The Roman Cat Sanctuary – From What I Don’t Know About Animals

This is the section on the Roman cat sanctuary in the square of Torre Argentina. It is at present under threat:


However, prior to the pathological or the uncanny, there’s a milder state of animal obsession that moves or amuses us. It’s a very fine balancing point, but with reassurance (railings, say, or official approval) the distress at too many living creatures, at seething cats, swarming felines, can be suppressed. On my first visit to Rome a few years ago, I stayed in a hotel near the square of sunken excavation at Torre Argentina. I wandered across the road from my hotel to look down into the ruins; taking an easy minimal tourist moment. It is one of the oldest temples in Rome, built around 400-300 BC, the place where Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and it’s a perfect, neatly contained image of Roman ruins: you look down from the pavement at fragments of walls, stone columns of varying heights, upright and toppled, pathways interrupted by broken, scattered slabs of stone, worn steps leading to an altar. Most ruins are empty places, filled only by passing, wandering tourists, coming and going along defined routes, but Torre Argentina, though walled off from the city above it, is an inhabited ruin. All the paths, columns and slabs and creeping foliage are furniture, walkways, resting places in shade or sun, dining facilities, and meeting areas for the hundreds of stray cats who live down there in their subterranean, antique feline city. After the excavation was completed in 1929, some feral and stray cats moved in to hang out in this safe, out of the way place, and soon the gattari (the Italian for Cat Ladies) arrived to take care of them — one of them the almost mythic actress Anna Magnani, who was working at the Teatro nearby.

I spent a contented hour or more every day while I was in Rome leaning on the railings, looking down at Cat Central. Safe and untroubled, they lead what appears to be purposeful, self-regulated lives among the ancient ruins. They loll in the sun, rest in the shade, sniff and scratch around in the greenery growing up and around the ancient stones; others idly stroll the paths or run swiftly along the tops of walls, leaping over gaps left by history to the next broken segment. They perch on fractured columns, watching those walking below them and sometimes pounce. They meet up sniffing each other briefly and pass by unconcerned, or arch their backs and challenge each other with deadly stares or unearthly yowls. There are groups which are perfectly comfortable together in their own particular area, others are individuals exploring and testing alien territory, who belong in different parts of the ruins, with their own comrades, while some of the cats look as if they only ever walk alone, as cats are supposed to do. But all of them choose to be there, as Bunty chooses to live in my house, and as Darcy eventually chose (or his cat-Alzheimer’s chose) not to. It is their home. And it looks, from their untroubled existence down there that they know it. As all cats do, they own it by being there. 

It is safer down in the ruins than up on the streets dodging forests of legs, cars and motor scooters, but they are also there because of the saucers that are dotted around the landscape. There has been a continuous stream of gattari since 1929. Some are Italian, but there have also been ex-patriot English and German women who have taken it on themselves to care for the cats. They have used their own money to feed them and set up Torre Argentina as a sanctuary. People now bring their unwanted cats, or cats they have found ailing, troubled or troubling in the streets, to the small office the gattari have made down the stairs under the pavement. Several thousand cats a year pass through, and they are inspected, nursed, fed and, if possible, sent on to a foster home. Two women, Silvia and Lia, have been in charge since 1994, having taken over from a solitary woman who was feeding and caring for the cats without any kind of assistance. ‘This woman’s generous efforts put her on the verge of economical and emotional collapse,’ writes Silvia on the Torre Argentina web site. Now, teams of volunteers help to keep the cats fed, clean and overseen. Vets offer their services as charity. Almost all of the cats living in the sanctuary have feline leukaemia, but they are given treatment and taken into the office, which doubles as a hospital, to be cared for when they need it. There are around 250 cats permanently at Torre Argentina, as well as the cats people bring along, all of which are spayed and neutered before they are released into the ruins. The ones that don’t find foster homes stay in Torre Argentina and some are ‘adopted at a distance’ as a means of providing income for the sanctuary. Nevertheless, Silvia and Lia are still squatters in their underground office, which remains unconnected to the city sewers. They display devotion and offer Rome a service (though one that is apparently unappreciated by the city council), and no one suggests that they suffer from the pathology of cat hoarding. The differences are structural – the cats they care for are outside rather than in their own homes; they have created an organisation that helps to fund and find volunteers and medics, who offer their services to deal humanely with the animals and their needs. There is no denial. It doesn’t seem to threaten to get out of hand, and, of course, for the onlooker, it is a sunken separated site with substantial containing walls and railings. This alleviates any anxiety of excess. Idiotic, of course, because the cats easily slip through the railings when they want, and the gattari and even the public can open the gate and descend into the ruins. But it remains a contained spectacle. There is no need to do more than stand, as many do, and as I did, looking down at the lives of animals, spectating, almost believing they are creatures in the wild, cats as we rarely see them, leading their own uninterrupted lives, as it seems, and to feel grateful to the women who are prepared to take responsibility for them. Nothing too frightening there. and much to be grateful for. 

