Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Monte Cassino

On our drive from Sorrento to Rome, we decided to take a side trip to Monte Cassino. About halfway between the two cities, the Abbey of Monte Cassino sits high above its surroundings offering commanding views of the countryside after a long and winding road to the top of the mount. This was our second visit to a World War II battle site; this one has a more difficult story than the easy landing at Pasteum and Salerno several months earlier.

St. Benedict
The monastery was founded by St. Benedict in 529 on the remains of an ancient Roman fortification as were so many Christian churches and holy sites. In fact, the Temple of Apollo was still in use as a religious site when Benedict arrived. Over the following years the abbey would be destroyed several times both through wars and natural events. First it was the Longebords in 577, then the Saracens in 883, then an earthquake in 1349. The final destruction was by Allied bombers in 1944. Each time it was rebuilt to its former glory although not all the art works would be saved.

The entrance cloister

Benedict had already founded 12 communities for monks before he moved to Monte Cassino, but he would spend the rest of his life atop this hill. He would die and be buried at this beautiful spot and the abbey would prosper as the years passed. Today the abbey features two cloisters. The entrance cloister is a grassy park-like square with a statue of Benedict donated by West German Chancellor Adenaur in 1952. The second cloister is the entrance to the basilica cathedral. It is a more traditional cathedral courtyard surrounded by Corinthian columns and statues.

The grand staircase leading up to the Basilica

Bronze doors open into the ornate cathedral space. The white and gold motif give the the building an open feeling that surpasses any church we have visited. Built in a typical style with three naves and several chapels on each side, the building is most impressive. 

Bronze Doors
The crypt is almost completely covered with mosaics and completes the beautiful building.

The Crypt

Outside we were provided with great views of the countryside and a Polish War Cemetery  where over 1000 Polish soldiers are buried. Monte Cassino was the site of one of the most important battles of the Italian campaign. The Allies had landed at Salerno and Pasteum and expected to move north rather quickly. However, the rugged Italian terrain and the great efforts by the German army slowed the effort considerably. Eventually the Allies made another landing at Anzio – another difficult landing where the Germans fought a bitter albeit unsuccessful battle to stop the Allied advance.
Monte Cassino was the last major obstacle on the way to Rome. The hills gave the Germans a decided advantage in their defensive efforts. The separate armies had agreed to keep the Abbey off limits and fortunately they sent many of the most valuable art words to Rome for safe-keeping.

Grapes grown by the Abbey
The first snow we have seen. There will be more.

However, a misread memo led the Allies to believe that the Germans were, in fact, using the Abbey as a base and in three short hours on February 15, 1944, they reduced the Abbey to a pile of rubble. The only people kills there were locals and monks who were using the Abbey as a place to be safe from the war. It was only a few years ago that the US military finally admitted the truth in their documentation of the battle. The irony of the bombing was that by reducing the Abbey to rubble, they provided the German army with an even better defensive position well protected by the elevation and the rocky remains of the Abbey.

Photos of the destruction

By the mid-1950s, the Abbey had been rebuilt according to the old plans and we were able to visit it in its glory. While the museum was not open we were able to see most of what it had to offer. We have found it interesting that there is little memorializing of the war in Italy. Here the big effort is the Polish War Cemetery. At Salerno and Pasteum we found no memorials at all. This is a huge contrast to what is at the beaches of Normandy, which we have not visited.

More than 1000 Polish soldiers buried here

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