A southern wedding
A recent family wedding took us south from Verona, first on the high speed Frecciargento to Rome, and then on the decidedly more sedate Regionale line that links Rome and Napoli by way of Cassino. Our final destination was Vairano-Caianello, a small settlement in the province of Caserta, where the wedding ceremony itself would take place. But, with a free day before the festivities kicked-off, we decided to return to Cassino to visit its famous monastery.
About 130 kilometres southeast of Rome, the monastery at Cassino (Montecassino) stands on a prominent rocky hill some 520 metres high. Here in about 529, on the site of a pre-existing Roman fortification, Benedict of Nursia founded the monastic order that would bear his name and which would become the blueprint for Western monasticism. His remains still lie beneath the high altar of the basilica at Montecassino.
A seat of contemplation and learning
In the years following its foundation, the abbey became well known as a place of pilgrimage, a revered centre of culture and learning, amassing an incredible collection of art, religious artefacts and holy relics. In particular, during the medieval period, the school of manuscript illuminators and the documents they produced in the monastery's revered scriptorium were renowned throughout the world.
Although a great seat of learning, culture and art, the monastery has also endured some dark times. Its prominent position to the south of Rome has long made it a site of strategic importance. Indeed, during the Second World War, Allied General Harold Alexander called it "one of the strongest natural defensive positions in the whole of Europe".
War, terror and destruction
Back in 577, the monastery was destroyed by the Lombards, a Germanic people who ruled large parts of the Italian Peninsula from 568 to 774. In 883 it was again invaded and sacked, this time by the Saracens, who killed Bertharius the monastery's influential abbot (now venerated as saint and martyr San Bertario di Montecassino). Then, having enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity, on 9th September 1349, the abbey was again severely damaged, this time by a catastrophic earthquake. This devastating event marked the beginning of a period of decline for the abbey. In 1799, at the dawn of the a new era, Napoleon's army once again brought death and destruction to the monastery at Montecassino.
It was during the Second World War, though, that the monastery faced its most profound threat when, for a few devastating months, the abbey found itself on the front line of this most deadly and destructive of conflicts.
Saving the treasure
The Gustav Line, which crossed Italy from the Tyrrhenian sea in the west to the Adriatic coast in the east, was one of three German defensive lines that were intended to prevent the Allied troops from advancing any further north into Italy and, above all, to protect Rome and the southern route through Europe's soft underbelly into the Nazi hinterland. Although German troops had been specifically ordered not to use the abbey for military purposes, to the Allied forces below it appeared that the monastery was in fact a key stronghold in defensive system.
In the winter of 1943, with the battle looming, a number of like-minded German officers conspired to save the abbey's priceless treasures. In a remarkable operation (described in some detail in Robert M. Edsle's thrilling book Saving Italy), they somehow managed to relocate the abbey's collection to two Benedictine monasteries in Rome. With war raging all around, it was a Herculean task. As well as the abbey's own treasures, priceless works of art from Naples, as well as irreplaceable manuscript codices and the collections of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, had been sent to the archives at Montecassino for safekeeping. The Nazi hierarchy was aware of treasure and parts of the collection had been earmarked to join Göering's personal collection. By November 1943, one hundred fully loaded trucks had transported the Abbey's treasure to the secret storage facility. Its contents had been saved, but what fate awaited the Abbey itself?
The first assault
The Battle of Montecassino began on 17 January 1944. In fact, the battle was actually 4 separate offensives. The combination of impregnable terrain, resolute German defence and a particularly cold and wet winter meant that this was one of the most brutal battles of the war. In the Liri Valley bellow the monastery, the Germans had smashed dikes and diverted water courses to flood large parts of the valley floor, making it virtually impassable to Allied tanks and trucks. The road to Rome was blocked.
The first assault on Montecassino, from 17-24 January 1944, was, in fact, a diversionary blow intended to draw German reserves from the main amphibious attack on Anzio which was launched on 22 January. Although it may have succeeded in this objective, Allied commanders failed to exploit the initial breakthrough and a combination of intense German resistance, inadequate planning and a lack of armoured support led to appalling casualty figures, particularly amongst the U.S. 36th Infantry Division (Texas) which suffered 80% losses (143 dead, 663 wounded and 875 missing in just 48 hours).
