I first met Lia in 1997, when my daughter and I first visited Torre Argentina. I remember Lia with a black cat she had named Silvestro who had just been dumped at the Sanctuary, then a dark cavern-like place with a rough concrete floor, minimal lighting and a tiny office space. The cat cages were a mixture of sizes and shapes, some new, some old, sitting up on plastic tables. Lia was vehemently denouncing all people who would do such a thing as abandon a cat.
The next year when I lived in Rome with my husband and daughter I began volunteering at the Sanctuary, first one afternoon a week, soon most afternoons. I quickly learned that Lia ran the shelter with an iron hand, single-handedly creating order and cleanliness in a space that seemed to defy order. She was a demanding task master and over the years drove away a number of volunteers who were not used to her rigorous standards, yet without her example there would not be a shelter today. Lia was a person of almost super-human strength and will power. She set the example of how to run the shelter; from when it opened at noon until it closed at 6; 365 days a year, she was cleaning cages, feeding cats, playing with cats and talking to tourists. In 1998 she had hardly every taken a day off since she and Silvia Viviani first opened the shelter in 1993 to help out a woman who was already feeding cats in the ruins.
Lia was a complicated person, her drive and determination matched by warmth and her marvelous sense of humor. She had an infectious deep-throated laugh, and often as not she laughed at herself. I was once petting a well-fed cat in her apartment and when I asked its name she laughed and said it was called Trickster. She said she had taken it from the shelter because it was only supposed to live for a couple of weeks, but that was over a year ago. Lia had a great sense of style and always came to work at the shelter looking elegant and well-put together. She had had an adventurous life, having left her native Trieste at a young age to marry an American who took her to Tennessee. When that marriage ended she stayed in America for a while, but returned to Trieste at the request of her mother. For a number of years she managed a shop on cruise ships; this mercantile spirit served her well when she went looking for items to help bring donations into the cat shelter. She met and married the love of her life, Oreste Dequel, a fine painter who incidentally loved cats. Her apartment in Trastevere was filled with his paintings. One of the few times Lia would take a brief time off from the Sanctuary was when she went to organize exhibits of his paintings and sculptures.
Over time, the shelter put more and more stress on spaying and neutering cats. It prided itself on never asking for any help from the Commune of Rome, rather it relied entirely on donations. Lia was vehement that they not take City money, she always said any help the City gave should go to those who needed more help in getting the feral cats they cared for fixed.
In the last several years when I saw Lia at the shelter she showed a more reflective side. She said she knew the Sanctuary she and Silvia had built had changed the way that Romans viewed cats. In the early days of the shelter people would come down to denounce spay-neuter, now people called to find out a good place to get their cat fixed. This has been an amazing sea-change. Last fall she looked more tired than any time I had seen her. Torre Argentina has come under serious threat of being shut down by an over zealous archeologist who is offended that there are people caring for cats in ‘her’ ruins. Yet Lia said on more than one occasion that she was happy with her life, contented and at peace with what she had been able to accomplish. In the midst of my grief at her passing I am conformed that she had time to to reflect on her life and judge it a life well-lived. All those of us who love her and applaud her can join in this sentiment. The legacy of what she and Silvia built at Torre Argentina will live on. – Susan –