William Dean Howells (March 1, 1837 to May 11, 1920) was, in his time, an avant-garde writer. He wrote novels, short stories, poetry, memoirs, and travelogues. It is from the latter category we quote below. First though a link to a detailed biographical summary of Howell's career, which can be recommended.
Howells traveled widely, and we now focus on his description of the cats of Rome. It was interesting to learn, from his Roman Holidays: And Others (1908), how that colony has a longer history than we knew.
You ... will certainly pause at the Forum of Trajan [,]...the sculptured column of the great emperor. ... I... have kept coming to look at that column and study the sculptured history of Trajan's campaigns, toiling around it to its top. I think one could then get close to its base, as now one cannot, what with the deepening of the Forum to its antique level and the enclosure of the whole space with an iron rail. The area below is free only to a large company of those cats which seem to have their dwelling among all the ruins and restorations of ancient Rome. People come to feed the Trajan cats with the
fish sold near by for the purpose, and one morning, in pausing to view his column from the respectful distance I had to keep, I counted no less than thirteen of his cats in his forum. They were of every age and color, but much more respectable in appearance than the cats of the Pantheon, which have no such sunny expanse as that forum for their quarters, but only a very damp corner beside the temple, and seem to have suffered in their looks and health from the situation. It was afterward with dismay that I realized the fatal number of the Trajan cats coming to their breakfast that morning so unconscious of evil omen in the figure; but as there are probably no statistics of mortality among the cats of Rome, I shall never know whether any of the thirteen has rendered up one of their hundred and seventeen lives.
However, if I allowed myself to go on about the cats of Rome, either ancient or modern, there would be no end. For instance, in a statuary's shop in the Via Sistina there is a large yellow cat, which I one day saw dressing the hair of the statuary's boy. It performed this office with a very motherly anxiety, seated on the top of a high rotary table where ordinarily the statuary worked at his caving, and pausing from time to time, as it licked the boy's thick, black locks, to get the effect of its labors. On other days or at other hours it slept under the table-top, unvexed by the hammering that went on over its head. Even in Rome, where cats are so abundant, it was a notable cat.
For some reason this all reminds me of what Thomas Cahill wrote, to
the effect that in the continental war zone, only Italy, Bulgaria, and Denmark did a fair job of protecting their Jewish citizens. Forgive me if you find this comparison offensive. I meant none.