Editor’s Note: This is the ninth post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.
In Modern Italy, every city possesses distinct characteristics which sets it apart from the others. This diversity is not only visible in architecture or urban planning but also in the profound cultural uniqueness of each city. To differentiate residents from various cities, Italians primarily rely (both historically and today) on specific dishes or foods. For instance, many citizens are identified as either “bread eaters” or “egg eaters”.1
Among unique Italian culinary identities, “cat eaters” was a distinctive label for some Italian citizens. However, during the 19th century, it mostly became closely associated with the people of Vicenza, a city in the North-east of Italy.2 During the 19th century, Italians underwent a gradual shift in perspective, increasingly viewing cats as pets and domesticated creatures rather than solely as wild or feral animals.3
In 1871, the Italian army conquered Rome, subsequently designating it as the capital of the state. A few years later, in 1889, Giuseppe Fiorelli assumed the role of General Director of the Antiquities and Fine Arts in Rome. He was tasked with preserving and maintaining the monuments that had recently become essential to the state’s heritage. This included the Pantheon, which was home to numerous cats at that time. According to Fiorelli’s report, cats were causing damage to the renowned monument. Thus, he issued an order to exterminate all the cats residing in the Pantheon. Nevertheless, the nearby shopkeepers objected to this decision and raised concerns about the cats’ well-being. In response, the city government chose not to implement the directive.4
Left: Detail of Emilio Longoni, Ragazzina col gatto (“Little girl with cat”, 1893-1896, private collection. Capricornis_crispus, Image license CC BY-SA 4.0; Right: Il gatto domestico (“The house cat”), Bassano del Grappa, Vicenza, c. 1800, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Il Gatto Domestico. Public Domain.
Even during the fascist period (1922-1943), the Roman government issued a directive to eliminate cats from Trajan’s Column, another significant landmark in the city. However, the local community rallied to safeguard the feline residents. Ultimately, reminiscent of their actions half a century before, the cats were rescued again.5
In that period, the Fascist government enacted a law granting anyone the right to kill even a domestic cat in self-defense, as long as the cat was a distance away from the owner’s residence. Another fascist regulation granted scholars the authority to employ cats in scientific experiments, with special authorization. Furthermore, cats could be legally eliminated to prevent them from becoming disease carriers and to utilize their fur for clothing and accessories. Overall, within that time, cats were still not fully protected by the Italian legislation.6
Starting from the era of Italian independence in 1861 until 1940, when Italy entered the Second World War (1939-1945), instances of cat killing and consumption were scarcely documented by Italian journalists. For example, one recorded incident involved a restaurant owner who killed a cat, apparently due to the animal’s hydrophobia. Another account recounted a gentleman who killed and consumed his neighbor’s cat to celebrate the Italian feast of Ferragosto on August 15th. There was also a group of hunters who replaced cats for rabbits, although the news author described it as merely a joke. Additionally, there were reports of a few men stealing and eating cats. Nevertheless, these cases were infrequent, amounting to only a handful of cases over half a century. They were considered isolated and peculiar events rather than recurring patterns, primarily concentrated in Milan, a northern Italian city where the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera was published.7
From 1940 to 1944, Italian newspapers extensively reported a significant surge in incidents related to hunting, killing, selling, and consuming cats. These occurrences became increasingly conspicuous and were prominently featured in major news outlets during that period.
