So-called “Cloister of Bramante”, Abbey of Montecassino
I was a freshman in high school first time I ever heard of the abbey of Montecassino. As Sister Helen, the librarian, pointed out the features of the school’s library on the first day of Library Science class, she mentioned that the fireplace was from an Italian abbey, destroyed in the second World War, and called Montecassino. (The school had once been the townhouse of an art collector.) I can’t remember now how old she said it was, or even what it looked like except that it was elaborate and imposing. It shocks me that I have failed to remember any more of it, especially because I was interested in art history even before finishing high school.
Detail of the triumphal arch of the well, with landscape beyond
Years later, I did one of my Ph.D. exams on eleventh- and twelfth century architecture in Italy; Montecassino was one of the monuments central to my reading. In the time of the Abbot Desiderius (1058-87,) the abbey must have been spectacularly beautiful. Desiderius acquired vast quantities of spoliate marble (including columns and capitals) from Rome and had them shipped to the port of Suium, from where they were transported over land and up the steep rocky hill to the abbey. Of the works of the mosaicists that Desiderius hired from Constantinople, the chronicler Leo of Ostia tells us, “one would believe that the figures…were alive and that in the marbles of the pavements flowers of every color bloomed in wonderful variety.”*
Atrium (this small person kept getting in my photos)
Of course, the Montecassino of Desiderius doesn’t exist any more; it had ceased to exist long before the abbey’s near destruction in February of 1944. Centuries of alterations and restorations canceled out the colorful, glimmering richness of its medieval appearance. What exists now is a handsome ensemble, staid for the most part, but a bit pompous in the decoration of the basilica. (I will refrain from posting any photos of that.)
The small courtyard that leads to the museum entrance has some spoliate columns and capitals on view. There are a couple of dark, gated chambers on the right hand side that have fragments from the Cosmatesque pavement.
View of the dome from the courtyard
As we moved from space to space, Pata repeatedly proclaimed “che bel posto! (what a beautiful place!)” I forgive her lack of discrimination because she is only three, and because I know that the abbey seems less beautiful to me mostly because I compare it to a mental image of a thing that no longer exists, a thing which I myself have never seen. In fact, her appreciation of the place made me happy: she has a childhood of looking at art and architecture ahead of her and I hope she won’t spend it complaining about how she’d rather be doing something else. Her enthusiasm did wane at the entrance to the museum but that’s fine, mine did too when I saw that admission was 7 Euro for adults. (I had also visited the museum on an earlier trip to the abbey.)
So we enjoyed the sunshine and fresh air and (relatively) wide open spaces instead. Everything in its own time.
*Leo of Ostia, Chronicle of Montecassino, reprinted in Caecilia Davis Weyer, Early Medieval Art 300-1150 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003) 138.