Monte Cassino

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The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino

Monte Cassino (sometimes written Montecassino) is a rocky hill about 130 kilometres (81 mi) southeast of Rome, Italy, 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) to the west of the town of Cassino and 520 m (1,706.04 ft) altitude. Site of the Roman town of Casinum, it is best known for its historic abbey. St. Benedict of Nursia established his first monastery, the source of the Benedictine Order, here around 529.

The hilltop sanctuary was the site of the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, where the building was destroyed by Allied bombing and rebuilt after the war. The site has been visited many times by the Popes and other senior clergy, including Pope Benedict XVI in May 2009.

Since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council the monastery is one of the few remaining territorial abbeys within the Catholic Church. On 23 October 2014, Pope Francis applied the norms of the motu proprio Ecclesia Catholica (Paul VI, 1976)[1] to the Abbey. This act removed from its jurisdiction all 53 parishes and reduced its territory to the Abbey itself - while retaining its status as a Territorial Abbey. The former territory of the Abbey, except the land on which the Abbey Church and monastery sit, was transferred to the local diocese of Sora-Cassino-Aquino-Pontecorvo.[2][3]


Ancient history

The history of Monte Cassino is linked to the nearby town of Cassino which was first settled in the fifth century B.C. by the Volsci people who held much of central and southern Italy. It was the Volsci who first built a citadel on the summit of Monte Cassino. The Volsci in the area were defeated by the Romans in 312 B.C. The Romans renamed the settlement Casinum and build a temple to Apollo at the citadel. Modern excavations have found no remains of the temple, but ruins of an amphitheatre, a theatre, and a mausoleum indicate the lasting presence the Romans had there.[4]

Generations after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity the town became the seat of a bishop in the fifth century A.D. Lacking strong defences the area was subject to barbarian attack and became abandoned and neglected with only a few struggling inhabitants holding out.[4]

Medieval history

According to Gregory the Great's biography of Benedict, Life of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the monastery was constructed on an older pagan site, a temple of Apollo that crowned the hill. The biography records that the area was still largely pagan at the time and Benedict's first act was to smash the sculpture of Apollo and destroy the altar. He then reused the temple, dedicating it to Saint Martin, and built another chapel on the site of the altar dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Archaeologist Neil Christie notes that it was common in such hagiographies for the protagonist to encounter areas of strong paganism.[5] Once established at Monte Cassino, Benedict never left. He wrote the Benedictine Rule that became the founding principle for Western monasticism, received a visit from Totila, king of the Ostrogoths (perhaps in 543, the only remotely secure historical date for Benedict), and died there.

View across the valley

Monte Cassino became a model for future developments. Unfortunately its prominent site has always made it an object of strategic importance. It was sacked or destroyed a number of times. In 581, during the abbacy of Bonitus, the Lombards sacked the abbey, and the surviving monks fled to Rome, where they remained for more than a century. During this time the body of St Benedict was transferred to Fleury, the modern Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire near Orleans, France.

A flourishing period of Monte Cassino followed its re-establishment in 718 by Abbot Petronax, when among the monks were Carloman, son of Charles Martel; Ratchis, predecessor of the great Lombard Duke and King Aistulf; and Paul the Deacon, the historian of the Lombards.

In 744, a donation of Gisulf II of Benevento created the Terra Sancti Benedicti, the secular lands of the abbacy, which were subject to the abbot and nobody else save the Pope. Thus, the monastery became the capital of a state comprising a compact and strategic region between the Lombard principality of Benevento and the Byzantine city-states of the coast (Naples, Gaeta, and Amalfi).

In 884 Saracens sacked and then burned it down,[6] and Abbot Bertharius was killed during the attack. Among the great historians who worked at the monastery, in this period there is Erchempert, whose Historia Langobardorum Beneventanorum is a fundamental chronicle of the ninth-century Mezzogiorno.

The façade of the church

Rebuilding, library, and later medieval history

Monte Cassino was rebuilt and reached the apex of its fame in the 11th century under the abbot Desiderius (abbot 1058–1087), who later became Pope Victor III. The number of monks rose to over two hundred, and the library, the manuscripts produced in the scriptorium and the school of manuscript illuminators became famous throughout the West. The unique Beneventan script flourished there during Desiderius' abbacy.

The buildings of the monastery were reconstructed on a scale of great magnificence, artists being brought from Amalfi, Lombardy, and even Constantinople to supervise the various works. The abbey church, rebuilt and decorated with the utmost splendor, was consecrated in 1071 by Pope Alexander II. A detailed account of the abbey at this date exists in the Chronica monasterii Cassinensis by Leo of Ostia and Amatus of Monte Cassino gives us our best source on the early Normans in the south.

Abbot Desiderius sent envoys to Constantinople some time after 1066 to hire expert Byzantine mosaicists for the decoration of the rebuilt abbey church. According to chronicler Leo of Ostia the Greek artists decorated the apse, the arch and the vestibule of the basilica. Their work was admired by contemporaries but was totally destroyed in later centuries except two fragments depicting greyhounds (now in the Monte Cassino Museum). "The abbot in his wisdom decided that great number of young monks in the monastery should be thoroughly initiated in these arts" - says the chronicler about the role of the Greeks in the revival of mosaic art in medieval Italy.