A journalist reported that in the northern city of Como, there was an unusual disappearance of cats, raising suspicions. Furthemore, in the small village of Latisana, located in the province of Udine, a city in the north-east, a man killed almost all of the cats in the area. Moving to the north-western city of La Spezia, the correspondent described an incident where someone had stolen a cat belonging to the local inn. In various other cities, news circulated about the apprehension of individuals who were capturing cats and selling their meat. Additionally, in Venice, some men were called “razziatori di gatti” (“cat raiders”) by the reporter. In Mantova, a city in northern Italy, a man was specifically identified by the journalist as a “venditore di gatti” (“cat meat seller”).8
In Milan, it was reported by the journalist that a group of friends ate cat meat during a retirement dinner due to food shortages. The correspondent from Vicenza recounted an incident where a cat ate a cooked chicken, and the chicken’s owner, in turn, ate the cat. According to a journalist from Turin, some friends coerced their comrades to eat cat meat. Throughout the years of the Second World War, the Italian press highlighted the prevalence of cat dishes in the taverns of Milan and Rome.9 In Novara, a city in the north-west of Italy, a journalist described an unfortunate event in which five people were poisoned after eating cat meat. Similar cases were reported by other journalists in Massa and Carrara, in Central Italy, where two ladies became intoxicated from eating cats.10
According to Italian newspapers, during World War II, Italians turned to foraging cats as a source of sustenance. In February 1943, the Italian Ministry of the Interior issued a letter to all city governments with the intent of prohibiting the “Distruzione di gatti per la utilizzazione delle carni, dei grassi e delle pelli” (“Destruction of cats for the utilization of meat, fats and skins”). This law aimed to prevent the consumption of cats, as well as the use of their fat and skin, in order to prevent the spread of mice and, consequently, diseases and potential food shortages.11 Following this prohibition, there were only sporadic reports of people killing and eating cats appearing in the Italian press until the present.12
Moreover, after the issuance of the ministry’s letter in 1943, there were no further legal prohibitions on consuming cat meat in Italy. Instead, a law was enacted in 1991 that was focused on preventing the mistreatment of cats.13 In 2018, a few Italian parliamentarians pushed for an immediate ban on the use of cat meat for food purposes. However, the proposal did not progress into law.14
In summary, the practice of foraging, hunting, killing, and consuming cats was predominantly documented during the Second World War, and it was widespread across numerous Italian cities. On one hand, the foraging of cats was not limited solely to the citizens of Vicenza, who were known as cat eaters during that time and still are today. This practice was common across various Italian cities. Therefore, it suggests that the identification of citizens of Vicenza as cat eaters, might not be exclusively tied to a specific foraging practice or a particular dietary habit. So far, all previous research has attempted to explain the identification of the Vicenza community as cat eaters as a genuine food tradition from that particular city. However, future investigations could explore the foraging and consumption of cats as a cultural phenomenon and not as a present day culinary practice.
On the other hand, the sole Italian law to prohibit the consumption of cat meat was enacted during a period of crisis, when cats were largely regarded as domesticated animals. Coincidentally, this was also the time when Italians resorted to foraging cats. Existing environmental history studies have mainly focused on the legislative evolution of regulations that either permit or prohibit foraging. However, only a handful of studies have delved into the complex interplay between animal protection and foraging activities during critical times. Therefore, it might be fruitful to investigate these sometimes unconventional foraging practices as specific survival strategies during pivotal moments. Through a comprehensive examination of the cultural and legislative aspects of foraging, a broader perspective may illuminate the evolving dynamics between humans and nature.
Acknowledgments: We would like to express our deepest gratitude to our teachers: Professor Andrea Pieroni and Professor Renata Sõukand.
1 Nissan, E. (2007). Mangiapane, mangiauova, mangiarape: qualche dato inedito sui blasoni alimentari. La Ricerca Folklorica, 55, 139-146.
2 Biasin, G. (1994). Other Foods, Other Voices. Modern Language Notes, 109(5), 831-846.
3 Guazzaloca, G. (2018). Primo: non maltrattare. Storia della protezione degli animali in Italia. Laterza.
4 Delpino, F. (1980). Gatti, monumenti e burocrazia. In Barberito, M., Mariotti Bianchi, U., Martini, A., Onorati, F., Russo Bonadonna, M. T., Tamblè (Eds), D. Strenna dei romanisti, Roma Amor (pp. 183-186).
5 Sidoni, P. (2019). La Roma di Mussolini. Newton Compton.
6 Guazzaloca, G. (2018). Primo: non maltrattare. Storia della protezione degli animali in Italia. Laterza.
7 Il Corriere della Sera, 12/24/1910, 4; 03/27/1914, p. 7; 01/15/1935, p. 7; 07/07/1937, p. 2.
8 La Stampa, 02/18/1941, p. 4; Il Corriere della Sera, 04/06/1940, p. 2; 11/25/1942, p. 4; 04/25/1943, p. 4; 02/19/1941, p. 2.
9 Il Corriere della Sera, 08/10/1962, p. 7.
10 Il Corriere della Sera, 02/14/1941, p. 5; La Stampa, 02/07/1941, p. 5; 01/22/1941, p. 5; 05/13/1943, p. 2; Il Corriere della Sera, 02/14/1943, p. 4; 12/24/1942, p. 2.
11 Ministry of Interior, Circular 15/02/1943, no. 18320-10089.
12 For instance, La Stampa, 08/28/1950, p. 2, “Si nutriva solo di carne di gatto. 78 anni non aveva mai lavorato“; (“He only eats cat meat. He is 78 years old and he has never worked”); 11/21/1961, p. 9, “Intossicati da salsicce con carne di volpe e di gatto. Svelato il mistero di uno strano morbo (…)” (“Intoxicated by sausages with fox and cat meat. The mystery of a strange disease (…) revealed”), among the few others.
13 Law 14/08/1991, no. 281.
14 Draft Law 04/10/2018, no. 845.
Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.