Seventy-Five Years On

15 February – 75 years since Flying Fortresses obliterated the monastery of Monte Cassino, the home of Benedictinism. Today as we pass below the sky is cloudless, serene and around the rebuilt monastery is a feint wreath of lingering mist. Monte Cassino and its epic story mark the beginnings of a patch of Italy to which I am forever attached.

Monte Cassino and San Vincenzo are twins, their histories intertwined. For years Cassinese monks came to San Vincenzo to enjoy its cooler mountain air. Mention the war to them, though, and they all but spat with a lingering distaste. The Allied bombing that destroyed the monastery of Monte Cassino on the 15th February 1944 was a crime against humanity, I was told more than once. Any mention of the occasion and the elfin and normally genial archivist, the late Don Faustino, was transformed. His deep-seated anger boiled over. So, on an occasion when in Monte Cassino’s capacious archive a diplomat friend of mine asked Don Faustino about the battle, the learned monk snarled about the British and added, by way of taunt, how grateful the monks were to the Germans who transported the precious archive and library to safety long before the battle started. Startled, my friend was about to give as good as he had got when the old Abbot, Don Martino Matrinola, slipped into the archive. Don Faustino visibly retreated a step. The old Abbot, bent and thin, conveyed an immediate eminence. Far from senescent, his beady eyes focussed upon me and he asked about an unique 9th-century coin I had discovered at San Vincenzo and which he had caressed the previous summer in his long, claw-like fingers. I responded and, gauging the twinkle in his octogenarian eyes, introduced my diplomat friend as someone who was curious about the infamous bombing.

Monte Cassino

“I was in the monastery, I was Abbot Damiano’s secretary,” he said without a shift in tone. “What would you like to know?”

I hastily shaped a simple question to evade Don Faustino’s dismay. And so, Don Martino explained, the Abbot and he and a handful of monks as well as hundreds of refugees had sought safety in the deep medieval bowels of the largely baroque monastery. As soon as the bombing had finished, they had fled down the mountain, guided by German officers.

“Were there Germans in the monastery and guns, tanks?” my friend eagerly enquired.

“Ah,” the old monk responded without missing a beat, “you should read our report made that morning to His Holiness (the Pope). It’s part of the papal record. There were indeed Germans here.” With that his mind found sanctuary in his memory of my little silver coin and he muttered more about it before shuffling off into the cloister.

I recall this moment in the archive because I had touched history.

Today, my destination is San Vincenzo al Volturno to meet old friends and re-visit the 9th-century ruins of Monte Cassino’s monastic peer. There, the Mainarde are capped with snow, but glistening. The old excavation of San Vincenzo is as it always is, empty, inviting and replete with memories and a certain sadness.

Castel San Vincenzo and the Mainarde

It is almost forty years (this early September) since I first came here and so much is unchanged. The timelessness has been only disturbed by our interventions, but then again as I proudly show off the discoveries, I regret that we failed to create the kind of archaeological park to which we aspired. In one place Italian and European first millennium history can be read into these ruins as second millennium history can be read at Monte Cassino. And in the sublime late winter sunshine, the inability of this part of the Other Italy to make something exceptional says so much about the past twenty years in this country.

Conflicted, I retreat to the “Volturno” on the edge of Colli A Volturno and there, in a restaurant now elegantly re-fitted, I eat fisciotti alla carbonara as I have since 1979. On leaving my friends an old man crosses the spacious dining room, grasps my hand and thanks me for what I have done for Molise. He hopes I shall return to excavate more. I smile, grateful, and instinctively, guiltily think of all the pleasures this place has given me here and in Monte Cassino.

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