The second assault
With U.S. VI Corps under intense pressure at Anzio, the Second Battle of Montecassino (from 15 to 18 February) was intended to divert the German forces and relieve some of that pressure.
Despite Eisenhower's directive "to respect those monuments so far as war allows", there was a growing military belief that in order to break through the Gustav Line, the abbey had to be destroyed.
Whether the monastery itself represented a credible military objective remains a point of much controversy. Indeed, it has since been described as the equivalent of Italians bombing Westminster Abbey.
Ultimately though, the order was given and, on 15 February 1944, waves of Allied bombers (229 in total) dropped 493.5 tons of high explosives and incendiaries. The main causalities of this bombardment, however, were not German soldiers, but the refugees who were sheltering inside. The Abbot and six monks, who had hidden in the deepest vaults of the abbey, emerged to discover only a pile of rubble where once the ancient monastery had stood. The bombardment did not, however, break the stalemate.
On the night after the bombing, a company of the 1st Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment (serving in 7th Indian Infantry Brigade) attacked Monastery Hill from their position 70 yards (64 m) away on Snakeshead Ridge. The company suffered 50% casualties and the assault failed. A further assault followed the next night and again the Royal Sussex Regiment suffered devastating losses. In the two-day assault they lost 12 out of 15 officers and 162 out of 313 men who took part in the attack. Subsequent assaults by the Rajputana Rifles of India, the Gurkha's of Nepal and New Zealand Māori brigades suffered similar fates. The second assault had failed.
The third assault
The Third Battle of Montecassino was again to be preceded by a heavy artillery bombardment, but while waiting for the adequate weather conditions that would enable the preliminary bombing, the assault was postponed on 21 successive days. Meanwhile, the troops waited in the freezing conditions for the green light to battle. It finally came on 15 March 1944. Success depended on efficacy of the aerial bombardment. However, the shelling had not been as effective as had been hoped, and the German defences rallied more quickly than expected. The weather turned and torrents of rain flooded bomb craters, turning rubble into mud and drenching radio sets, preventing effective communication.
Despite the problems, the New Zealanders captured Castle Hill and the Indians took Hangman's Hill, a strategic highpoint just below the monastery, which the Gurkhas then bravely held. The Allied forces had come within 250 yards of the Monastery. But, on 22 March, after repeated unsuccessful assaults had met with resolute defence and with the troops of the New Zealand Divisions exhausted, the Allied offensive was again called off.
The final assault and breakthrough
On 11 May 1944, the moment the Poles had been waiting for for so long had finally arrived. After the failure of three previous Allied offensives, the daunting task now fell to the II Polish Corps. Their country had suffered more than most at the hands of the Nazis and it was, perhaps, their desire for revenge and retribution that inspired them where others had previously failed.
The fourth assault on Montecassino was part of a wider multinational offensive along the Gustav Line (Operation DIADEM). French, Moroccans, Algerians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Nepalese, Indians, South Africans, Australians, Rhodesians, as well as Brits, Americans and Poles, formed an immense army of more than a quarter of a million men. Elaborate deception plans had been effective, and the Germans were not expecting a major attack at this time. It was to be the biggest battle of the war so far.
It was hoped that the sheer volume of attackers would saturate the German defences and enable the crucial breakthrough. Improved weather, ground conditions and supply would also be important factors. Canadian I Corps were to be held in reserve ready to exploit the anticipated breakthrough.
Again the assault was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment. Monte Calvario (Point 593 on Snakeshead Ridge) was taken by the Poles only to be quickly recaptured by German paratroopers. For three days Polish attacks and German counter-attacks brought heavy losses to both sides. Polish II Corps lost 281 officers and 3,503 other ranks in assaults before the attacks were eventually called off. In the early morning hours of 12 May, the Polish infantry divisions were met with "such devastating mortar, artillery and small-arms fire that the leading battalions were all but wiped out." Below the Monastery, the town of Cassino had been completely destroyed. Not a single building remained.
