invaders who toppled the Roman Empire.

“What the barbarians have done, I don’t think the cats could do,” she says. “I don’t think the cats can scratch the ruins more than a fire, more than an earthquake or something like that.”


Viviani, 73, is a former opera performer whose sudden fame for another reason entirely gives rise to a throaty laugh.

“I am more of a star as a cat lady than as a singer,” she says in amusement. “That’s perfectly OK.”

She and the co-founder of the refuge, Lia Dequel, have enlisted some high-profile allies in their fight to save it. One of them is the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno.

“I’m on the cats’ side,” the mayor declared in a message on Twitter, then acknowledged the power behind the throne: “So is my own cat, Certosino.”


Last month, Alemanno paid an official visit to the Largo di Torre Argentina, accompanied by archaeologists and other authorities, and reiterated his solidarity with the pro-gatti camp.

“This is a worthy operation, historic and wonderful,” Alemanno said. “Woe betide those who touch the cats of Rome!”

A compromise appears to be in the offing that would allow the feline sanctuary to remain as long as it makes some cosmetic changes requested by cultural preservation officials, such as pulling up its tile floor and “other very stupid things,” Viviani says with a snort.

She’s willing to cooperate, but no formal offer has come through yet — “some black on white, as we say in Italian, some writing on paper,” Viviani says. Supporters fear that the agreement they’ve reached will get lost in the shuffle if it’s not sealed soon, as politicians switch their attention to a bruising general election expected in February.

In the 1990s, the city government declared cats to be part of Rome’s “bio-heritage,” recognition that at some sites, the animals have been around for decades, if not centuries. In the Largo di Torre Argentina, cats have roamed the square and claimed it as their own for at least 80 years, their colony swelling in size from births and from the abandonment of pets. When Viviani and Dequel started their shelter, there were about 90 cats; now they care for double that figure.

Italy’s stray cats both benefit and suffer from the country’s no-kill policy. Although they needn’t worry about being rounded up and put down, their numbers can balloon and their living conditions become horrendous through disease, fights and hunger.

Staff members at the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary emphasize that their work is not just about keeping their charges happy with full stomachs and sleek coats; more important, the shelter has helped Rome control its population of feral cats by spaying and neutering about 27,000 of them over the years, and vaccinating others.

“The fact that in Rome you don’t see the situation you see in Greece or in Egypt” — where strays are on the prowl everywhere — “is that we sterilize them,” says Andy de Paoli, a volunteer from Pennsylvania and longtime resident of the Italian capital. “All the people around here really appreciate our presence. There’s no smell of dead cats like there used to be.”

That’s why city officials have mostly looked benignly on the shelter’s presence in the historic piazza, even providing it with electricity and running water.

But when the sanctuary, which relies entirely on private donations, asked recently to be connected to Rome’s sewage system, it suddenly appeared on the radar of the Italian government, which questioned its right to exist. A few dissenters in the city administration wondered the same thing.

“It is extraordinary that the Rome council allowed a structure of this kind to be built in an area of such archaeological importance,” Adriano La Regina, a former director of Rome’s archaeological authority, told the Italian press.

Viviani says that she has built virtually nothing. The sanctuary, which is a whisker over 1,000 square feet, occupies a former storage area used by archaeologists who excavated the site after demolition workers in 1926 uncovered what turned out to be the vestiges of four ancient temples and Pompey’s Theater.

Viviani says she’ll do what it takes to stay in the piazza. The shelter thrives because of its location at a historic site; many of its sponsors are from outside Italy who stumble upon the sanctuary serendipitously and “adopt” one of the cats, each of which has a name, such as Ignazio, Gotardo and Zoe.

And far from being an excrescence, the padding felines — tabbies, calicoes, black cats, gray ones — add to the ruins’ ambience, not detract from it, Viviani says.

“All around, there are people who look at the columns, capitals and so on. And they are there — cold, indifferent,” she says. “As soon as a cat jumps on a stump of a column, on a capital, on a sarcophagus … the ruins are living.

“They’re no more dead things. They have a new life because of the cats.”

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