The great Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, as seen today

Driving past Monte Cassino many years ago with the late Mark Pluciennik, professor at Leicester University and one of the most cerebral archaeologists I have known, I pointed out the Benedictine monastery. Mark replied with words I’ve never forgotten:

My father was with the Poles who captured the monastery, and my uncle, his brother, as fate would have it, was with the Germans on top. The battle unwittingly pitched brother against brother.

His words have long lingered in my mind, and inevitably in committee meetings in these cost-conscious days when someone raises the zeitgeist concepts of impact and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) I think about the Battle of Monte Cassino and Mark’s doleful reflections. Eccentric, I know. But there is scarcely a better modern example of a KPI being subverted at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives. Over the years, I have met many survivors of this historic battle between the Allied and Axis forces in 1943/44. Through them, I have become familiar with oral histories and the battlefield archaeology. None spoke well of the experience, though all the Allied veterans recalled with pleasure and gratitude their encounters with the long-suffering Italians. Liberating them justified the struggle.

The spectacular view south from the monastery, looking out over the town of Cassino and the route of a Roman road: the Via Casilina.

An indelible mark

The battle lasted from December 1943 until May 1944, led to the comprehensive destruction of the town of Cassino, and at the conclusion, the main objective – defeating the formidable German army – was eschewed in favour of a triumph worthy of Imperial times in Rome. The impact of the battle has left an indelible mark on Italy and in the minds of many, while the performance of the generals was in the end reminiscent of the later rather than the earlier Roman Empire. All of this can be discovered on the ground. There are archaeological remains galore but, unlike the Normandy battlefield (of June-July 1944), it is not organised and really should be.

The battle embraced the mountains from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic Sea. One particular hotspot was, as it happens, where Mark Pluciennik and I were excavating in the 1980s and 1990s: San Vincenzo al Volturno (due east of Monte Cassino). Here multinational forces assembled to assault the Abruzzi mountains, known locally as the Mainarde. The excavations only revealed one possible legacy from this tumultuous era: the skeleton of a young woman, interred in a shallow grave in the remains of the 9th-century refectory. Local workmen excavating with me clearly knew something about this homicide. Ignoring my instructions to record the individual, she was removed hastily and without ceremony.

This extraordinary war memorial was created from the wreckage of a real Sherman tank to commemorate the Polish regiment who fought there in 1944. The tank was destroyed during the engagement.

This act revealed how raw the bitter wartime struggle remained, 40 years afterwards. None more so than for the monks of Monte Cassino. As long as we stuck to archaeology and history, our relationship at San Vincenzo with Monte Cassino’s monks was fine. (The monastery owned part of the land we were excavating.) Mention the war, and they all but spat with a lingering distaste. The Allied bombing that destroyed the monastery of Monte Cassino on the 15 February 1944 was a crime against humanity, I was told more than once.

Monte Cassino

Monte Cassino attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. Poles, in particular, pay homage to the exquisitely arranged cemetery in the valley immediately east of the monastery that commemorates those who ultimately vanquished the German defenders. Few monuments exceed this cemetery in paying tribute to the heroism and tragic inhumanity of war. It is as well to pause in this mass graveyard before rediscovering a quotidian rhythm in the formidable monastery that overshadows it.

The Polish war cemetery lies at the end of the Cavendish Road trail – beyond, the monastery that was the cause of such bloodshed looms over the site.

St Benedict founded his monastery in an ancient hilltop site. A massive Samnite (Iron Age) fortification encircles the crown of the hill, with the medieval and later monastic walls nestling inside its great polygonal stonework. This fortress speaks volumes about the age when archaic Rome was vying for control over central Italy. Inside these cyclopean walls, in excavations made after the Second World War, remains were found of a Samnite and subsequent Roman temple, dedicated probably to Hercules. In time, the temple became an outlier of Casinum, the affluent Roman roadside town at the foot of the hill that, with the defeat of the Samnites, succeeded the cyclopean fortress.

Quite how Benedict made use of the earlier temple as he created his 6th-century monastery is not known. Numerous finds are on display in the monastery’s museum. Post-war excavations, following the bombing, discovered the footings of one of Benedict’s churches, believed to be St Martin’s. Its ground plan is discreetly marked out with neat stones in the outer cloister immediately after entering the monastery today. On the far side of this first cloister lies the locked glass door down to the old ceremonial entrance. Peep through it and, along the walls, you’ll see some of the hundreds of early medieval tombstones found in excavations after the war.

The monastery and its views of the valley are breathtaking. Best of all is when mist settles below. On those occasions, it feels celestial – as St Benedict doubtless gauged when creating his community here. Charles Dickens (who lent his name to the third battle of Cassino) lugubriously recalled the ever-present mist as ‘solemn’.

An important figure during the post-war restoration was Don Angelo Pantoni – a trained engineer and enthusiastic archaeologist – seen here with Richard and Will Hodges in 1986.

The post-war rebuilding programme is vividly described in a new exhibition. It tells a remarkable story. Lasting over a decade in the 1940s and ’50s, with American support, the early modern monastery was lovingly restored in all its Baroque glory. It was a miracle of sorts. A key person in this rebuilding was Don Angelo Pantoni, an engineer by training and a passionate archaeologist. This restless monk had endured the siege and spotted his chance in the aftermath. With haphazard methods, but huge dedication, he excavated wherever he could, and published a series of monographs on the monastery’s origins. I knew Don Angelo in his 80s, when he visited my excavations at San Vincenzo. Deaf from birth, twinkling eyes, eccentric in every way in his dishevelled habit, his passion was making sense of the past. Thanks to his antiquarian exactitude, the destruction of Monte Cassino seems barely conceivable today as you climb the steep flight of steps, conceived originally by Abbot Desiderius in the mid to later 11th century, up to a closed outer atrium.

One of Monte Cassino’s great treasures: a bronze door, fashioned by a Byzantine craftsman in 11th-century Constantinople.

One great work of art survives from this abbot’s re-envisioning of the monastery: the central bronze door, made in the 1060s by a Byzantine master in Constantinople. It is 10ft 11in high and 5ft 7in wide. The upper 36 panels are inscribed with names of churches and lands: dependencies of the monastery. Below are two panels bearing dedicatory inscriptions, each flanked by a cross in relief. It bears witness to the abbey at its zenith, then before the Crusades began, on the main pilgrimage route from northern Europe to the Holy Land.

The crosses in the cemetery at Mignano mark the graves of the Italian soldiers who died fighting on the Allied side. In the background, the small museum at the foot of Monte Lungo illustrates the course of the battle. It holds a captivating collection of black-and-white photographs, which convey the unalloyed youthful spirit of those who fought at Monte Lungo.

Today, the story of the bombing may seem like distant history in the modern monastery. Not so in the town of Cassino below. None of its historic churches survived the battle. Instead, the busy little town has an anonymous feel to it, the result of expedient post-war reconstruction. Only its museum, half a kilometre up monastery hill, and the refurbished medieval castle with its pencil-thin tower come close to recalling the rich heritage of this place before 1944.

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 94 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

All images: Richard Hodges