By the third week in May the Germans were in full retreat. At last the much anticipated breakthrough had arrived. But instead of finishing off the retreating Germans, Clark chose instead to strike for Rome, preferring his place in history to finishing off the job at Montecassino. The German 10th Army escaped to fight another day and, although the Gustav Line had finally been broken, the hard-won Battle of Cassino was a costly and somewhat hollow victory.
Restoration and recovery
Remarkably the abbey has been restored to it's former glory. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer scale and ostentatiousness of it. The vast collection of artefacts on display was breathtaking. Gold from the dark ages, 10th century remains of the original marble floor, priceless wooden statuettes, lavishly bound books, manuscripts and drawings dating from the 6th century, holy vestments, ivory and religious iconography. A statue of St. Benedict, the monastery's founder, dating from 1736 somehow survived more or less intact. Quite what he would have made of it all is beyond me.
Although time didn't allow us to explore as much of the area as I would have liked, we did have the chance to visit the Polish War Cemetery where the remains of more than 1000 Polish soldiers lie. A white marble obelisk bears the words:
"For our freedom and yours, we soldiers of Poland gave our soul to God our life to the soil of Italy our hearts to Poland."
And as for the wedding, it was a fairy-tale affair: a beautiful bride, extravagant southern hospitality and food and drink in abundance. I'm already looking forward to the next family reunion in a couple of years time. Another trip to the tragic battlefields of Montecassino might not wait that long.
As we begin to look forward to the next round of the Six Nations matches, I thought I'd take the opportunity to look back at my recent visit to Rome, which included the annual "Wooden spoon decider" between Scotland and Italy.
I had taken the early morning train from Verona and was in Rome by 10.30 am. As the persistent rain showed no signs of abating, I quickly dropped my bags off at one of the many budget hotels near the station and was soon on my way towards Piazza del Popolo, the large urban square to the north of the historic centre that was the muster point for many Scottish fans heading to the game.
By now the rain had stopped and, coming from the sub-alpine conditions of the north to the temperate subtropical mediterranean climate of Rome, I was beginning to feel rather overdressed. Most of my compatriots were far more suitably attired in short-sleeved rugby tops and kilts.
My companions for the day were all long-standing veterans on the international rugby circuit and, I'm pleased to say, brought their cumulative experience to bear on proceedings. They had made reservations at ristorante pizzeria “Il Vignola", which was as authentic a taste of Rome as I have ever experienced - including the famous pasta cacio e pepe (on previous visits I had usually settled for the standard tourist fare to be found in the historic centre). The food, wine, beer, service and company were all first class. The perfect prelude to the match. Il Vignola had the added benefit of being almost equidistant between Piazza del Popolo and Stadio Olympico (I told you these guys were good).
Suitably refreshed we made our way the short distance to the stadium - the magnificent Stadio Olympico.
There was a real carnival atmosphere in the area surrounding the stadium (the magnificent Foro Italico), with marquees, bars and entertainment for the nearly 70,000 fans who were by now flooding through the security perimeter.
Although I vaguely remembered reading something about the fascist origins of this magnificent sporting complex, the details, like my general state after such an indulgent lunch, were somewhat hazy.
Hazy or not, the tell-tale signs of fascist era architecture were striking.
Simple but grandiose, Foro Italico, Rome's magnificent sports complex, is littered with 15 foot tall marble sculptures depicting muscular Italian athletes in various semi-erotic (to me anyway) poses. Fascist architects in the 1920s and 1930s drew inspiration from classical Roman buildings, but while Roman design has ornate details and rounded edges, fascist buildings are generally cold and forbidding. Symmetry, straight lines and simplicity were the order of the day. The ancillary buildings surrounding the stadium were designed in exactly this way.
Foro Italico was originally known as Foro Mussolini. Inspired by the Roman forums of the imperial age, it was designed by Enrico Del Debbio and, later, Luigi Moretti. Built between 1928 and 1938, it remains one of the preeminent examples of Italian fascist era architecture.
