As I continue my tour of Southern Italy my interests took me to the town of Cassino about 100km north of Naples and 140 km from Rome.
Cassino is a quiet, pristine little town located at the base of Monte Cairo which is in the foothills of the Apennines mountains that run the length of Italy and act as its spine so to speak. For most people traveling in Italy you wouldn’t even pass through this town as it sits a handful of kilometers off the A1 (Autostrada that links Rome and Naples) unless you wanted to visit the Abbey of Monte Cassino which is perched high above the town center.
The town has been a settlement since before the Romans fortified it in 312 BC, and since 529 AD when Benedict of Nursia established a monastery on the mountain overlooking the town it has become a focal point in history. The location itself holds a strategically important vantage point over the rivers and valleys that congregate at the base of Mount Cairo, and because of this the town of Cassino been at the epicenter of history over the centuries.
One of the most famous modern battles occurred during WWII, when Mount Cairo and subsequently the town of Cassino lay on what was commonly refer to as the Gustav line. This is the line that the German army had fortified across Italy and had strategically assembled some of its finest divisions to hold against the allied armies that wanted to take Rome and push toward Germany.
After the allies invaded mainland Italy at Salerno just south of Naples in September of 1943 they began driving north toward Rome with the hope of relieving the pressure on the Russian front and diverting some of its forces for the planned invasion of Normandy which was scheduled for June 1944. Well, all was going swimmingly until they hit the Gustav line at Cassino and this is where things got sticky…
The offensive ground to a screeching halt as it came upon the difficult and mountainous terrain coupled with a strong and determined enemy force. In all, the allies tried on four separate and bloody occasions between January 17 and May 18, 1944 to take Cassino and the abbey, before finally breaking through.
Due to the very high causality rate during the initial assault it was assumed that the Abbey was being used as an observation post and therefore the decision was made to bomb the Abbey. And so on February 15, 1944 the allied air force bombed it into oblivion using 1400 tons of high explosive bombs, within minutes 1500 years of history was completely destroyed leaving nothing but rubble…
However, not was all lost. The vast majority of the art and historic artifacts had already been plundered by the German army prior to the battle and shipped to Germany. Shortly after the bombing of the Abbey it was also decided to obliterate the town of Cassino to ensure that all enemy forces were wiped completely from this part of the Gustav line and so on March 15, 1944 it was completely razed to the ground. Not a building remained standing…
At the end of the war, the stolen art along with the original plans and drawings of the Abbey were recovered and repatriated back to the Saint Benedictine monks, who then began the arduous and painstaking process of rebuilding the Abbey. The reconstruction efforts lasted until the 1960’s as did the rebuilding of the town.
As I walked around the Abbey it was already eerily quiet especially given the time of year, but then add a chilly rain swept morning and I virtually had the place to myself. I counted five cars in total in the parking lot that in the summer must take at least a thousand. 🙂
What stunned me most with visiting the Abbey was the craftsmanship and unbelievable attention to detail in every aspect. The monks laboured for more than 20 years rebuilding the Abbey in exacting detail to ensure that every facet would be an exact replica as to what it had been prior the war.
There was one small painting that was not taken and which survived the bombing that was on display (see the featured image above), these 16th century angels by Severo Ierace survived and can be seen on the presbytery wall. However the vast majority of statues were destroyed, but again the conscientious monks gathered the large debris field and began the meticulous process of piecing back together what they could. In most cases the statues were lost completely and the marble figures turned to dust, however there are a handful that have been put back together with what pieces remained, albeit with missing chunks and limbs.
As I reflect on my visit to Cassino what strikes me most is tragedy that took place both for the Abbey and the town in the not so distant past, but I realize that this is only one little point in its 2000 year history. I’m sure there have been other times that comparatively speaking, the loss was just as tragic or devastating, but what heartened me most was the resilient nature of the locals and the dedicated monks who poured their lives into rebuilding.
The Abbey at Cassino is a absolute treasure and so if you are traveling between Rome and Naples and you see the sign for Cassino, do yourself a favour and take the exit and follow the signs toward the town. To get to the Abbey you’ll need to go into town and then follow the signs (its about 8km up the winding mountain road), not only will you be rewarded with a magical experience but the vistas when you’re at the top are absolutely stunning!
Stay tuned for more Indelible Adventures as I continue to explore southern Italy!