Royal Spam, Royal Gibberish

It is with very little pleasure that I saw a BBC breaking news announcement from the Palace (as we say over here) about the wife of William Windsor, Duke of Cambridge, heir to the throne of England, Wales and, for the time being, Scotland. The Duchess of Cambridge, is pregnant, the BBC told me by email and text, a service usually reserved for vital and urgent world events like wars and the sacking of football managers. She’s probably only in her first month and it wouldn’t have been made public except for the fact that she’s in hospital with hyperemesis gravidrum, which is Latin for very bad morning sickness. It sounds really awful and she has my sympathy.

It is more or less traditional and wise for people to wait for the first trimester to be over before they make a public statement of pregnancy, but, even just days after the Leveson Inquiry on the conduct of the press and media reported and called for much tougher oversight for newspapers following the scandals that shut down the News of the World, the Palace knew there wasn’t any chance of keeping the Duchess’s condition out of the news. The following morning the Daily Mail had fourteen pages on the subject of the royal fœtus, including, in especially good taste, a forensic artist’s mock up of what the putative royal prince or princess, currently not much more than a handful of dividing cells, will look like when he or she is older. On the morning after the Leveson report calling for firmer regulation was published, the Mail – who is virulently against any kind of legislative press regulation – produced fifteen pages of vituperation, so Leveson wins the popularity poll by a whisker. It’s unlikely, however, that Duchess Kate will ever be referred to in the sort of terms the Mail described Lord Justice Leveson leaving the press conference: ‘Old liverspot waddled off with his hands behind his bottom.’

When I was younger they always played the National Anthem at the end of an evening at the theatre or cinema. I, being as anti-establishment as anyone, remained in my seat while the rest of the audience stood up and to attention. I received severe looks of disapproval and loud tutting in my direction. Very occasionally there was fellow refuser sitting, too. I’ve never had much time for patriotic ceremony or inherited privilege and I thought the royal family were grossly over-advantaged, reactionary, out of touch and a huge waste of public money. I still think all those things, but these days I’d just leave rather than bother to make a point about not standing for the National Anthem. They do have their uses, I’ve come to see. When Princess Diana died and a friend woke me with the news, my first sentence was ‘Oh no, how are they going to fill up the papers now?’, though it was a sorry and sad death. More than anything, I now don’t think the royal family matter very much in the vast field of injustice. There is so much else in this country that keeps the poor poor and the richer richer that the royals have become to me no more than figureheads of privilege and unfairness, just as they are figureheads politically. There’s more to be angry and distressed about than the continuing smugness of the House of Windsor.

Nevertheless, their existence can be instructive. Take for instance the relative amount of reporting in the newspapers between one very early pregnancy, and over two million children currently officially living in poverty in the UK. And I have no idea why so many people were content to be lulled into warm fuzzy feelings over the summer, by the royal jubilee celebrating one woman’s highly paid employment shaking hands over some decades, while increasing numbers of people are being made unemployed and told to work for nothing in order to get social welfare benefits to which they are entitled.

Perhaps, you think, they represent a steadiness in this turbulent time. But our royal family hasn’t been functioning calmly and distantly enough to ignore for centuries. Even these days, when they are supposed to be political ciphers, they make idiots or worse of themselves, interfere with politicians, city planning, and, it turns out, have a right of veto in laws where their own private financial interests might be affected. The Windsors hardly represent the ideal family, consisting as they do, of divorcees and catastrophic marriages in the last three generations. They don’t offer wisdom, (though the Queen’s long experience is said to be useful to Prime Ministers) having notoriously no interest in anything intellectual, the arts or philosophy, while the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, believes in a horrible right wing mixed-up mysticism about spiritual spirals ruling nature, and a feudal faith in the ‘right’ order of things. But if they’re not the perfect family, neither are they Everyfamily. They have no idea how the world really is, having never actually lived in it. A friend of mine was given a medal by the Queen for services to the arts. During the audience with the Queen, my friend told her about a mentally ill woman she had come across who was the basis for something she wrote. There was a silence, and then the Queen replied, ‘But how do you meet such people?’ It was a real and baffled question, and genuine, because it’s unlikely that Her Majesty has met anyone accidentally, since, years ago, a mentally ill man broke into the palace and sat on the end of her bed.

So the British royal family seem to serve no other purpose than to fill the tabloid newspapers and magazines when hard news is either lacking or not attractive enough to sell papers. After a brief explanation of the Latin name for her unwellness, Kate’s and Will’s baby will give us nine full months of babble and nonsense, with no real content. It is like some crazy town crier walking around, ringing his bell and shouting incomprehensible gibberish, filling the air with noise, because silence is unacceptable and frightening. Or, if you want to be more modern, it is spam, filling our inboxes, so we don’t have to notice that no one emails us except for debt collectors.

This piece was written for my regular monthly column at the Goteborg-Postens for translation into Swedish.