The match itself passed in a bit of a blur - something to do with a never-ending hip flask of whisky and the proximity of the in-stadium bar. For the record, Scotland won 36-20, ending a ten-game losing streak and, in the process, racked up the most points they have scored in a single Six Nations match.
Flooding out of the stadium after the game, most fans seemed oblivious to the significance of the 50-foot obelisk that bears the inscription “Mussolini Dux”.
It is the world's greatest surviving monument to the fascist dictator.
While some may argue that such monuments have no place in modern sport, I rather enjoyed my afternoon in Rome's playground built by fascists.
I would even go as far as to say that I appreciated the aesthetic beauty and efficient functionality of the Foro.
The Mussolini Obelix, more than anything else, stands as a lasting reminder of the perils of fascism and the tragic absurdity of its vainglorious leader.
Click here to read more about the dark history of Rome's Stadio Olympico with the Gentleman Ultra.
For us, the bridge represents the final dramatic landmark on what has often been a long and tiring journey. From this point there are only two more hairpin bends and a tight right hand turn before we arrive in Corfino itself, where (no matter what the hour) a warm-welcome, a hearty meal and a bottle of rustic tuscan wine await.
It is only in the last couple of years that I have become aware of the bridge’s more proper name - “Ponte Attilio Vergai” and it was only on my most recent trip to Corfino, while taking an invigorating morning run across the bridge, that I asked myself ‘who is/was Attilio Vergai?’
Vergai's story, played out in these hills, is a little known story of of drama, tragedy and mystery.
For nearly 20 years now, I’ve been coming to Corfino, a small village high in the north Tuscan region of Garfagnana. Accessible only by narrow, winding mountain roads, driving here is not for the faint-hearted!
At over 800 metres above sea level, the most dramatic moment of the journey to Corfino is surely crossing the Ponte di Corfino. Constructed in 1935 with the help of donations from Corfino’s diaspora, the Ponte di Corfino is in fact a double arched viaduct. In order to fully appreciate the complex geographical landscape it traverses, I’d recommend walking (or running) across the bridge, rather than simply driving straight over it.
When I proposed a day trip to Venice, my six-year-old sons' immediate reaction was decidedly luke-warm. Unconvinced by the prospect of spending a day in a city-built-on-water, a magical place midway between the setting and the rising sun, the home of countless artistic and architectural treasures, a labyrinthine network of canals with boats of every kind imaginable, it was only the prospect of making the journey from Verona to Venice on the Frecciabianca, the Italian white arrow train, that finally awakened his enthusiasm for our mid-term excursion.
In our excitement to catch the train, we arrive at the platform 35 minutes early and eagerly await the arrival of the 09.59 to Venice. A further five-minute delay adds to the already heightened sense of anticipation. The train finally arrives and we soon find our seats, quickly devour our rations for the day and rapidly exhaust the extensive library of reading material we had packed for the journey. Now experiencing something of a mid-morning lull, this seems like a good time to share the history of this magical city with my young travelling companion.
“Lets start at the beginning”, I suggest, as he amiably nestles in.
A very-long time ago in a far away eastern land, there lived a mighty warrior-king. This fearsome warrior conquered and ravaged his way across central and eastern Europe, killing his own brother along the way.
Equipped with the latest military technology, the battering ram and the rolling siege tower, for decades Visgoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Suevi and Burgundians had terrorized the Eastern Roman Empire. Now these barbarians invaded what is present day Italy and sacked Aquileia, Padua, Verona, Brescia, Bergamo and Milan.
Refugees, fleeing the barbarian onslaught, sought sanctuary in an inhospitable coastal lagoon. The lagoon was littered with tiny, muddy islands created by river sediment. Here, the refugees made a living harvesting salt and fish. The streams they fished eventually formed canals and a collection of about 120 natural islands, in time, formed a settlement.
The settlement these refugees established became known as Venezia. The feared warrior-king they were fleeing was Attila the Hun.
“What happened to Altila, daddy?”
Maybe Venice wasn’t going to be so boring after all!
By now, the train was pulling out of Mestre and crossing the causeway towards Venice itself. “Look Leo”, I said, “You can see the city!”
