Category Archives: Italy
Situated on the Germans’ defensive “Gustav Line,” which connected the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas, the abbey stood in the way of the Allies’ march towards Rome. But was its destruction really necessary?
Many of the campaign’s closest participants didn’t think so. Writing after the war, American army General Mark W. Clark considered the attack an unnecessary measure.
A senior British army officer, Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, called it “an act of sheer tactical stupidity.” Even Winston Churchill questioned whether Monte Cassino, “which several times in previous wars had been pillaged, destroyed and rebuilt … should have been destroyed once again.”
Yet all was not lost. Pre-emptive measures fuelled by a growing trans-Atlantic concern for the protection of its ancient library, archive and treasures spared the abbey an even greater disaster: the complete loss of its cultural identity and heritage.
Both Allied and Axis forces, engaged in a larger war against each other, scrambled to protect Monte Cassino’s library and artifacts. A politicized struggle emerged in the process, with both sides wanting to be seen and remembered as guardians of Europe’s cultural and religious inheritance.
Rise to prominence
Monte Cassino was the fountainhead of the western monastic tradition.
Established by Saints Benedict and Scholastica around the year 529, the abbey grew throughout the Middle Ages into one of the most important religious, political, cultural and intellectual centres in western Europe.
It acquired this reputation in part thanks to the basic instructions for monks’ religious life first developed at the abbey known as The Rule of Saint Benedict. Benedict’s “rule” offered organizing principles and regulations on obedience, work and prayer that inspired a community of devoted followers, and is today considered a classic text of Christian spirituality.
The abbey’s library and archive were especially famous. The collection was already substantial by the third quarter of the eighth century, and grew significantly in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Under Abbot Desiderius (1058-87), who physically expanded the abbey’s scriptorium and its scribal activity, Monte Cassino assumed a prominent place in the annals of western history, culture and learning.
The abbey’s so-called “Golden Age” didn’t last forever. Yet the achievements of this era furnished a rich historical legacy.
More than just bricks and mortar
Saving the abbey from wartime destruction became a priority for both Allied and Axis forces.
The former archbishop of both York and Canterbury, Lord Cosmo Lang of Lambeth, argued that the abbey’s “monuments of the great past, its architecture, its sculptures, its pictures are among the noblest expressions of the human spirit.”
According to the Allied Supreme Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Italy’s monuments and cultural centres demanded great respect; they symbolized “to the world all that we are fighting to preserve.”
Appealing to the Italian people by radio, leaflets “and any other means available,” American army General George Marshall sought to remove all movable works of art from harm’s way. The destruction of immovable works was also to be avoided, “insofar as possible without handicapping military operations.”
Italy’s cultural inheritance was at stake.
Practical limits to protection
There were practical limits to the protection available. The lives of fighting men, military strategists repeatedly argued, should take precedence over ancient buildings.
But as Eisenhower admitted, “the choice is not always so clear-cut as that.” He recognized
there were times when “military necessity” could justify the complete annihilation of “some honoured site.” But it was the imperative of high commanders, he contended, to “spare without any detriment to operational needs” whatever monuments could be saved.
The British House of Lords reached a similar conclusion. Knowing that the abbey’s priceless treasures were “subject to the swaying tides of battle,” the House called on the “Germans occupying the place to remove them to safety as soon as they were in real danger.…”
When the Germans did so, Viscount Herbert Samuel called the act “a great relief to all who care for the interests of history.”
Evacuating library, treasures
In October 1943, an Austrian officer, Lieutenant Colonel Julius Schlegel, commander of the Divisional Maintenance Section — together with a German officer, Captain Maximilian Johannes Becker — convinced Abbot Gregorio Diamare to move the abbey’s literary, artistic and cultural treasures to safety.
In a series of newspaper articles written for the Austrian newspaper Die Österreichische Furche in 1951, Schlegel recounted the sequence of events.
Together with the abbot and community of monks, they forged a plan to evacuate Monte Cassino’s archive and library collections. According to Schlegel, the former consisted of some 80,000 documents while the latter contained around 70,000 volumes.
Added to this list of artifacts were priceless artistic works by Titian, Raphael, Bruegel and da Vinci, among others, as well as various ancient vases, tapestries, sculptures, reliquaries (containers for holy relics) and crucifixes.
Beyond its own library and treasures, contents from two museums in Naples, the convent of Montevergine near Avellino, and the Keats-Shelley house in Rome, had already been relocated there.
Over three short weeks, the remaining Cassinese monks, Italian refugees and German soldiers transported some 700 crates by 100 trucks — some to the neutral territory of the Vatican (Castel Sant’Angelo) and its library for safekeeping, others to a castle in Spoleto, about 100 kilometres north of Rome.
Improbable salvage operation
The whole salvage operation was an improbable feat in diplomacy, secular and ecclesiastical collaboration and logistics in the midst of war. But there are lingering questions about the Germans’ intervention — how both they and Allied forces sought to represent it in historical records.
Was it a genuine humanitarian effort to safeguard Monte Cassino’s heritage ordered by German High Command?
