Review of “I Gatti,” [Cats] a booklet by Gualtiero Petrucci
From L’Art Meridional
15 December 1905

Unfortunately I don't have a copy of the booklet, only this review of it.

You know that mother Michel’s cat was lost for a long time. But Aristide Bruant had replaced him: this is the famous Black Cat, who mewed every night in the cabaret of Montmartre, bristling, grimacing, back arched to any bourgeois who entered, but favourable to young poets, to hairy bohemians, to the songwriters, who are in turn sentimental or catty, to the lovers whom Willette's Paris sent up there to burn in the oil lamps like night-time moths.

Beaudelaire who, for his part, loved "powerful and sweet" cats, whose morbidness delights us in his work, “The Flowers of Evil.” Anatole France has presented to you Hamilcar, prince of the city of books, as peaceful as his master Sylvestre Bonnard and more of a philosopher than M. Bergeret. Pierre Loti, who has the deep sense of "Pity and Death", is constantly revisiting White Moumoute and Black Moumoute, who were curling up on Aunt Claire's knees, before the long journeys to the land of Japanese girls, chrysanthemums, and cherry blossoms. Madame Michelet confides to us all the pleasure her cats have given her, and to her husband, a poor workman, jealous of the instinctively magnificent life. Finally, if you need little cats just fifteen days old, trembling on their paws, ingenuous and comical, playing with their tails, with you, with everything, the pictorial talent of Eugene Lambert will offer you litters. It is true that they are licked clean, adorned with pink ribbons and bells, which ring with the echo of their servitude. I prefer Steinlen’s scrawny Montmartrois, miserable and wandering little wild cats driven by the two appetites that make pimps of them: hunger and love.

But I know of nothing more exquisite about them than the recent pamphlet by M. Gualtiero Petrucci, an Italian writer from Palermo, now living in Rome: "I Gatti." I knew the flexibility of his talent: flexibility of cat! I had read, like everyone else in Rome, “Women and Neo-Hellenism” (because he is an essayist), “Roman Vestals” (because he is an archaeologist and historian), “Like a Dream” (because he is a novelist and novelist), “Literary Pessimism” (in which case he is critical and moralistic), “The Umbrella and Fire and Smoke” (because he wrote very pretty comedies for childhood), “Letters of St. Francis de Sales” (because he knows our literature as well as you and better than me), and finally the erudite and lively articles in the newspapers of Rome (because it is publicist). But, in spite of the Italian influence, so remote, for example, from the rigid specialism of a German doctor, I did not expect one to be able to stroll with such graceful grace from the temple of Vesta to the trestles where the Roman brunettes “play” and the to the trestles where the cats make their homes.

I said, "grace.” This only covers a very solid and almost universal erudition. Because the cat, if you please, deserves that. It seems that ancient Egypt worshipped him: even though Diodorus of Sicily would not bear witness to it, their mummies are there, swathed in bandages and ointments, like those of a Pharaoh or a priestess of Osiris. I have seen it myself all over the place, especially at the Vatican's "Egyptian Museum", where I thought I heard their demonic soul groaning at being imprisoned in the palace of Christ. On the other hand, the cat is foreign to Greece and Rome. It surprises us that the rat, and especially the mouse, holds so much space in the ancient fables! Phaedrus supposedly had them a-plenty in his cubicle and around his atrium. Fortunately, Islam has given him compensation which explain the strange affinities between the cat and the oriental: the cat is fatalistic, polygamous, taciturn and contemplative; his hair is "morbidezza" [extremely delicate and soft] and as ample as Asian robes; when he sits on his backside, he becomes a Pasha who gives audience! Its rhythmic purr brings to mind the monotonous prayer of the Turks, and "if the animals were religious, the cat would be a Musselman [Muslim].” The Arabic books even contain a very pretty and veracious legend about the origin of the cat. Legions of mice gnawed at the Holy Ark, when Noah, inspired, ventured to slap the face of a lion: the lion sneezed out a cat. How very true! Look at an angry cat, its hair on end, its back arched, spitting “Pfut! Pfut!” at a dog! pfut! Really, sincerely, from you to me, isn’t that a lion's sneeze?

The Middle Ages abhorred the cat, a clandestine and mysterious beast, eternally devil-possessed no doubt, because his eyes gleam with the night of infernal flames. It took the Renaissance to reopen the doors of the home and the lap of the chin-waggers. However, if Du Bellay loved his follower, Beland, of the white velvet frizz fur, to the point of giving him a funeral oration, Ronsard detested this brood:

"No man alive, this whole world round
Hates cats likes me, with hatred so profound."

