Walking alongside the Abbey’s delicately decorated balcony walls it’s hard to comprehend such a peacefully stunning place being the centre of one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Second World War. A combination of bitter conditions, close quarter fighting and a lifestyle described as ‘living like rats’ were the obstacles faced by the allied troops in their final push for Rome; a scene nearly impossible to imagine in its tranquil state today.
The Battle of Monte Cassino was one of the most significant operations of World War Two. The monastery blocked the allied route to Rome and the German army declared it a neutral zone because of its religious and cultural significance, something the allied forces refused to believe based on intelligence. After various unsuccessful advances the allies conceded that the only way they could breach what was known as the Gustav line, was by destroying the iconic landmark. On the 15th of February 1944 the abbey was bombed to near complete destruction, killing not the German enemy, but over 250 monks, women and children – it is now seen as one of the biggest allied disasters of the war, with the rubble resulting from the bombardment creating a formidable fortress for the German troops to defend. It wasn’t until three months later that, despite overwhelming casualties, the Polish II Corps took the position; a Polish cemetery now sits at the foot of the hill and is a strikingly fitting tribute to over a thousand Poles that lost their lives. The abbey was eventually rebuilt using original plans and was finally reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
Arriving at Monte Cassino, visitors can meander around the museum and pay tribute to the abbey’s notable Saint Benedict at his resting place, a striking tomb ornately festooned in gold mosaics. Despite being born into a noble family, Benedict chose a life of solitude settling in a small cave 50 miles from Rome in the nearby town of Subiaco where he sought a discreet and introspective life away from society. But this life was not meant to be, with disciples soon flocking to the cave on hearing of a wise, contemplative man believed to be able to work miracles. He moved to Monte Cassino in 528, where he wrote his ‘Rule’, a set of teachings for ordinary men of the church to live their life by God; these teachings became the blueprint for monastic rules across medieval Europe.
The museum does a great job of explaining the entire history of the hilltop monastery, a great introduction for those looking to explore the roots of monasticism and medieval art. However, if that sounds all a bit too deep for a casual holiday excursion, you can simply mooch away from the crowds to a quiet spot and gaze reflectively out at the valley, where you’ll soon see the benefits of a silent moment to yourself.