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L'Abbazia di Montecassino


Subiaco - link to page on Saint Benedict's original (and much more interesting to visit) monastery


Link to l'Abbaye-de-Fleury, San Benoît-sur-Loire, where Benedict's bones ended up


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The Abbazia di Montecassino (with crane) from Cassino -  November 2003



The Abbazia in greener postcard weather with the British Second World War cemetery in the foreground


St Benedict moved here from Subiaco and founded the monastery of Montecassino in around 529.  Both at Subiaco and Montecassino he developed his Monastic Rule (regula monachorum) for daily monastery life. The Rule of Benedict was one of several used in monasteries in his time, but over time began to be adopted by other monastic establishments.


Charlemagne's son Louis (Ludovico) the Pious, King of Aquitaine and Emperor from 814 - 840, passed a law in 816 making the Rule of Benedict, by now in wide use, the only one allowed in Frankish monasteries.  From this time on the monks and nuns started developing a sense of belonging to a community stretching beyond the walls of their individual monasteries, and this community became known as the Order of St Benedict (hence it is not quite accurate to say that Saint Benedict founded the Benedictines - he wrote the Rule, and the Benedictines evolved over several centuries, but very much as loosely connected congregations, not a multi-monastery order like Cluny or  the Cistercians).











Montecassino (overlooking "cassino" on the map below left) was within 50 years (577) destroyed by the Longobards (= Lombards).  It was later rebuilt more splendidly and given "vast privileges" after a 787 visit from the Emperor Charlemagne, destroyed by the Saracens (Arabs) in 883 and again 500 years later by an earthquake in 1349 (also the time of the Black Death - in fact the thirteen hundreds were a bad bad time all round for Europe).


World War II


This time the great rebuilt buildings lasted nearly 600 years before, in late 1943, the area (but not the demilitarized monastery itself) was made the hub of the the German "Gustav Line" defending the approaches to Rome against the advancing Allied forces.  On February 15 1944 the abbey and its monastery were destroyed in a USAAF bombing raid, based on the erroneous belief that it was being used by German forces (more detail below). 


The Monastery has since been rebuilt along the lines of the earlier buildings. 




The the middle of the three doorways to the the abbey church is closed by a pair of bronze doors (with silver demask lettering) made in Constantinople around 1066 and donated to the church by the merchant Mauro (son of Pantaleone) of Amalfi, who with his father ran a profitable Amalfi-Constantinople trading operation. 


The doors have no narrative images, but are a source for the limited number of people who want to know of an inventory of what the monastery owned in the mid 1000s.


Between 1060 and 1076 Pantaleone and Mauro also gave bronze doors to the Cathedral of Amalfi (1060), the major basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome (1070) and Monte Sant'Angelo in the Gargano (1076).  The last two of these were full of narrative art - more interesting than property inventories!







Photo from (English) Guide to the Abbey of Montecassino



The Battle of Montecassino


Anglo-American Forces landed on the Italian mainland in September 1943.  By the end of October the British 8th Army reached Brindisi in the South East, and the American 5th army controlled Naples.  The Anglo-American landings at Anzio (to the South of Rome) on 22 January 1944 failed to achieve the desired strategic leverage to attack Rome. 


The Germans made Cassino a hub in the heavily fortified "Gustav Line" defending the southern approaches to Rome, although they had a rigorous policy of excluding the Abbey from any military presence or activity.  From January 1944 successive battle groups from the US, Britain / NZ / India, Poland and France / Morocco / Algeria unsuccessfully tried to capture the Cassino mountains and suffered heavy losses.




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The 5th Army commander (Mark Clark) finally agreed, much against his better judgement, to the increasingly shrill demands of New Zealand General Freyberg and others to take out the Abbey - based on the (erroneous) belief that it was housing German positions.   On February 15 1944 the monastery and abbey were pulverised over three hours by 142 flying fortresses which dropped 287 tons of demolition bombs and 67 tons of incendiary bombs, followed by another 100 tons of high explosive bombs dropped by 87 B25 and B26 bombers.  No German forces had been or were there - the casualties were all Italian adult and child refugees and monks.  Even today, New Zealanders can be very defensive about their General Freyberg.



Douglas Lyne, a British veteran who fought at Monte Cassino, recalled*: "Monte Cassino was an objective hated by every Allied soldier anywhere near it.  So when we saw 250 Flying Fortresses buzzing up from the south on that perfectly clear February day, we thought wouldn't it be marvellous if they dropped the whole lot on the monastery, then whoosh, down came 500 tons.  There was a colossal cheer, you could have heard it all the way to Naples."  He paused, and when he continued his voice had changed.  "All except this one very close friend of mine, who said, 'what are you thinking of, Douglas? are we in this war to destroy monasteries?' And then I had a huge double take.  I thought, my God, what are we up to? I saw that in the last year and a half we had become literally barbarized.  We had become indistinguishable from any other army, the German army, the Russian army, the army of Genghis Khan, part of the great marauding horde whose instinct is to destroy, whose training is to destroy."  Douglas Lyne sums up: "A bird of sanity perched on my shoulder.  I think he's been there ever since."


* "Monte Cassino - the Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II" by David Hapgood and David Richardson


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An Italian reporter later described this act as one of such ineptitude as to shock even the sheep in the mountains of the Abruzzi.


The monastery was reduced to rubble, with the very counterproductive military consequence of enabling the German forces to establish defensive positions all over the mountain top from which they had hitherto been excluded.


Montecassino finally fell on May 18 1944, three months after the bombing and after the occupying German forces withdrew under cover of darkness.  In the attacks leading up to this, the Free Polish Brigade lost over 1,000 killed and 2,000 injured. 





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D V D 





This is the outstanding 1987 English translation by Armand Citerella of the book "Monte Cassino" by Tommaso Leccisotti who presided for many years over the great archives of the Abbey, which were mercifully saved from destruction in WWII.  The well illustrated book covers the entire history of the great abbey.


If you are there, ask persistently at the abbey bookshop for the Inglese version of the book - it will probably not be on display.


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For a complete and beautifully illustrated history of Monte Cassino (including but not limited to the Second World War), which has now been completely rebuilt, get hold of the outstanding 1987 English translation by Armand Citerella of the book "Monte Cassino" by Tommaso Leccisotti (left above), who presided for many years over the great medieval archives of the Abbey, which were mercifully saved from destruction.


An insightful account of the battles and the dubious strategies and leadership on which they were based, is included in Richard Holmes' book "Battlefields of the Second World War".  Or if you want a volume devoted solely to these events, there is "Monte Cassino" by David Hapgood and David Richardson, and also Matthew Parker's book.  The best photos are reportedly in George Forty's book.


On the broader subject of the Italian Campaign the best book is probably "Italy's Sorrow" by James Holland.  Tug of War - the Battle for Italy - the forgotten part of WWII - the book by Graham and Bidwell (covering the whole campaign), and that by Lord Carver (covering the British and Commonwealth forces and based on letters, reports, memos etc which are all included), are both good.  Richard Lamb's contribution "War in Italy" is a well documented and chilling account of the unbelievable behaviours of German commanders and their forces towards civilians and unarmed troops, which even more unbelievably many of them escaped punishment for when the war ended.








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Looking down from the Abbey on  the Polish War Cemetery



The interior of the reconstructed Abbey in 2003


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