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Abbey of Monte Cassino

Abbey of Monte Cassino

An abbey nullius situated about eighty miles south of Rome, the cradle of the Benedictine Order.

About 529 St. Benedict left Subiaco, to escape the persecutions of the jealous priest, Florentius. Accompanied by a chosen band, among them Sts. Maurus and Placid, he journeyed to Monte Cassino, one of the properties made over to him by Tertullus, St. Placid's father. The town of Cassinum (Cassino), lying at the foot of the mountain, had been destroyed by the Goths some thirty-five years earlier, but a temple of Apollo still crowned the summit of the mountain, and the few remaining inhabitants were still sunk in idolatry. Benedict's first act was to break the image of Apollo and destroy the altar, on the site of which he built a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and an oratory in honour of St. Martin of Tours. Around the temple there was an enclosing wall with towers at intervals, the arx (citadel) of the destroyed city of Cassinum. In one of these towers the saint took up his abode, and to this fact its preservation is due, for, while the rest of the Roman arx has been destroyed, this tower has been carefully preserved and enclosed in the later buildings. Outside the existing monastery, however, there still remains a considerable part of a far more ancient enclosure, viz. a cyclopean wall some twenty-six feet high and fourteen and a half feet in thickness, which once ran down the mountain side enclosing a large triangular space that contained the Cassinum of pre-Roman times.

Once established at Monte Cassino, St. Benedict never left it. There was written the Rule whose influence was to spread over all Western monachism; there he received the visit of Totila in 542, the only date in his life of which we have certain evidence; there he died, and was buried in one tomb with his sister, St. Scholastica. After the saint's death, the abbey continued to flourish until 580, when it was pillaged and burned by the Lombards, the surviving monks fleeing to Rome. Here, welcomed by the pope, Pelagius II, and permitted to establish a monastery beside the Lateran Basilica, they remained for a hundred and thirty years, during which time Monte Cassino seems not to have been entirely deserted, though nothing like a regular community existed there. To this period also is assigned the much discussed translation of St. Benedict's body to Fleury in France, the truth of which it seems almost impossible to doubt.

The restoration of Monte Cassino took place in 718, when Abbot Petronax, a native of Brescia, was entrusted with this task by Gregory II. Aided by some of the monks from the Lateran monastery, Petronax restored the buildings at Monte Cassino and built a new church over the tomb of St. Benedict. This was consecrated in 748 by Pope Zachary in person, who at the same time confirmed all the gifts made to the monastery and exempted it from episcopal jurisdiction. The fame of the abbey at this period was great, and, among the monks professed, may be mentioned Carloman, the son of Charles Martel, Rachis, brother of the great Lombard Duke Astolf, and Paul Warnefrid (usually called Paul the Deacon), the historian of the Lombards. Towards the middle of the ninth century the Saracens overran this part of Italy and Monte Cassino did not escape. In 884 Abbot Bertharius and some of his monks were killed, the rest fleeing to Teano. Within two years the restoration of Monte Cassino was begun, but Teano retained the bulk of the community until 949, when Abbot Aligernus effected the return. The autograph copy of St. Benedict's Rule, which had been preserved till now through all the vicissitudes of the community's existence, perished in a fire during the stay at Teano. The high state of discipline at Monte Cassino about this time is vouched for by St. Nilus, who visited it in the latter half of the tenth century and again by St. Odilo of Cluny some fifty years later. The abbey's reputation reached its zenith, however, during the reign of Abbot Desiderius, who ruled from 1058 until 1087, when he was elected pope under the title of Victor III. Under this abbot, the most famous of all the series after St. Benedict himself, the number of monks rose to over two hundred, and the school of copyists and miniature painters became famous throughout the West. 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 splendour, was consecrated in 1071 by Pope Alexander II, who was assisted by ten archbishops, forty-four bishops, and so vast a crowd of princes, abbots, monks, etc. that, the enthusiastic chronicler declares, "it would have been easier to number the stars of heaven than to count so great a multitude." A detailed account of the abbey at this date exists in the "Chronica monasterii Cassinensis" of Leo of Ostia (see Pertz, "Mon. Germ. Hist. Scriptores", VII).

From this date a decline set in. The unsettled condition of Italy and the great strategical value of Monte Cassino involved the abbey in the constant political struggles of the period. In 1239 the monks were driven out of their cloister by Frederick II, but returned thither under Charles of Anjou. In 1294 Celestine V endeavoured to unite Monte Cassino to his new order of Celestines, but this scheme collapsed on his abdication of the papacy. In 1321 John XXII made the church of Monte Cassino a cathedral, the abbot becoming bishop of the newly constituted diocese, and his monks the chapter. There is no doubt that this was done with the best of intentions, as an additional honour to the great abbey; in practice, however, it proved disastrous. The bishops of Monte Cassino, nominated at Avignon, were secular prelates who never visited the diocese, but who appropriated the income of the abbey to their personal use. The number of monks thus dwindled, the observance declined, and utter ruin became a mere question of time. In view of this danger Urban V, who was a Benedictine monk, proclaimed himself Abbot of Monte Cassino, collected monks from other houses to reinforce the community, and in 1370 appointed Andrew of Faenza, a Camaldolese, as superior. The revival, however, was short-lived; in 1454 the system of commendatory abbots was reintroduced and lasted until 1504, when Julius II united Monte Cassino to the recently established Congregation of St. Justina of Padua (see BENEDICTINES), which was thenceforth known as the Cassinese Congregation. In 1799 the abbey was taken and plundered by the French troops who had invaded the Kingdom of Naples, and in 1866 the monastery was suppressed in common with all other Italian religious houses. At the present day Monte Cassino is the property of the Italian Government, which has declared it a national monument; the abbot, however, is recognized as Guardian in view of his administration of the diocese. The reigning abbot [1911] is Dom Gregorio Diamare (elected 1909); the community (1909) consists of thirty-seven choir monks and thirty lay brothers. The vast buildings contain, besides the monastery, a lay school with 126 boarders and two seminaries, one open to all and the other reserved for the Diocese of Monte Cassino with 76 and 50 pupils respectively. In the management of these institutions the monks are assisted by a number of secular priests.

