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  • A Frightening Roman Cat May 25, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    ***This post is dedicated to Invisible who sent the reference and the picture in***

    Beachcombing was going to do a post on early parachutes today but he got caught up, instead, in a disturbing cat portrait and legend thanks to an email from Invisible. This nasty little moggy – look at it! – will simply not leave him alone and so stung he thought he would do some digging.

    First A reference to this picture appears in H.V. Morton’s A Traveller in Rome (1957).

    In a picture gallery upstairs [in the museum of Rome] I found a portrait of a black and white cat. This lordly and imposing creature prowled the marble halls of some seventeenth century palace and is here seen enthroned upon a tasselled cushion, wearing a broad collar to which bells [that look like skulls at this resolution] are attached. Pinned to a curtain behind the cat is a little poem which says that a great and beautiful lady once kissed the cat and bade him keep his heart and mouth pure, and to remember her kiss. No one knows who the lady was.

    The poem pinned to the curtain in the picture is almost as sinister as the cat. This is a rapid (and hopefully correct transcription) and a very rapid translation – baby Beachcombings have to be put to bed. [27 May: Beach has now replaced his own inadequate effort with the perfect transcription and translation of Camape. 25 June with a crux, al vino = al vivo fixed by Jonathan Jarrett]

    Questo scolpito in tela amabil Gatto,

    Gustò di bella dea bacio amoroso

    E al vivo poscia fattone il ritratto,

    Si tien ben custodito e assai geloso.

    Affinché possa appien serbarsi intatto

    Qual Armellin, che vive timoroso,

    E acciò preso non sia, sen fugge ratto

    A stare in bosco o in luogo più nascoso

    Così tu ancor, o Gatto avventurato,

    Serba intatta la bocca e puro il core,

    E a colei pensa sol, che ti ha baciato,

    E fa che solo a me permetti amore

    Che un bacio scocchi, e mi riprendi il dato

    Bacio amoroso per temprar l’ardore.

    This Cat painted [‘sculpted’, literally] here on canvas, tasted a loving kiss from a beautiful goddess, after having done the portrait to/from life, the cat keeps himself well guarded and most jealous. In order to keep himself fully intact, like an Ermine [the stoat in winter fur – not as Beach originally suggested ermine the fur of that animal] who lives in fear and to avoid being caught flees rapidly to stay in the wood or in a more hidden place, so you as well, oh adventurous Cat, preserve your mouth intact and your heart pure, and only think of the one who kissed you, and allow only me to love you, you who shoot a kiss and take back my lovely kiss to cool the passion.

    It is all rather sinister and edging towards zoophilia. In any case, H. V. Morton continues his reflections.

    Let us hope she [the kiss giver] was not the countess in the old Roman story who, after her widowhood, doted on a cat and had a chicken cooked every day for him. One day she left home for a friend’s villa in the Campagna, and during her absence the servants decided to eat the chicken themselves and place the bones in the usual place. The countess was surprised, when she returned to notice that the cat did not run to welcome her, but sat looking the other way, deeply offended. ‘What’s the matter with the cat? Hasn’t he had his chicken?’ asked the countess. ‘Yes, Signor Countess,’ answered the servants, ‘see, the bones are on the floor where he always leaves them.’ The countess could not deny this, and shortly after went up to bed. The cat followed, for he slept on her bed. That night the cat suffocated and killed the countess. Romans explain this story by saying that a cat is intelligent, but selfish and cruel. He reasoned that if his mistress had not gone out and left him to the mercy of the servants, he would not have been so badly treated. Therefore she was to blame and must die. Dogs are faithful, say the Romans, and cats are traitors. I am sure, however, that there is no need to say that the loyalty of English and Siamese cats has never been questioned! Perhaps every country gets the cats it deserves.

    Perhaps every country gets the cats it deserves…!!!!

