How does one describe an amazing experience that involves history, Italy, pizza and a ton of amazing medieval manuscripts coming from the most famous monastery in southern Italy? Let’s try starting from the beginning: From June the 29th until July the 3rd we had the privilege of attending the first Cassino Summer School, or better, the first International Summer School in Cassino (Italy): Trends in Manuscript Studies – Sources, Issues and Technologies, organized by Liber, Libro e Ricerca. It was great, and we would like to share the experience with you readers.
Let’s start from the basics: where did we sleep? We stayed at the hotel “La Pace”. A perfectly fine hotel not too far from Cassino’s town center, decorated with memorabilia from the battles of Cassino during the Second World War. Our room was rather big, with a window pointed directly at the monastery. It was rather special to wake up every morning and see Montecassino up the hill, shining in the sun. A beautiful sight to wake up to. Our only complaint was the Internet connection: We guess everyone was trying to connect to the Web at the same time, but it was super slow, and most of the time we were unable to connect at all.
Hands on experience
Although for many Cassino is a synonym of World War Two battles, as the hotel testifies, but for us manuscript lovers it is synonym of Beneventan Script and beautiful books. And that’s just what we got during the Cassino Summer School. It is difficult not to emphasize how extraordinary the manuscripts we had the chance to view, touch, and admire were. In front of us were the most extraordinary treasures of Montecassino. Not behind glass cases, not unturnable pages, not slides. The real, amazing deal. Nowhere else have we had such a display of precious manuscripts only a few centimeters away from our eyes, ready to be explored and studied. It is difficult to describe the emotions and feelings these books bring up. Not only were the manuscripts amazing, but also the locations where the viewing would take place. Imagine this: a warm, sunny summer day in southern Italy, in a monastery full of history, with the sound of cicadas coming in from the windows overlooking the valley down below where you could spot wild boars. All of this while masterpieces a thousand years old lay on a long desk, with passionate lecturers explaining them in every detail possible. It was, and there is really no other word for it, a great experience. Let us stress though, the manuscripts were there to be inspected and browsed (of course, with all the precautions necessary.) Manuscripts that very few people have had the opportunity to see in their lives!
Cassino Summer School’s Classes
Viewing manuscripts during the mornings was awesome, but it is called Cassino Summer School for a reason: there are classes you must attend. They took place at three in afternoon at the Facolta’ di ingegneria in Cassino, at the Aula Magna. The first lecture was given by Francis Newton, author of The Scriptorium and Library at Monte Cassino, 1058-1105, essentially the bible about Beneventan Script and the scriptorium of Montecassino; a wonderful person who keeps on inspiring us in many aspects of our lives. The lectures we placed directly after lunch while everybody had either a pizza or a good lunch into them, in the warm south Italian climate… very high risk of falling asleep! But the lecturers were spoken with true passion which kept us awake. The only real critique that can be made to the Cassino Summer School is this: some of the classes were in Italian only, without a complete translation available, therefore a couple of the classes were difficult to follow for the non-Italian speaking audience. But in any case, the lecturers made sure that everyone could follow the lessons: other lecturers present during the classes in Italian would help translating, and also the students were very helpful to each other.
We were given a super-handy 8gb USB key containing all the materials for the course (readings, images of manuscripts, links, contacts, etc.) The only problem was that many had no laptop or a device that could have a USB key connected to it. Some were therefore unable to view the materials. Nothing dramatic in any case; the contents were very interesting but not essential to the enjoyment of the course. We were also given two books for free, maps, and a CD containing interactive eBook on the Desiderian age at Montecassino. Again, in this case, most people didn’t have DVD reader and could not enjoy it.
OK, this has really nothing to do with the Cassino Summer School itself, but it might be interesting to know for people that might be interested going there next year: the food in Cassino is, well, divine. You’ll have to find your eating places by yourself. We were given a handy list of places with an indication of prices. We can’t give a better example than the pizza that some of us students had the last evening: a margherita pizza, Neapolitan style (with the thick border, opposed to the Roman style with the thin crust) which costed only 3 euros. Sandwiches and other local specialties were also available for cheap. A dinner was organized on the first evening in the neighboring town of Atina at a restaurant called ‘Le Cannardizie’, a lovely restaurant with a panoramic terrace over the Comino Valley. We will not start talking about the wine and the food… The dinner really helped break the ice between us students.
One of our team members being Italian himself and having little faith in the way Italian things are organized, he was truly pleased about how everything was handled by the Cassino’s hosts. No issues whatsoever as far as we can say: The trips up to Montecassino, the dinner at the excellent restaurant on the first evening, the classes, the visit at the museum of the Abbey, etc. they all flowed and, except the broken air conditioning on the first day, there were no problems at all.
Until next year!
It was an amazing experience. The quantity, quality, and rarity of the manuscripts you have the occasion to look at closely during the Summer School is extraordinary. We repeat ourselves: Nowhere else did we have the possibility to admire such rare pieces from so up close. Yes, it can be better, and having this been the first edition, we have no doubts it will be next year. We strongly, strongly recommend it. Not only if you are a fan of the Beneventan script, but also if you love manuscripts of every kind, along with miniatures and art history. It is such a unique experience that expands beyond the manuscripts themselves: you are in Cassino, in Italy, a place with kind people, where a divine pizza still only costs 3 euros. You get to meet amazing teachers and people coming from all kinds of fields: digitisation, codicologists, palaeographers, etc. It will enrich both your culture and your network. If you get a chance to go, do it!