25 April 2017

The Abbey of Montecassino

Montecassino Abbey main courtyard.

Montecassino Abbey stands on the hilltop where St Benedict of Nursia founded the first Benedictine monastery. It was destroyed three times over the course of its long history, most recently in the Second World War, but remains a working monastery with a large community of monks. The town of Cassino is located at the foot of the hill. As well as being a wonderful place to visit – the Abbey is built of a beautiful white stone, has stunning views of the surrounding countryside and is well set up for visitors with a shop, museum and information point – the monastery possesses a large number of medieval manuscripts, many of them unique treasures made on site. They are held in the monastery’s archive (the Archivio dell’Abbazia) and can be consulted on request.

The café at Montecassino is somewhat surprising.

This fifth post in NSCM’s series on manuscript libraries (see the previous posts on the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, on reading room terminology, on Cava dei Tirreni & Einsiedeln, and on the Bibliothèque nationale/Archives nationales in Paris) is the result of my second visit to Montecassino. It is intended as a guide for anyone who wants to visit the Abbey. Its website is informative and kept up to date, but it lacks the detail without which trips to this semi-remote site can seem daunting. Yet Montecassino is a beautiful and welcoming place that is well worth seeing, independently of its fantastic manuscript collection.

Contacting the archivist

Before visiting Montecassino to consult its manuscripts, just as with any other library, you must email the archivist. As of April 2017, the archivist is don Mariano Dell’Omo. Don Mariano is a monk and a highly distinguished scholar in Italy who also teaches palaeography and diplomatics at the Pontificia Università Gregoriana, and the history of monasticism at the Pontificio Ateneo S. Anselmo di Roma. He doesn’t speak English, but does speak some French. I highly recommend asking an Italian friend to help you with the emails if you want a quick reply. French is a good alternative if you don’t know anyone who speaks Italian. Alternatively, you can try writing in English and asking him to write back in Italian. In your email, you should indicate the dates on which you’d like to visit, the classmarks of the manuscripts you want to consult, and – if you know this in advance – the pages or page ranges you’d like to photograph.

If you’re a student, you should ensure that you have a signed letter of recommendation from your supervisor or another scholar, preferably in Italian. As a courtesy, you could scan it and send it to don Mariano with your original request, but this is not essential. Do bring the letter with you on your visit, however, and give it to the archivist if he asks you for it.

Getting to Cassino

View of Montecassino from Cassino.

Regional trains stop at Cassino from Rome and Naples. From outside Italy, is often easiest to fly to Rome Fiumicino airport, take a coach or train (the non-stop quarter-hourly train from Fiumicino to Rome is called the Leonardo Express) to Roma Termini (the main train station in Rome) and change to a regional train terminating or stopping at Cassino. Check train times on the Trenitalia website. Journeys take just under one and a half hours, and one-way tickets are cheap – under ten euros.

Getting to the monastery

Montecassino Abbey lies on a hill-top high above Cassino itself. In spring and summer it’s open from 8:45 until 19:00; opening hours for autumn/winter and holidays are on the Abbey’s website. Do check these before you go! The archive’s opening hours, however, are 8:45 until 12:00, and unfortunately, there are no buses running up the hill from Cassino before around 10 am. This is a problem if you need to spend more than an hour at the archive, and leaves you with two options: ascending by foot (which will take between an hour and a half to two hours) or taking a taxi (15–20 minutes). The taxi will cost between around 20 and 30 euros one way and is the recommended option if you do not know the pedestrian way up the hill, or if you do not fancy walking along the roadside (get in touch with us if you can describe a walking route!).

Bus times

Cassino station-Abbey: 9:45,12:30,15:30
Abbey-Cassino station: 10:30,13:00,17:00

The return minibus, which stops just in front of the car park outside the abbey (there’s no fixed stop), costs €1, has only six individual seats, does not wait for stragglers, and can eject passengers at a random stop in Cassino, rather than at the station, depending on the mood of the driver. Drivers tend to be grumpy and unwilling to speak with you even if you know Italian, in both my own experience and the experience of others I’ve spoken to. Make sure you’re waiting for the bus 15 minutes before it’s due to arrive, whether you’re going up or down the hill: the timetable is treated as a rough guideline.


Cassino itself is a relatively small town, though it does have a university. It has plenty of restaurants and bars, but it is likely to be very quiet outside term time. There are also plenty of hotels, as there is a great deal of tourism to the Abbey and to the several World War Two sites in the area. I stayed at Hotel La Pace, which is a 20-minute walk from the train station but which is friendly, clean and pleasant.

Cassino was heavily bombed in the war; this, together with its small size, means that there is nothing to do or see there beyond the several tourist sites nearby and (if you decide to go there) the university. If you are staying a while, can afford the daily taxi to the Abbey, and don’t mind getting up very early, you can commute from Rome.

Archivio dell’Abbazia

Entrance to the archive.