Without a doubt! since the cat was not in the classical world, it could not enter the Idylls, nor the Odes, nor in the Elegies, barely in the Sonnets to Helen, which ... Of two possibilities either Helen had a cat, and Ronsard was jealous of it, or else she did not want a cat, and her lover Ronsard shared her repugnance.

On the seventeenth century, except for the delicious and universal Polyphile who, according to Lafontaine, saw after Rabelais in the cat-fur-lined magistrate of Parliament and the doctor of the Sorbonne, a very selfish and greedy apostle, so lively that he eats all other beasts, the seventeenth century was severe, as all animals were considered as nothing but "machines". It was the same in eighteenth century when the favourite animals were the bichon, the pug, or the parrot of the islands. But here we must thank Mr. Petrucci for having reminded us of a charming anecdote, which is The History, and where we find great historical figures. Moncrif, a candidate for the Academy, having written a learned "History of the Cats", a subject considered ridiculous in a century of enlightenment, and as the author sometime afterwards solicited from the Count d'Argenson the licence of historiographer of France. "Historio-griff [claw], do you mean"? replied the minister, who was a contemporary of Voltaire. And it was, in fact Voltaire who, when Moncrif presented himself at the Academy, threw his cats between his legs to prevent him from entering [“throw a cat at his legs” was a saying meaning “to embarrass someone,” but this author seems to have taken it literally rather than metaphorically]:

The beautiful minds will teach us
Who among them should have the lead:
They have rats, they have rats;
They need someone to catch them;
They will choose the author of Cats.

Voltaire again, learning that Moncrif (poor cat!) had been appointed as censor to examine his history of Russia, wrote: "The author of cats is not to overdo it in judging Peter the Great: he is a long way from his rain-gutter to the Volga."

In the nineteenth century, we see the cat regarded as a "candidate for humanity". Chateaubriand, who loved only to be loved, loved the cat for its independence, and especially for its ingratitude. You know that, like Monsieur le Vicomte Rene de Ch., The cat doesn’t just caress you, but voluptuously caresses itself on you. Victor Hugo allowed his to enthrone itself on a place Royale armchair: eternal visionary, he saw there a lion! Sainte-Beuve put it in his room and in a sonnet, and Th. Gautier entitled two chapters of his "Intimate Menagerie": White Dynasty and Black Dynasty. As for our most recent contemporaries, you already know their feline passion.

It is because, according to the detailed analysis of M. Petrucci, our pantheism, naturalism, symbolism and all our "isms" have found satisfaction with it. As the mystery of its gaze is like that of the Woman ... or the Sphynx, suspicion creeps into our affection for it. The fable of the woman metamorphosed into a cat has very deep meaning: she is feline, sometimes selfish, almost always unknowable, and she hides beneath the velvety sweetness of her caresses an aloofness full of painful surprises. Her loves (the she-cat’s) are cruel, tragic, bloody, and her nightlife, a true aerial bacchanal, is that of a gutter Messalina or a witch in her Sabbath frolics. I don’t know whether Rome has the same experience here as Toulouse, but in February and March our nights are those of Macbeth's magicians, of the poisoners of the great century, the visions of St. Anthony at Teniers, or of Walpurgis.

But what a charm it is in childhood! What an Andalusian dancer (M. Petrucci saw La Feria in 1889?), what Bergamasque harlequin is as good as the young cat rolling on the carpet with a woollen ball, in a ray of sunshine, or especially in Moonlight? Through all his life he moves with incomparable elegance, and his pantomime recalls the distinction of the Watteau’s Cilles. For the rest, the master of feminine sweetness has painted "The Sick Cat": grace and sadness, or rather affectation veiled with melancholy, it is all about him. The cat’s greed, served by its delicate pink tongue, might outrage us if its reserve, as though disgusted, before biting the food was not that of a great lord, or rather of a fop. And above all, let's not forget that his monotonous purring marks the family vigil, adds to the intimacy of the winter hearths, to the sweetness of summer evenings, especially in the households of those people where human pride has not yet silenced the song of things. I still remember, at Perros-Guirec in Brittany, soirees at mother Le Corre’s, to whom I had come down: the wooden clock ticked tirelessly, and every hour there was the cuckoo; the hearth cricket chirp-chirped, mother Corre sang a Breton melody, very obscure for me, but for that reason so nostalgic; the nearby tide was also singing her song, and the cat was purring from a carved cupboard: complete harmony, profound, where silence itself was part of it!

But it's in Italian that you have to read Petrucci’s "The Cats". The tongue is warm and colourful like their fur, caressing and almost feline. If the instrument is excellent in itself, it must be used well: the author writes in a supple style, which takes all the allure, learning, spirit, and feeling, with the same ease that is needed on such a subject. Oh charm of Sicile! What would it be if I could talk to you about the high-level topics he often comes up with? - R. S.


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