Monte Cassino Monastery is located on the top of one of the hills (519 m above sea level) of the Central Apennine. This abbey was founded in the fourth century by Saint Benedict is one of the largest in Italy. The Monte Cassino Monastery during the Second World War was at the center of war events. Unfortunately, despite previous arrangements, it suffered a lot and was bombed. However, the abbey was rebuilt and today it can be visited again.
The Monte Cassino Monastery is located about halfway between Rome and Naples. For centuries, its strategic location has been the reason for many attacks. During the war, the entire Monte Cassino Hill together with the abbey was part of a more than 160-kilometer long defensive fortification strip, called the Gustav Line. Incidentally, it became the focal point of the Battle of Monte Cassino.
Map of Monte Cassino
Currently, Monte Cassino is part of the Lazio region, through which one of the most important transport routes in Italy passes – the A1 motorway, which is a convenient way of reaching the abbey from both north and south. Such good communication with both Rome and Naples greatly facilitates visiting a place of historical importance. It’s a good idea to take a day to visit the monastery while taking a tour of other places in Italy.
History of the Monte Cassino monastery
The monastery was founded in 529, in a place where earlier pagan temples stood, erected in honor of Jupiter, Venera and Febus. It was here that Benedict of Nursia decided to settle down and give rise not only to the Benedictine order, but also to the foundations of Christian European civilization.
In the abbey, or rather at its foot, also lived the twin sister of Benedict – Saint Scholastica. After death, they were both buried in the monastery.
As we have already mentioned, the strategic location of the monastery was somewhat problematic. As early as 584, the Longobard tribe conquered the hill and drove the monks out of the abbey. They returned to these areas only in 718, after forced banishment from Rome. Contrary to appearances, the exile itself helped to spread the rules of Saint Benedict, which was highlighted by the then Pope – Gregory the Great.
Returning monks rebuilt the monastery, but not forever. In 883 the abbey was invaded and plundered by the Saracens. Muslims not only set fire to the monastery building, but also murdered many monks.
Another attempt to rebuild the monastery at Monte Cassino took place in 949. Then followed the golden period for the abbey. His abbot at that time Dauferio became pope and lived in a monastery in the hills for a year. During this time, the abbey not only enriched itself materially, but also gained new monks, who were over 200 at the time, but also became an important center of culture and spirituality. The basilica built then, in almost unchanged form, was rebuilt after the war and to this day we can admire the idea of its creators.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of perturbation when it comes to the Monte Cassino monastery. In 1349 the abbey was hit by an earthquake. However, after another eight years, the Dauferio basilica, monastery building and other estates were rebuilt, and the abbey prospered again. In the 16th and 17th centuries a part of the monastery architecture was restored, in which many distinguished artists took part. Along the way, the French Revolution, or rather Napoleonic army plundered and destroyed the abbey, depriving them not only of valuable exhibits (mainly library), but also of land.
As for more modern history, the final blow was waiting for the monastery in 1944. During the Second World War, despite assurances from the Germans that they did not take over the abbey buildings for military operations, the Allies planned their bombing. On February 15, 1944, over 500 tons of bombs were dropped at the monastery. Only ruins remain, which were only taken over by the Germans for military purposes. 230 civilians and not a single Nazi died under the rubble.
The announcement of plans to bomb the monastery helped to evacuate in advance, not only the abbot and monks, but also to take more valuable works of art to the Vatican. The Wehrmacht officer Julius Schlegel, who oversaw the entire intervention, also contributed to this.
After the war, the monks again devoted all their strength and attention to the reconstruction of the monastery. The Italian government also helped reconstruct the abbey. In 1964, Pope Paul VI consecrated the rebuilt monastery.
The significance of the Monte Cassino Monastery
The monastery on Monte Cassino served as the main center of Western Christianity for its glory years. The abbey became a center of monasticism. Saint Benedict wrote the rule of his order, which is still used today in many male and female congregations – including Benedictines, Camaldolese, Cistercian, Trappist and Carthusian.
It is here that many scholars like Paul the Deacon worked. The abbey also housed a large scriptorium and a library with many valuable exhibits. For this reason, the monastery on Monte Cassino was often called – Athens of the Middle Ages. In addition, one of the popes resided here for a year, and successors of Peter’s throne were also elected from some of the local monks.