When you arrive at Montecassino, go to the information desk in a little room on the right hand side just inside the gate. Let the staff (who will often speak several languages) know that you have an appointment with don Mariano Dell’Omo at the archivio (not the biblioteca – that’s a different area of the monastery). They will give you a form to fill out, and will call the archivist. He may come pick you up, or you may be given directions to the right door. If this happens, you need to pass through the first courtyard, turn right and go up the stairs in the main courtyard, and go to the wooden door in the left corner of the courtyard beyond that, immediately after the columns separating it from the steps. Ring the bell and wait to be buzzed in. Once inside, wait for don Mariano to open the left-hand door for you.

Don Mariano, who is very kind and friendly, will take you to the main library room, where your manuscripts will already be laid out for you. He will supply you with a form to complete and give to him at the end of your visit, and will generally leave you to do your thing until you’re done. If he’s not in the room when you finish, you may need to wander down the corridor outside a little way until you find a room with an open door, where the archivist will be. It is perfectly all right to do this.

You will be allowed to take your bag through, but do observe the usual archive rules – use only a pencil and keep all drinks and pens safely put away. There will not be any cushions or lead snakes for you to use, so do take care of the manuscripts, whose spines are sometimes in a rather crumbling state. Don’t use the wooden reading stands available, as neither don Mariano nor manuscript librarians more generally approve of this. You can use your laptop. While there may be a power socket, it may be in use by another visiting scholar; but in any case, the three hours you will be allowed in the archive aren’t enough to deplete a full battery. Ensure you’ve charged your equipment, and generally prepare for the consultation by reading the available catalogues and secondary literature: these aren’t available in the archive and you have a very short time to look at the manuscripts themselves. [EDIT: Jeffrey Doolittle correctly notes that the reading room window sill does have a range of secondary literature, including Caravita, Leccisotti (I Regesti), Lowe/Virginia Brown (TBS, with the two volumes of Scriptura Beneventana out in the corridor), Inguanez and Don Mariano’s own history of the monastery.]

A final note: both the abbey and the archive open at 8:45, but you may find that you won’t be let in until 9:00, or that the archivist won’t come find you before then. On the plus side, if you’ve brought your spouse, they will be allowed in to look at the manuscripts with you.


The archive keeps track of the photographs that are taken by visiting researchers, and may not give permission for photography of certain pages (whether because of the manuscript’s state of conservation or because the number of pages to be photographed is too great). Upon arrival in the archive, don Mariano will give you a form to fill out which asks for your name, email address, occupation and a list of manuscripts/pages photographed. You are unlikely to be granted permission to photograph an entire codex, but you can certainly ask. Alternatively, you may wish to contact the research group on the antique book (Laboratorio per lo studio del libro antico) at the Università degli Studi di Cassino e del Lazio Meridionale. I have it on good authority that the research group possesses black-and-white microfilms of most Cassinese manuscripts, and is able to photograph non-microfilmed manuscripts upon request. They may do this for you for free if you register at their office in person, though it may take some days or weeks before you receive the images; you will need to ask about their terms and conditions if you request a manuscript by email. Note that the seat of the research group is located outside Cassino on the Viale dell’Università, away from the other university campus in the centre of town.

The manuscript catalogues and other useful works

  • Tommaso Leccisotti, I regesti dell’archivio, vols. 1–11, Pubblicazioni degli archivi di Stato (Rome, 1964).
  • This is the principal catalogue for the manuscripts of Montecassino, published in Italian. Be aware that it uses a strange numbering system that does not correspond to the manuscript classmarks. Check and double-check that you are looking at the right manuscript! (If you understand the system used, please write to us so that we can add this information here).

  • Mauro Inguanez, Codicum Casinensium manu scriptorum catalogus: cura e studio monachorum S. Benedicti, archicoenobii Montis Casini, 2 vols. (Montecassino, 1934)
  • This is the older catalogue of the abbey, which has now been superseded by that of Leccisotti.

  • Francis Newton, The Scriptorium and Library at Monte Cassino, 1058–1105, Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology 7 (Cambridge, 1999)
  • This is the most comprehensive available study of the monastery’s scriptorium and library, and an excellent resource.

  • Elias Avery Lowe, The Beneventan Script: A History of the South Italian Minuscule (Oxford, 1914)
  • This is not a catalogue, but rather a detailed study of Beneventan minuscule – the main script in south Italy c. 800–1300. Beneventan minuscule can be a little difficult to read because of its various ligatures, so this work may be indispensable if you are looking at manuscripts from Montecassino written in this script.

  • Andrea Caravita, I codici e le arti a Monte Cassino (Montecassino, 1869).
  • This study is now very old, but it may be useful for those interested in the history of the archive.

    Montecassino doves.

    If you’re interested in the archive, the abbey of Montecassino, and in its manuscript collection, you may also wish to read some of the publications of Mariano Dell’Omo, as well as those of the monastery’s past archivists (these include Faustino Avagliano and Mauro Inguanez).

    If you have time at the end of your visit to Montecassino, do go to the (Italian-language) museum, which has some lovely objects dating back to Benedict himself. The entrance fee is only €5.

    By Anna Dorofeeva.

    Do you have any questions or additions to make to this blog post, based on your own experience? Have you recently used a research library and think you might like to write a post for us? Get in touch with us by email or via Twitter.

    The Abbey of Montecassino
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