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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Monte Cassino

Monte Cassino is a rocky hill about 130 km or 80 miles southeast of Rome, Italy, 2 km to the west of the town of Cassino the Roman Casinum having been on the hill and 520 m altitude. St. Benedict of Nursia established his first monastery, the source of the Benedictine Order, here around 529. It was the site of Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. The site has been visited many times by the Popes and other senior clergy, including a visit by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2009. The monastery is one of the few remaining territorial abbeys within the Catholic Church.

Monte CassinoThe monastery was constructed on an older pagan site, a temple of Apollo that crowned the hill, enclosed by a fortifying wall above the small town of Cassino, still largely pagan at the time and recently devastated by the Goths. Benedict's first act was to smash the sculpture of Apollo and destroy the altar. He rededicated the site to John the Baptist. Once established there, Benedict never left. At Monte Cassino he wrote the Benedictine Rule that became the founding principle for western monasticism. There at Monte Cassino he received a visit from Totila, king of the Ostrogoths, perhaps in 543 and there he died.

Monte Cassino became a model for future developments. It was sacked or destroyed a number of times. In 584, during the abbacy of Bonitus, the Lombards sacked the Abbey, and the surviving monks fled to Rome and stayed for more than a century. A flourishing period of Monte Cassino followed its reestablishment 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. 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. In 883 Saracens sacked and then burned it down, and Abbot Bertharius was killed during the attack.

It was rebuilt and reached the apex of its fame in the 11th century under the abbot Desiderius 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.

Monte CassinoMonte CassinoAn 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. In 1505 the monastery was joined with that of St. Justina of Padua. The site was sacked by Napoleon's troops in 1799 and from the dissolution of the Italian monasteries in 1866, Monte Cassino became a national monument. There was a final destruction on February 15, 1944 when during the Battle of Monte Cassino, the entire building was pulverized in a series of heavy air-raids due to the mistaken belief it was a German stronghold. In fact the Abbey was being used as a refuge from the battle by the women and children of nearby Cassino. The Abbey was rebuilt after the war, financed by the Italian State. Pope Paul VI reconsecrated it in 1964.

The archives, besides a vast number of documents relating to the history of the abbey, contained some 1400 irreplaceable manuscript codices, chiefly patristic and historical. They also contained the collections of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome which had been sent to the Abbey for safety in December 1942. By great foresight on the part of Lt.Col. Julius Schlegel, a Vienna-born German officer, and Captain Maximilian Becker from the Panzer-Division Hermann Goring, these were all transferred to the Vatican at the beginning of the battle.

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