Was it a personal initiative spearheaded by Schlegel, “against the order of his German army superiors,” as the New York Times reported in 1958?
Whatever the answer, the Italian Director General of the Fine Arts, writing on Dec. 31, 1943, thanked German military and political authorities for their collaborative efforts in safeguarding the “national artistic patrimony.”
The monks singled out Schlegel for his deeds, thanking him for saving them and their abbey’s possessions.
The national German newspaper, Die Welt, published a commemorative story in 1998 about Schlegel’s efforts, which it claimed Italy “has not forgotten.”
Preserving the abbey’s heritage was considered a moral and necessary good. Re-consecrating it in 1964, after almost two decades of reconstruction, Pope Paul VI marvelled at its capacity for regeneration. He celebrated peace “after whirlwinds of war had blown out the holy and benevolent flame.…”
Today, global pilgrims and tourists visit the restored abbey every day to experience its spiritual, historical and artistic treasures.
In ancient Rome, you could tell a lot about a person from the look of their garden. Ancient gardens were spaces used for many activities, such as dining, intellectual practice, and religious rituals. They also offered the opportunity to flaunt horticultural skills as well as travels. As such, gardens were taken rather seriously by Romans. Walking had an important role here, as there is no better way to show off your garden than to take people on walks through it.
The role of horticulture in the construction of elite identity in ancient Rome is one of the topics I am investigating, while the excavation of an ancient Pompeian garden I co-direct is revealing tangible information on settings for horticultural displays.
For wealthy Romans, gardens were a place to exercise the mind, for instance by strolling while conversing about philosophy or literature. The orator and philosopher Cicero famously wrote that if you have a garden and a library you have everything you need.
The type of plants chosen could reveal much about how cultured the owner was. From the writings of Roman authors, we can see that plane trees (which nowadays commonly line streets and walkways in parks) were a good choice. They offered shade in summer and were a way to show that one was versed in Greek philosophy: Aristotle and Plato’s famed philosophical schools were held in garden’s shaded by plane trees, as Plato referred to in his Phaedrus.
Fruit of the empire
Rome empire-building military expeditions abroad also resulted in new plants, or new cultivars (a plant variety produced by selective breeding) of known plants being introduced into Italy. Roman generals or provincial governors often came back to Italy with specimens that they planted in their gardens. For example, Lucius Vitellius the Elder, the father of Emperor Vitellius, planted several figs varieties in his rural villa estate near Rome that he had encountered while governor of Syria. In this way, gardens could also become a sort of microcosm of Rome’s empire, with plants from different territories.
Horticultural display of grafted fruit trees and other plants reproduced by layering might have characterised the large garden of the House of Queen Caroline – named in the 19th century after the queen of Naples and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, Caroline, who visited during its initial excavation. I am currently excavating the site in Pompeii in collaboration with colleagues from Cornell University. Here wide walkways seem to have separated the regularly spaced plantings, an indication that it was not a commercial orchard but a garden in which horticultural productivity was an important part of the pleasure the garden was meant to offer.
Committed to exercise
Walking in their gardens was a serious exercise for many wealthy Romans. Medical works such as the de Medicina by the encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus, written in the first century AD, give specific indications about the daily exercise physicians recommended: one Roman mile, or 1,000 paces.
Some gardens even came with exercise advice inscribed in them detailing how many laps a person needed to cover. One such inscription from Rome once stood in an ancient orchard. It advised that to cover one mile one needed to go along the path back and forth five times.
In Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy, a similar inscription was found in the Poikilé, the large four-sided portico enclosing a garden with a central pool. The north side of the Poikilé was a double portico, with circular spaces at both ends to allow one to do laps: this was where the emperor could walk sheltered from the elements. Thus, Hadrian could either take exercise in the open air, in the central garden, or under the roof of the double portico.
All this may suggest that the stereotype associating ancient Romans with excessive drinking and eating is undeserved. But, for wealthy individuals, moving about in a chariot or being carried around in a litter (a “vehicle” without wheels) by slaves in hippodrome-gardens (they were shaped like an elongated U and imitated the shape of the chariot-racing stadium) also counted as “exercising”. Indeed, there are two words in Latin texts for the daily walk: ambulatio, “walking about”, and gestatio, “being carried about”.
Such walking was the pastime of those who owned impressive townhouses or luxurious villas in the country or by the sea. But shrewd politicians such as the Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD, included gardens among the public building projects they financed. They understood that improving living standards by providing ordinary people with a green oasis to escape Rome’s crowded streets and cramped accommodation was a great way to gain popularity. Augustus opened to the public the groves and walks which surrounded the magnificent Mausoleum he had built, and before him, Caesar had willed to the people of Rome his large pleasure park (Horti).
Following the Roman dichotomy between amoenitas (delightfulness) and utilitas (usefulness), scholars traditionally class gardens as either utilitarian or pleasure gardens, but this binary choice does not fully capture the essence of Roman garden culture. Roman gardens were complex physical and ideological spaces. They represented wealth and contributed to wealth and they showed off horticultural skills through aesthetics as well as their ability to produce food.