As Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports, renovation of the archaeological site, which houses the ruins of four Roman temples and the sprawling Theatre of Pompey, will begin next month and last for about a year. Currently, tourists can only view the area from street level.
“With this work we’ll begin entering into the area and ... walk[ing] among the vestiges of our history,” said Rome’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, at a press conference last week, per AFP. “… We are preparing for the arrival of new tourists when [the pandemic] is over.”
Visitors to the square, known informally as the Area Sacra, will also catch glimpses of furry faces: According to Andrea Smith of Lonely Planet, the ruins are home to hundreds of stray cats that are sterilized, fed and tended to by a private non-profit shelter. City officials say the planned renovation will not affect this “historic feline colony,” reports Brenda Haas for Deutsche Welle.
Animal antics aside, the site has a less than welcoming history. On the Ides of March in 44 B.C., a group of Roman senators stabbed Caesar, who was by then ruling as a dictator, to death in the Curia of Pompey, a meeting hall in the larger theatre complex. Among the conspirators was Caesar’s good friend Marcus Junius Brutus—a betrayal referenced in William Shakespeare’s famed history play, which finds the dying statesman asking, “Et tu, Brute?” or “And you, Brutus?”
Today, tourists can still see part of the curia’s foundations, as well as the remains of other Roman buildings dated to the fourth through first centuries B.C. Workers demolishing medieval houses on the orders of Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini rediscovered the ancient square in 1926, notes Deutsche Welle; as Jason Daley explained for Smithsonian magazine in 2019, Mussolini “razed many sections of modern Rome to unearth the archaeology underneath [and] tangibly tie his dictatorship to the might of the Roman Empire.”
Between the Area Sacra’s rich history and its contemporary cohort of cats, tourists have much to look forward to once renovations conclude next year. Funded by a $1.2 million donation from Italian fashion company Bulgari, the square’s transformation into an open-air museum will feature accessible footpaths, illuminated and elevated walkways, an elevator, and an exhibition space, according to Roma Today.
Panels placed throughout the site will walk visitors through its lengthy past, from its time as a training ground for Roman soldiers to its modern rediscovery. Statues, inscriptions and terracotta vessels, among other artifacts unearthed by archaeologists, will be displayed alongside this informational text.
“Finally, we will be able to physically enter the Area Sacra instead of admiring it only from above,” Raggi told reporters last week, as quoted by Roma Sette’s Onella Onorati.
As for the cats, they have nothing to worry about. Wanted in Rome reports that the work will not extend to the feline sanctuary, which is situated below street level in a corner of the square.
“Many of the cats who patrol that area are the more feral and shy cats who are not so used to and who don’t particularly enjoy human contact,” Fiona Shaw, a longtime volunteer at the sanctuary, tells Wanted in Rome, “and we are sure they will continue to keep a safe distance from visitors if they choose to.”