Visiting the monastery on Monte Cassino
The monastery rebuilt after the war can be visited to this day free of charge, and the biggest advantage is undoubtedly the view that extends from the top of the hill. In addition, it is worth walking around the cloisters and courtyards here, e.g. of the Benefactors, which are rebuilt exactly as from the renovation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Walking around the abbey you can come across numerous sculptures depicting Saint Benedict and his sister Saint Scholastica.
The most impressive, however, is the cathedral basilica, whose interior is richly decorated. Numerous frescoes, golden ornaments and the amount of details are impressive. It is worth paying attention to the chapel of the Holy Family and the chapel of the Sister Mary. It is here, at the main altar, under a marble slab, that authentic relics of the siblings – Benedict and Scholastica are hidden. Undergrounds are also available for visitors, in which bas-reliefs are hidden and another dose of colored frescoes. Inside there is an altar and two bronze figures depicting saints Benedict and Scholastica in ecstasy.
The Polish cemetery on Monte Cassino
Visiting Monte Cassino is a must see when visiting central Italy, especially when you come to Rome or Naples for a few days, for example. Visiting Monte Cassino usually begins either with a visit to the Polish cemetery or with a visit to the monastery. It is definitely worth familiarizing yourself with the opening hours of both the monastery and the cemetery before planning the trip. It’s worth spending the whole day on sightseeing, especially if you’re traveling from Rome or Naples and it’s a one-time getaway.
Visiting Monte Cassino Complex
Visiting Monte Cassino begins after reaching the top of the hill. We can direct our steps towards the Polish cemetery. An alley planted with decorative thuja leads to it. The cimitero polacco signs should lead us to the right direction.
The necropolis is entered through a large gate, which is guarded by two large eagle sculptures. At the very beginning there is a large square with the grave of general Anders and his second wife and a cross. Further down, there are rows of crosses and graves in which soldiers participating in the Battle of Monte Cassino were buried. Above the hill a large cross was marked, in the middle of which a bas-relief of the Polish emblem was placed.
The Monte Cassino Cemetery can be visited every day from 9am to 12:30 pm and then from 2pm to 7pm. Entrance is free, but parking is dependent on the time of day or even year, sometimes you have to pay.
After visiting the Polish cemetery, it is worth going back to the abbey. In the monastery itself, you can simply walk around the courtyards, cloisters and viewing terraces. High stairs lead to the main square. It is here that the cathedral basilica is located, which looks quite modest from the outside. You get quite different impressions going inside. In addition to the interior of the temple, underground crypts have been made available to visitors here.
A separate point that can and should be visited in the monastery is the Monte Cassino Museum. Inside are exposed manuscripts, in a separate room. Here you can admire lectionaries, gospels and prayer books, scrupulously transcribed by monks. In another room, the collection of choir books is also shown. It is worth adding that a visit to the museum is paid – 5 euros. In the ticket price you can also see the cloister of St. Anna with a well from Roman times.
Monte Cassino is one of the most interesting places Italy has to offer tourists.
Opening hours for visitors of the Monte Cassino Monastery
As for the opening hours of the Monte Cassino monastery for tourists are:
- from the last Sunday in March to the last Saturday in October, the monastery can be visited every day from 8.45 to 19.00
- from the last Sunday of October to the last Saturday in March the monastery is open from 9.00 to 16.45
- on Sunday and holidays – from 8.45 to 17.15
- December 25 – from 8.45 to 13.00
It is worth pointing here to enter the monastery grounds you must wear appropriate clothing. Short pants and skirts, short sleeves and shoulder blouses are excluded. Just like everywhere in places of worship, you must have your knees and shoulders covered.
The opening hours of the Museum in the Monte Cassino Abbey are:
- From the last Sunday in March to the last Saturday in October, the museum’s opening hours are from 8.45 to 19.00
- From the last Sunday in October to the last Saturday in March, the museum is open from 8.45 to 17.00
- On December 25, the museum is closed.
What else is worth visiting at Monte Cassino
Few people realize that the cemetery and the abbey are part of the Monte Cassino Natural Park created in 2011. It has an area of up to 694 hectares and additionally includes the Rocca Janula fortress, remains of the Roman amphitheater, monuments to troops and a fragment of the Road of Polish Sappers.
More on the website of the abbey.
Several routes have been marked out in the park, but to pass them all is certainly not enough for just one day. On average, each of them is planned for about 90 minutes of hiking.