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Rome’s Largo Argentina, site where Julius Caesar was killed, reeks of history … and cat pee – UPDATED

November 3, 2012

One of the approximately 250 cats that call Rome’s Largo Argentina, the site where Caesar was killed in 44 BC, home.

UPDATE – According to Agence France Presse (via the Singapore Straits Times), the cat sanctuary is staying put. Rome’s mayor Gianni Alemanno said: “These cats are not up for debate, they are part of the history of Rome.” And he added this for good measure: “Woe to those who lay a finger on the cats.”

ORIGINAL POST – Every Ides of March (the 15th), you’re likely to find some people congregating around Rome’s Largo Argentina, the site in 44 BC where Julius Caesar was assassinated, to honor that historic moment.  I joined a group of about 15 friends there eight years ago to mark the occasion. One group member read aloud from Shakespeare and there were other commemorations.  The archaeological site itself is below grade, surrounded by a metal fence and populated by hundreds of cats.  On that day in 2004, we were nearly overcome by the sense of history … and the stench cat pee.

The City of Rome has A LOT of stray cats (not unlike Tel Aviv) and the nearly 20-year old semi-permanent/makeshift cat sanctuary has become an unusual institution.  As reports in the Telegraph and elsewhere have indicated, municipal officials have decided the cats and their sanctuary have got to go.

City heritage officials say that the sanctuary, which lies just on a pedestal just a few yards from where Caesar was hacked down, must close because it is unhygienic, was built without proper planning permission and compromises one of Italy’s most important archaeological sites.

“How was it possible that these cat lovers were able to construct their refuge on an ancient monument?” asked Andrea Carandini, a former president of the national cultural heritage council.

“From what the authorities are saying, you would think we were occupying the Parthenon,” said Silvia Viviani, co-founder of the refuge. “I’m a Roman and I’m very proud of our ancient heritage but we are not damaging anything here.” The refuge attracts tens of thousands of tourists a year, who descend the metal steps leading down from street level to stroke the cats and buy cat-related t-shirts, fridge magnets and other souvenirs, the money from which helps keep the place going.

Inertia has great power in Italian affairs, so I’ll be surprised if the City gets its way.  And if they do manage to close the refuge down, I hope that Carabinieri are dispatched to round up the felines.  That will be a very entertaining sight, indeed.
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