Monte Cassino: A casualty of war
nte-Cassino-A-Casualty-of-War#comments#comments> Add a Comment
November 11, 3:58 PM
by Lucia Mauro, Italy
> Culture &
Entrance to the Abbey.
The town of Cassino, in Italy's Lazio region south of Rome, is so unimposing
it would be easy to bypass. But gaze upward at the heaven-grazing Abbey of
Monte Cassino overlooking the town, and you'll soon be swept into centuries
of war, faith and renewal. That's how my husband Joe and I felt after we
exited the highway and made the arduous climb up the mountain leading to one
of the earliest centers of Christian monkdom.
Initially constructed over an ancient temple to Apollo in 529 by St.
Benedict (and for centuries, the seat of the Benedictine order and the
Benedictine Rule), the Abbey epitomizes the proverbial
Phoenix-rising-from-the ashes analogy. It was destroyed and rebuilt four
times, most recently during the World War II Battle of Monte Cassino. Today
a place of great spiritual solitude, its harmonious hyper-symmetrical
architecture belies the monument's violent and messy history. We found that
by walking in such a repeatedly beleaguered spot, we could feel its
strength, its resolve and its quiet vulnerability.
When we entered, a flock of white doves fluttered around a bronze statue of
St. Benedict, with arms raised and supported by two monks. This is believed
to be the position in which he died, another astute metaphor for the Abbey's
resilience even as it lay in rubble at various points in history. The
saint's unadorned tomb is located inside what is now a museum filled with
the monks' cherished illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Floor
mosaics of stately greyhounds seem to guard St. Benedict's remains. The
Abbey's stones, steps, arches, columns and courtyards segue into cloisters
that wrap around lush ordered gardens - a mesmerizing glimpse into infinity.
Anchoring the Bramante Cloister, named for the 16th century architect who
promoted a tranquil spaciousness, is a decorative sculpted canopy similar to
Bernini's famous Baldacchino inside Rome's St. Peter's Basilica. The Abbey
is located so high on a hill, it becomes difficult to differentiate between
a blue sky and the blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It's also a challenge
to imagine the trauma absorbed in the surrounding earth and rocks.
Not long after its inauguration in 529, the Abbey was destroyed by the
Lombards and wasn't rebuilt until 718. This was something of a Golden Age
for the structure. The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne paid the monks a visit
and granted the abbots vast political privileges. Their glory was to be
short-lived. In 833, the Saracens sacked and burned the Abbey to the ground.
It wouldn't rise again until the 11th century at the height of manuscript
illumination. Then natural disaster struck. An earthquake heavily damaged it
in 1349, but reconstruction began almost immediately. Over time, the monks
lost a great deal of independence and power, and came under the jurisdiction
of the Vatican.
Nevertheless, another blow was delivered by Napoleon's troops in 1799. They
sacked the Abbey, but left it intact. Almost two centuries later, it became
the site of a bloody protracted battle between the Allied and German forces.
And it's the Battle of Montecassino, which raged from January 17 to May 19,
1944, that is still fresh in many veterans' memories. Though the Allies
eventually won, many errors were made and the battle became a controversial
case study for the shortcomings of hasty and ill-advised military strategy
by all involved.
Tomes have been written on this battle. So I won't try to reiterate all the
complications. But, in general, German troops surrounded the town of Cassino
(an area that seemed to have been a battleground since being founded by the
Romans and part of Hannibal's route during the Punic Wars). They were
thought to be in the process of taking over the Abbey, which stood in an
enviable strategic position. The American troops, in particular, were intent
on drawing the Germans away from Cassino and the Anzio beachhead in order to
move quickly toward Rome. Certain American commanders believed the Germans
had turned the Abbey into their headquarters. But, as has been proven over
time, the Axis forces did not occupy the Abbey before it was bombed.
The Americans moved forward and bombed the Abbey on February 15, 1944. Prior
to the bombing, several accounts show that the German generals evacuated
many nuns and monks from the monastery, and transferred the Abbey's historic
manuscripts and art to the Vatican. After the Abbey was leveled, the German
forces then turned the ruins into fortresses, and the battle continued -
with an astonishing number of casualties - for three more months.
After the war, the Italian government financed the total reconstruction of
the Abbey, which was reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
A little-known fact of the Battle of Monte Cassino is that the Allied forces
consisted of soldiers from various parts of Africa and India, as well as
Poland and Canada, in addition to the Americans, British and French.
Today, from the Abbey of Monte Cassino, visitors can see white graves
nestled in green cruciform-sculpted shrubbery. This is the cemetery for the
Polish II Corps killed during this battle. A special World War II-era entity
called the Polish Government in Exile created the Monte Cassino campaign
cross (a medal of honor) for the high number of Polish dead.
To access the Polish cemetery, we walked up a long, poplar tree-lined path
accompanied by the sound of singing birds and buzzing bees. Also joining us
were busloads of Polish pilgrims reciting the rosary. White eagle statues
flank the crucifix-shaped gravestones, each draped with a rosary. It's a
Yet more war cemeteries are scattered across the outskirts of Cassino and
represent all the nationalities that fought on the Abbey's hill in 1944.
This area appears to be one big graveyard, where these men were destined to
fight together, die together and share eternal rest together. Overseeing it
all is the Abbey itself - a force at once vulnerable and impenetrable. I can
only wonder what the next several centuries hold in store for this
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]