The present buildings form a vast rectangular pile externally more massive than beautiful. The ancient tower of St. Benedict, now a series of chapels elaborately decorated by monastic artists of the Beuron school, is the only portion dating back to the foundation of the abbey. The entrance gate leads to three square court-yards opening out of one another with arcades in the Doric order. These date from 1515 and are attributed, on somewhat slight evidence, to Bramante. From the middle court-yard an immense flight of steps leads to the atrium or forecourt of the basilica. This quadrangle has an arcade supported by ancient columns taken from the basilica of Abbot Desiderius, and probably once in the destroyed temple of Apollo on the site of which the present church stands. The existing church, the fourth to occupy the site, is from the designs of Cosimo Fansaga. It was begun in 1649, and was consecrated in 1727 by Benedict XIII. In richness of marbles, the interior is said to be surpassed only by the Certosa at Pavia, and the first impression is certainly one of astonishing magnificence. On closer inspection, however, the style is found to be somewhat decadent, especially in the plasterwork of the ceiling, while the enormous profusion of inlaid marble and gilding produces a slightly restless effect. Still it is undoubtedly the finest example of Florentine mosaic work in Europe, and the general colour scheme is excellent. The church is cruciform in plan, with a dome at the crossing, beneath which is the high altar. Behind this altar is the choir with its elaborately carved stalls. The tomb of St. Benedict is in a crypt chapel beneath the eastern portion of the church, but it is extremely doubtful whether any relics of the saint now remain there. This chapel has recently been decorated with mosaics from designs by artists of the Beuron school, the severity of which contrasts markedly with the slightly Rococo paintings by Luca Giordano in the church above. The sacristy contains the ancient pavement of opus alexandrinum, which was formerly in the basilica of Abbot Desiderius. In the left transept is the monument of Pietro di Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and brother of Leo X. This tomb, which is by the great architect Antonio di Sangallo, is unquestionably the most beautiful and dignified work in the whole building. The great west door, a bronze piece of the twelfth century, is engraved with the names of all the parishes in the Diocese of Monte Cassino. The kitchens are approached from the ground-floor by a long covered passage on an inclined plane, large enough for two mules laden with provisions to pass. This curious structure dates from the twelfth century and is lit by an exquisite marble window of four arches in the style known as Cosmatesque. The buildings as a whole produce an effect of great dignity and magnificence, all the more unexpected from the inaccessible position of the monastery and the extreme severity of the exterior. The view from the "Loggia del Paradiso" or forecourt, is one of the most famous in Southern Italy.

The archives (archivium), besides a vast number of documents relating to the history of the abbey, contains some 1400 manuscript codices chiefly patristic and historical, many of which are of the greatest value. The library contains a fine collection of modern texts and apparatus criticus, which is always most courteously put at the disposal of scholars who come to work on the manuscripts. When the abbey was declared a national monument, orders were given to transport the whole collection of manuscripts to the National Library at Naples; but, owing to the personal intercession of Mr. Gladstone, then Prime Minister of England, the order was reversed, and instead one of the community was appointed as Archivist with a salary from the Government, an arrangement which still continues.

The Diocese of Monte Cassino includes most of the Abruzzi, and is one of the most extensive in Italy. It was formed by uniting seven ancient dioceses, a fact which is borne in mind by the interesting custom that, when the abbot sings pontifical High Mass, he uses seven different precious mitres in succession. As ordinary the abbot is directly subject to the Holy See, and the choir monks take rank as the chapter of the diocese, of which the abbatial basilica of Monte Cassino is the cathedral. The conferring of sacred orders, blessing of Holy Oils, and administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation are the only pontifical functions which the abbot does not exercise. The vicar-general is usually one of the community.

"Annales Casinenses" in PERTZ, "Mon. Germ. Hist. Script.," III, VII, XIX; GATTULA, "Hist. abbatiae Casin." (4 vols., Venice, 1733); MARGARINUS, "Bullar. Casin." (2 vols., Venice, 1650); ARMELLINI, "Bibl. Benedictino-Casinensis" (Assisi, 1732); GROSSI, "La Scuola e la bibliografia di Monte Cassino" (Naples, 1820); TOSTI, "Storia della Badia di Monte Cassino" (3 vols., Naples, 1842); VAN DEN NEST, "Naples et la Mont Cassin" (Antwerp, 1850); GUILLAUME, "Description . . . du Mont Cassin" (Monte Cassino, 1874); IDEM, "Mont Cassin et le XIVe centenaire de St. Benoit" (Paris, 1880); BARTOLINI, "L'antico Cassino e il primitivo monastero di S. Benedetto" (Monte Cassino, 1880); CLAUSSE, "Les origines benedictines" (Paris, 1899); UGHELLI, "Italia Sacra," II (Venice, 1647), 1027-35; LONGFELLOW in "Atlantic Monthly," XXXV (1875), 161; BERNARDI, "L'archivio e la bibliotheca di M. C." (Monte Cassino, 1872); "Dict. des MSS.," II (Migne, 1853), 923-52; "Spicilegium Casinense" (Monte Cassino, 1893—); PISCICELLI-TAEGGI, "La paleografia artistica di M. C." (5 vols., Monte Cassino, 1878-83).


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