An earthquake damaged the Abbey in 1349, and although the site was rebuilt it marked the beginning of a long period of decline. In 1321, Pope John XXII made the church of Monte Cassino a cathedral, and the carefully preserved independence of the monastery from episcopal interference was at an end. In 1505 the monastery was joined with that of St. Justina of Padua.

Modern history

The site was sacked by Napoleon's troops in 1799. From the dissolution of the Italian monasteries in 1866, Monte Cassino became a national monument.

Monte Cassino in ruins after Allied bombing in February 1944

During the Battle of Monte Cassino (January–May 1944) the Abbey made up one section of the 161-kilometre (100-mile) Gustav Line, a German defensive line designed to hold the Allied troops from advancing any further into Italy. The Gustav Line stretched from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic coast and the monastery was one of the key strongholds, overlooking Highway 6 and blocking the path to Rome. On 15 February 1944 the abbey was almost completely destroyed in a series of heavy American-led air raids. The bombing was conducted because many reports from troops on the ground suggested that Germans were occupying the monastery, and it was considered a key observational post by all those who were fighting in the field.[7] However, during the bombing no Germans were present in the abbey. Subsequent investigations have since confirmed that the only people killed in the monastery by the bombing were 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge there.[8] Only after the bombing were the ruins of the monastery occupied by German Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers), because the ruins provided excellent defensive cover, aiding them in their defence.[9]

The battle for Rome

Also known as the battle for Monte Cassino, was one of the toughest battles the allies took part in. While casualties weren’t significantly high, it did prove not only to be controversial, but it gave the allies a run for their money. With an original prediction of Rome falling sometime around the end of 1943, the allied plan did not seem to go in their favor. Beginning in January 1944 this battle was part of a strategic offensive to break through German defenses along the Italian city of Rome. The Germans had, under construction, a line of defenses which would prove difficult to overcome given the mountainous terrain which provided an optimal advantage for artillery as well as providing a view which proved excellent for detecting enemy advances. The set up to this battle was the allied landings on the southern islands of Italy. The allied plans to move up through Italy were already made difficult by the treacherous terrain and the Italian wet season. To make matters worse the Germans, in a genius display of defensive tactics, diverted the Rapido River (now known as the River Garigliano *1) in order to flood the only 2 paths up into Rome. In the middle of this formidable line of defense was the town of Cassino.

Overlooking this town stood an ancient monastery atop built in the early centuries known as Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino’s strategic value was enormous due to the fact that it overlooked the entire town. Given the historical value of the monastery Axis Powers and Allied Forces negotiated that no soldier was to enter the ancient grounds. Unfortunately the threat that Monte Cassino posed to the allies seemed too great for them to handle. On February 15 Allied forces, in an extremely controversial turn of events, “mistranslated” a German intercepted radio communication. According to an article published on 4/3/2000 in the British newspaper "The Guardian“ the translation of an intercepted radio message mistook the German word for abbot for a similar abbreviation for battalion--- Colonel David Hunt, rechecked the full radio intercept” to find that “—What it actually said was: “The Abbot is with the Monks in the Monastery”. The allies then assumed if the Germans had broken the agreement then they were inclined to do the same. American bombers under British instruction then proceeded to drop 1400 tons of bombs onto the ancient monastery (*1). The result proved catastrophic and embarrassing and was responsible for the deaths of innocent women and children as well as the monks taking shelter in the monastery. It wasn’t until after the allies destroyed the monastery that any German forces came near the monastery. According to a book written by David Hapgood Monte Cassino: The Story of The Most Controversial Battle of World War II, “The Abbot, Who Survived the Bombing, said: “I swear there were never any German soldiers in the area of the monastery”. According to the Guardian Online Records of the Panzer Corps Messages taken by German historians spoke of a 300-metre (980 ft) demilitarized zone. The destruction of the Monastery, built around the year 500, caused great controversy with the Pope Pius XII but possibly worse than that it created even better defenses for the Germans since they now occupied the ruins of the monastery. The allies came at the Germans hard on four different fronts in a series of strategically timed assaults. The first came on the German left flank with allied forces unaware of a serious flaw in that side of the German line, they moved too slowly to take advantage. The Germans reinforced the left flank and were able to stop the Allied assault. However, with the reinforcements drawn in the direction of the first attack the Allies attacked the middle of the defense line (*1) being forced to cross a river the Allies chose to improvise and without any support from Allied armor they were sent running back across the river by the Germans. The other two fronts had received heavy casualties and eventually sent Allied forces back. That is when the Monastery was bombed and destroyed.

