Dramatically located in the mountains of Lazio, this beautiful abbey was the first monastery of the Benedectine Order. It was established in 529 by Saint Benedict of Nursia, the patron saint of Europe, who is considered the founder of monasticism in the West. In the nearly 1,500 years since then, Montecassino Abbey has experienced more than its fair share of traumatic events.
Less than 50 years after its construction, the abbey was sacked by invading Lombards and the residing monks fled to Rome. The monastery was reestablished in 718 but it was abandoned again in 833 after being sacked and burned down by the Saracens (a medieval term for Muslims). The abbey was then rebuilt—again—at the behest of Pope Agapetus II in 949. During the 11th and 12th centuries, it became one of the most important religious buildings in Italy, acquiring a large secular territory. One of the richest libraries in medieval Europe was housed here during this time, and some of the oldest testimony of the Italian language come from this period and were written in this monastery.
The abbey entered a period of decline in the 13th century and was destroyed again, this time by an earthquake, in 1349, and it was rebuilt 20 years afterward During the 17th century, a large renovation work made the building a prime example of Neapolitan Baroque architecture. Yet in 1799 the abbey was sacked again, this time by the Napoleonic army. The monastery was then suppressed in 1866 and became a monument and museum, but its troubled history didn’t end here.
In 1944, during World War II, the abbey was the site of one of the most tragic battles of the European theater of the war. The Allies mistakenly suspected that German troops were hiding inside the abbey and heavily bombarded the monastery, which actually housed many civilians who had sought refuge inside the building. Tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of civilians were killed during the infamous battle.
After the war, Montecassino Abbey was rebuilt for the final time. It remains perched at the top of the mountain overlooking Cassino. It is a working monastery and active pilgrimage site, housing the remains of Saint Benedict and his twin sister, Saint Scholastica, which have managed to survive the events of the abbey’s long and turbulent history.
Know Before You Go
Montecassino Abbey (Abbazia di Montecassino) is located about 90 miles southeast of Rome, on the way to Naples. It is open every day; hours vary by season. The church is closed during mass, though visitors are welcome to attend the mass. In winter, the museum is only open on Sundays. There is a charge for parking and for the museum, but not the monastery itself, though donations are appreciated. Visitors are asked to wear appropriate church clothing and to not eat or drink while inside.