    Beachcombing has been unable to find any reference online to this picture or, sadly this Roman cat legend: still he’s not very good with search engines, especially in Italian: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    25 May 2011: Invisible shoots this email back: ‘I’ve done some more searching on the cat with the sonnet portrait and come up blank on portrait and story, except for finding that all the art reproduction sites call this Armellino the Cat – so is the reference a proper name or the heraldic ermine?’ Beachcombing should add here that while Armellino has a capital so do all the other nouns: this is Baroque spelling – i.e. capitalised nouns – so who knows. In any case, Invisible continues: ‘Of course the ermine is purity and the poem is about keeping oneself pure for ones lady, blah, blah, blah. But the cat’s coloration and your translation of ‘black and white’ makes me wonder if this was a veiled reference to a naughty Dominican–if so, rather a neat reversal since the Dominicans were ‘God’s Dogs’ and we all know what cats are.  And does that tassel refer to a cardinal’s hat? The cat portrait is generally dated 1750-69. What Dominican prelate was scandalizing the Faithful about that time?’ It would be useful to know its provenance as well. Italy but where? Thanks, yet again, Invisible!

    27 May 2011: Camape asks ‘I wonder, dear Dr, why you didn’t enlist the help of Mrs Beachcombing for the transcription of the Italian text.’ The answer to this is one that causes Beachcombing much pain, but Mrs B cannot stand history: this blog would never have been created if Mrs B’s eyes didn’t glaze over every time Beach says ‘today I read a fascinating study…’ Camape then gives a perfect transcription: ‘corrections in capitals, some commas from the original added, some incorrect ones from your transcription taken away, and an hyphen added where it was in the painting’. This has now been included above. Camape also provided the superior and corrected translation above. As to the portrait itself: ‘it can be just what it ostensibly is, i.e., the celebration of the love of that Bella Dea for her cat (I understand that you don’t love them overmuch), though the portrait of the poor cat, in that case, is atrocious; if I’d have been the lady, I’d have complained to the poor artist. But it might also symbolise a human love: the commitment of the painting being the one who received a kiss from the lady, her suitor, disguising himself in cat’s guise… And, thinking about the age of the painting, and considering that most incongruous ‘to wine’ just hanging there, this second seems the most likely: the homage of a suitor who stole a kiss from the lady, maybe with the help of a glass of wine. I don’t think other meanings or allegories, political or theological, are on the table. It would anyway be interesting to see, in the catalogue of Rome’s National Museum, what collection the painting comes from. As for the ermellino (in modern Italian spelling), the cat is compared to an ermine. This can be for his being white and black; or this, together with the tassel, could direct to the possibility (not so impossible, in the middle of the 18th century) of the lady’s suitor being a cardinal…’ Thanks a million, Camape, particularly for correcting Beach’s transcription and putting the translation to rights!!!

    25 June 2011: Kudos to Jonathan Jarrett from A Corner of Tenth Century Europe who broke the ‘al vino’ crux in the poem that had defeated even the brilliant Camape. ‘Al vino’ is actually ‘al vivo’ with the sense of the cat being painted to/from life. There is a distinction allegedly. Thanks Jonathan and thanks Camape for confirming Jonathan’s hypothesis!

    24 July 2011: Invisible writes in with a modern equivalent that minds Beach of an Evelyn Waugh short story where a dog bites off a flapper’s nose but I digress: ‘The Strange Tale of a Resentful Cat: A Story That the Reader May Think Requires an Affidavit From the Boston Transcript, Reported in The New York Times April 14, 1895 Blossom is a big gray cat. She has been in the family for seven years, and her mistress thinks she was fully ten when she came uninvited and took possession. Her charms made her welcome, and visitors, as a rule, pet her to her heart’s satisfaction. Still, she shows her loyalty to her mistress by many feline felicities. One day a young man came for a short visit. He was an inveterate tease. As there was no one else for a victim, he took Blossom in hand, in spite of pleadings and protestations. Her ears were greeted with the strange terms, ’Old rascal’ ‘Scapegrace’, ‘Tramp’, and kindred names, till the astounded cat did not know what had come to her. Her pretty ways disappeared, she fled form his approach, and hid whenever she could till he was out of the house. One morning she was missing for some hours, and was not to be found in any of her hiding places. A loud cry from the chambermaid revealed her whereabouts. Blossom had revenged herself on the visitor’s nightshirt, which lay in tatters on the floor. Pussy was scolded and every one was cautioned to keep the door shut. In vain! The cat would find her way in and hide till the chambermaid was through for the day, and then the claws went to work, first on the visitor’s own clothes if any could be found, and then on the pillow cases. The young man tried to soothe her feelings, but she would have none of him, and he was glad to cut short his visit. Blossom quickly recovered her usual demeanor, and has never been known to destroy anything from that day to this.’ Thanks Invisible!!

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