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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nelson: The One-Eyed King of Torre Argentina

We are pleased to inaugurate Rome the Second Time’s guest blogger initiative with a post by author and Italophile Bo Lundin. Bo first came to Rome as a student in 1960, staying in a pensione that he describes as “high up in the buildings at the Piazza Repubblica.” His guidebook, Om Rom (About Rome) was published in 1984 and is now in a 6th edition (in Swedish only), and he adds with enthusiasm that it shares a good deal in content and sensibility with Rome the Second Time. A frequent visitor to the Eternal City (including this coming May), Bo’s latest passion is the more temporal pleasure of Capri, the subject of his new book, Pa Capri (On Capri).

Lots of buses, a very good bookshop, some cafés and bars, a famous theatre where The Barber of Seville in 1816 met his first audience and was booed off the stage. The Pantheon three blocks away to the north, Piazza Navona and the Tiber more or less equally distant to the northeast and to the south: you can’t be more in the middle of Rome than you are here at Largo di Torre Argentina.

The name has nothing to do with Argentina; the small 12th-century tower at one corner of the large square was owned by a family from Strasbourg – and Strasbourg was Argentorum in Latin. Nobody cares much about the tower these days, but a lot of tourists peek down into the excavation, compare their maps with their view and try to find out which of the Republican temples down there is Temple A and Temple B.

In the 1920s Mussolini’s town planners had ordered a large department store to be built right here. Old houses were pulled down, bits and pieces of the temples came to light, and as so often in Rome the plans had to be changed, antiquity winning over the present day.

But there is still life among the ruins, to the delight of the tourists. Down in the Area Sacra live hundreds of cats in all sizes and all colors. Kittens play around fallen columns, cats are dozing on the temple steps or walking gracefully in the grass. A popular pastime is trying to count all the cats you see; however careful you are, you’ll find that there is always one more, peeking out from under a pillar or suddenly appearing beneath a staircase.

It was in Largo di Torre Argentina I met Nelson. I remember the date--it was April 21st, Rome’s birthday--but not the year: it must have been in the early 90s. I went down the steps in the corner closest to where via Arenula goes down to the Tiber and came for the first time to the cat sancturary hidden away in the vaults beneath the busy street.

It was – and is – run by a couple of extraordinary Roman women helped by a large crowd of volunteers from all over the world: art students, au pair girls, even diplomats’ wives. The dynamic duo Lia Dequel and Silvia Viviani came here in 1994 and have spent all their time since then caring for the cats many hours per day, 365 days per years, come rain or come shine. That's Lia in the photo at left.

When I happened to look down into the sanctuary they had more or less just started, and just the day before a kitten with his fur so full of lice and dirt that it had to be shaved off had been dumped there. He sat in a small cage, feeling rather sorry for himself, but still with a hopeful glint in his eye.
Yes, his eye. He had only one left, so of course he was christened Nelson. (See the photo at right and above left, walking toward Lia).

I did what I have done every time I’ve been in Rome since then: petted the cats, donated some money for cat food (and, even more important, for spaying and neutering the cats coming to the sanctuary) and talked to Lia and Silvia.

Every time I passed Largo Argentina Nelson had become larger and more majestic. After a year or two he was the undisputed King Cat of the colony, often sitting at the first step of the stairs leading down, so the passing tourist could marvel and maybe even walk down to contribute to his and his fellow cats’ welfare.
His fame grew. Deborah D’Alessandro, an American volunteer, wrote a book about him. Nelson il re senza un occhio won a literary award in Italy and is translated into English as Nelson the One-Eyed King. TV teams came from all over Europe to interview Lia and Silvia and Deborah.

Nelson is no more. His health suffered from the damp conditions in the sanctuary (Roman authorities have turned a very cold shoulder to calls for the place to be connected to the main sewer system), and when he finally was adopted and went to Germany he survived for a year, but died of kidney trouble, hopefully comforted by central heating and lots of love.
Now he is a legend and a symbol. I am glad that we met already at the beginning of his career, and I still visit Largo di Torre Argentina every time I’m in Rome.

So do a lot of other foreigners: once I met a German bass singer, in Rome for a season as Sarastro in "The Magic Flute"; he came every free afternoon to talk to a blind cat he had fallen in love with the year before.

You don’t even have to go to Rome to visit the Largo Argentina cats: their website ( is large and colorful and gives lots of opportunities for helping Lia and Silvia and the others by adopting cats for real or by sending money for food. You can even buy Nelson the One-Eyed King. Do that.

Bo Lundin

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