Arriving at Santa Lucia, we quickly purchased our tickets for the Vaporetto and were soon pleasantly cruising down the Grand Canal. It was standing room only, but we managed to secure a prime spot by the gangplank. Resting his chin on the railing, my young travelling companion gazed curiously out at the passing traffic and at Venice’s unique architecture.
“Daddy”. I sensed another big question coming.
He looks at me skeptically, as he often does when he thinks I’m pulling his leg.
In fact, it is said that Venice is built on 1,156,672 wooden stakes. Great trunks of larch and oak that were driven through the soggy mud-banks and into the layer of clay called caranto. The absence of oxygen in the clay petrifies the wood and prevents it from decomposing, providing a solid foundation on which to build.
Notwithstanding the ingenuity of these ancient engineering techniques, Venice is, thanks to the rising water and compressing mud, slowly sinking into the lagoon.
“Wow!” said Leo, looking rather worriedly at the buildings, as if they might disappear before our very eyes.
We disembark the Vaporetto and navigate our way through the throng of tourists, before finally emerging into the asymmetrical splendor of Piazza San Marco. The Piazza is considered by some to be the world’s most beautiful urban space. Home to countless contrasting architectural treasures, for many, it is the highlight of a trip to Venice. For my young sidekick, it was time for lunch.
We promptly leave St Marks in search of more economical fare. In order to avoid what the Italians call a crisi di fame (a crisis of hunger), we choose in haste from one of the many tourist restaurants that surround the Piazza. Leo is happy with his choice and declares the spaghetti pomodoro to be the best he has ever had! I'm less impressed, but the bill, by Venetian standards, is reasonable.
Re-fuelled and rested, we make our way on foot along the tourist superhighway that is the waymarked route to the Ponte di Rialto. Swarming with tourists, we stop only long enough for the obligatory picture before heading off in search of some respite from the mindless multitudes.
“Where to now daddy?”
A ghetto is a part of a city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups. The Jewish Ghetto in Venice was the world’s first ever ghetto. Indeed, the word itself is thought to derive from the Italian getto (meaning ‘foundry’) because it was established on the site of an ancient foundry.
Jews have traded in Venice since at least the 10th Century. Since then their fortunes in Venice have varied. Generally tolerated, but sometimes persecuted, they have rarely been completely free. In 1516 a compromise was reached which allowed Jews to live in Venice but confined them to the Ghetto. During the day, they had to wear distinctive badges or headgear and at night the gates to the Ghetto were locked. They were prohibited from most trades, with the notable exceptions of moneylending and medicine. Despite these restrictions, they were generally safe from the kind of persecution that was taking place elsewhere in Europe. For this reason, the Ghetto attracted Jews from all over Europe. When Napoleon arrived in 1797, they were given full rights of citizenship, but many chose to remain in the Ghetto.
More recently, Venice itself emerged relatively unscathed from 20th century conflict. Indeed, scouring the indexes of my second world war library, few references to Venice are to be found. While neighbouring Mestre was heavily bombed during the Second World War, Venice's remoteness, her lack of strategic importance, ensured that she was spared the worst carnage of the Second World War. The remoteness of the island settlement was once again her salvation.
Venice, of course, wasn't completely spared the horrors of fascism. In his detailed account of popular attitudes towards the Italian fascist regime (Fascist Voices), Christopher Duggan records that the anti-Semitic German Film Süss l'ebreo was warmly applauded at every screening in the San Marco cinema.
An inscription on a wall of the Ghetto records that 200 of the 8,000 Italian Jews who were killed during the Second World War, were Venetian, including the chief rabbi and 20 residents of an old people’s home.
Today the Ghetto is once again the spiritual, social and cultural centre of life for Venice’s Jewish community. It is a haven of peace and tranquility, even during the otherwise hectic carnival period. Despite the much-reported global tensions, it is reassuring to observe Venice’s Jewish community going about its business in peace and security.
By now dusk is falling and it's time to make our way back to the train station.
In many ways Venice is wasted on a six-year-old. But we both board the train back to Verona content and with much to think about.
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