Multiple assaults following the February 15th bombing proved ineffective with entire battalions of British troops being wiped out. German troops tried counterattacking but failed as well against the well grounded American troops in the east. It wasn’t until the middle of March and three days of straight bombing raids that the allies, after four harsh battles and three failed attempts were finally in the heart of the town. This however proved costly as the Germans were still holding their defenses and it wasn’t until the end of May that the Germans retreated due to poor cover, after allied troops artillery destroyed almost everything in the town that would provide the Germans a safe haven. The fourth and final battle has been reported to have included hand-to-hand combat as well as multiple friendly fire incidents reported on both sides. At the end of the battle both sides sustained about 190,000 casualties with 55,000 allied and 20,000 axis casualties only during the four battles of Cassino. Another 105,000 reported deaths occurred during the aftermath of the overtaking of the town.

It is important to understand the reasons why the battle was so difficult as well as necessary. The harsh terrain and winter weather leading up to the battles of February through March proved most difficult to deal with. The mountainous region combined with rainy weather ruled out the possibility of air support. And the battle was necessary in order for allies to make their way up to Rome and eventually they would try to enter Germany through France, although by the time allies had reached northern Italy the assassination of Benito Mussolini and multiple crucial victories on the eastern front had weakened the Axis Powers to the point of defeat. The heavily outnumbered Germans held the position until withdrawing on 17 May 1944, having repulsed four main offensives by the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 4th Indian Division and II Polish Corps. The Allied forces broke the Gustav Line between 11 and 17 May. The Polish 12th Podolian Uhlan Regiment of the Polish II Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Władysław Anders, raised the Polish flag over the ruins 18 May 1944.[10] The road to Rome was then open.

The Abbey was rebuilt after the war; Pope Paul VI reconsecrated it in 1964. During reconstruction, its library was housed at the Pontifical Abbey of St Jerome-in-the-City.[11] Until his resignation was accepted by Pope Francis on 12 June 2013, the Territorial Abbot of Monte Cassino was Pietro Vittorelli.[12] The Vatican daily bulletin of 23 October 2014 announced that with the appointment of his successor Donato Ogliari, the territory of the abbey outside the immediate monastery grounds had been transferred to the Diocese of Sora-Aquino-Pontecorvo, now renamed Diocese of Sora-Cassino-Aquino-Pontecorvo.



In December 1943, some 1,400 irreplaceable manuscript codices, chiefly patristic and historical, in addition to a vast number of documents relating to the history of the abbey and the collections of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, had been sent to the abbey archives for safekeeping. Fortunately, German officers Lt. Col. Julius Schlegel (a Roman Catholic) and Capt. Maximilian Becker (a Protestant), both from the Panzer-Division Hermann Göring, had them transferred to the Vatican at the beginning of the battle.[13]

Another account however, from Kurowski ("The History of the Fallschirmpanzerkorps Hermann Göring: Soldiers of the Reichsmarschall") notes that 120 trucks were loaded with monastic assets and art which had been stored there for safekeeping. Robert Edsel ("Rescuing DaVinci") is more to the point about German looting. The trucks were loaded and left in October 1943, and only "strenuous" protests resulted in their delivery to the Vatican, minus the 15 cases which contained the property of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Edsel goes on to note that these cases had been delivered to Göring in December 1943, for "his birthday."


Other places called Monte Cassino

  • A mountain near Ciechanów, Poland on which a 100-metre-tall radio tower stands [1]

See also


  1. "Catholica Ecclesia". Holy See.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Vatican announces reorganisation of Montecassino Abbey". Vatican Radio. October 23, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Vatican reorganizes Montecassino, mother abbey of the Benedictines". Catholic News Agency. October 24, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 by Trudy Ring, Robert M. Salkin, Sharon La Boda, ed. (1995). International Dictionary of Historic Places: Volume 3 Southern Europe. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. p. 132.CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Christie 2006, p. 113
  6. Will Durant, Age of Faith, (Simon and Schuster, 1950), 290.
  7. "When I Landed the War Was over", by Hughes Rudd, American Heritage, October/November 1981.
  8. Hapgood & Richardson, p. 211
  9. Atkinson (2007), pp. 432-441
  10. [Molony, Brigadier C.J.C.; with Flynn, Captain F.C. (R.N.); Davies, Major-General H.L. & Gleave, Group Captain T.P. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO:1984]. Vol. VI, p. 133.]
  11. Bloch, Herbert (1986). Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. xix. ISBN 0674586557.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Atkinson (2007), p. 399


  • Atkinson, Rick (2007). The Day of Battle: the War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. New York: Henry Holt. ISBN 978-0-8050-6289-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Bloch, Herbert (1986), Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages, Rome<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Christie, Neil (2006), From Constantine to Charlemagne: An Archaeology of Italy AD 300–800, Ashgate Publishing, ISBN 1-85928-421-3<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908.
  • Hapgood, David; Richardson, David (2002) [1984]. Monte Cassino: The Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II (reprint ed.). Cambridge Mass.: Da Capo. ISBN 0-306-81121-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Michela Cigola, L'abbazia benedettina di Montecassino. La storia attraverso le testimonianze grafiche di rilievo e di progetto. Cassino, Ciolfi Editore, 2005. ISBN 88-86810-28-8

External links

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