Do cats care about history? Do they know that they sometimes heed the call of nature in sacred temples? It would be hard for them to answer, although their eyes sometimes reflect a beauty that’s easy to give in to. And if they do care about history, we could ask them what it’s like to live among the marble that saw the death of Julius Cesar. This is the case with the feline residents of Largo di Torre Argentina, a square in the centre of Rome that has become a cat paradise.

Because it was here that the Roman emperor died because of Brutus, around 44 BC. At that time the place was occupied by the Senate, an institution now 23 centuries old. Today it’s a sanctuary for cats. Among the columns that have resisted the passage of time and on the steps now dispersed among the underbrush, there are hundreds of cats. At first, it was just a temporary stay, but it soon became a fixed, controlled residence, food included.

And all this thanks to Lia Dequel and Silvia Viviani, under the auspices of the Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals (AISPA). Until these two women came along, there was a story of intrigue, love and even politics. In 1929, the year in which work began in the area, a field was uncovered, and many cats began to arrive: they had been abandoned by their owners and started to procreate on the city’s streets. Little by little their population grew, though nobody knew quite how. A few months later it was discovered that two women in the neighbourhood were leaving food for them. They were dubbed ‘las gattare’ (the cat women). Among them –according to Aitor Pedrueza, founder of the website El Giroscopio Viajero and an expert on Italy– was the mythic actress Anna Magnani, who worked in the nearby Teatro Argentina.

The years went by. The cat colony grew but the cat women were disappearing. In the last decade of the past century there was a single woman in charge of nearly 90 cats, some of them sick, hungry and not sterilised. So passionate was she about their fate that she had economic and health problems. Until Dequel and Viviani found out about it. Great animal lovers, they set up a small room in an adjoining cave of some 100 square metres in which to store food and provide the cats with shelter. “They also began to make people more aware of the need to maintain these cats. Without any government assistance and in a haphazard way,” says Pedrueza.

A few years later –and thanks to Molga Salvalaggio, a well-known English animal protector– they did what AISPA had done with uncontrolled cat populations in the UK, and began to collect funds from tourists and volunteers. Among them were Micha Postma and Christiaan Schipper, from Holland, creators of the webpage, which has given the project worldwide attention. The idea grew, and in 2001 these animals received Biocultural Patrimony status in Rome. “Lia and Silvia made it possible for cats to go from being seen as a plague to something that should be preserved, and as a tourist attraction,” says the blogger.

The success of the project can be quantified: more than 4,300 sterilisations, 200 residents at the sanctuary, 150 adoptions, recovery programmes, vaccinations, cats returned to their colonies, and a souvenir shop celebrating this ancestral Roman icon. The only problem is a legal one: because the cats occupy a protected area, the National Archaeology Department is trying to dislodge them. It complains that they have “invaded” the temple and that –according to information published on– “they have wounded the dignity of a sacred area.” And as if that were not enough, Lia, one of the pioneers, died in 2013. “Not a day goes by that we don’t mention her or she does not still inspire and motivate us,” says the official website.

“For cat lovers, this is a unique place, special. Among some ruins that, like all the ruins in this city of 2.6 million people, often appear uncared for,” it goes on, “but where the cats run free: they aren’t afraid to have their pictures taken or be caressed… This is the ideal place to make children and adults aware about caring for animals. It demonstrates in a very educational way how tourism can be based on initiatives that combine historic heritage and animal life.” A pity that the objects of all this attention can’t tell us just what they think.