March 15, 1944. How the drama of the bombing adulterated the genius loci of Cassino.

Progetto Finanziato dall'Unione Europea

The bombing of March 15, 1944 marked in a pervasive way the entire civilian population of Cassino, annihilating the town and the places of urban identity. In this episode, which in the collective memory has always been different from the first bombing in February 1944 when the Benedictine monastery was destroyed, practically the entire population of the city, after the displacement, was forced to the places of refuge suffering from food rationing, shortage of resources and hunger now accentuated by a territory made unproductive by bombing and a city disappeared with its food resources. There was no product, infrastructure or food store that could provide at least the hope of food. With the bombing in March 1944, the war became a physical and psychological loss for the people of Cassino, the landscape and faces changed, the houses disappeared along with the streets and sentimental references. Cassino lost its cultural horizon.

It should therefore be recalled that "in the field of historiography on the Second World War, in recent decades has emerged a growing attention to the "living in the war" of the so-called "home front", that is, the everyday life of civilian populations deeply involved in the first, real "total war" (L.Piccioni, UniRoma).

And it was exactly this internal front that characterized the entire Cassino area from March to May 1944, when the total war marked the civilian population. These were the dates that fixed the events that catapulted Cassino into the toughest challenge of the war itself. The post-war period.

To take shape, so, with increasing clarity, was a new social and spatial geography of the territory no longer urban but reduced to a refugee camp and container of ancient shot walls that no one, in reconstruction, wanted to turn into archaeology.

But let us pause, in particular, on the daily "post-war experience" of the people of Cassino. The reading of a photo from the RCS Archives allows us to characterize the social and psychological impact of the civilian population of Cassino that, in the months from the bombing of the city to the period immediately following the Liberation in May 1944, resumed the primary activities of trade, especially food.

The photo has a bare caption: "An improvised banquet along the road leading to Cassino, in the spring of 1945.

Two little girls, poorly dressed in military clothing and amphibians on their feet. They sell white focaccia, wine and chestnuts. Three men the customers. Hands in the stadera, one grabs chestnuts. His coat is ruined, his long hair combed back. Perhaps he is the driver of the military truck converted to civilian transport. The other, wearing a jacket and cap, can't stop thinking. He stares at the small perforated tin that serves as a stove for the perforated frying pan. A farmer, with staff and shepherd's posture, perhaps, carries a bundle of blankets and twigs. He does not look toward the feast. He stares the other way and doesn't even notice the photographer. It is the absence of a smile that prevails, the diffidence for the extraneous presences that almost violate thought, the anxiety for the decay that has taken place, the humiliation for the daily privations, the bewilderment. Consequences of the war that will then often be ascribed in memories. The side effect of the bombing was in fact the birth of the Cassino of the suburbs and working-class neighborhoods that, more prone to precariousness, knew in the immediate, "as in all the liberated territories, phenomena also related to the black market and trafficking on several levels but, as a whole, set off towards a long post-war period of violence, unemployment, unresolved social and housing issues (L.Piccioni, UniRoma)".

The photo shows how the usual urban landscape, destroyed on 15 March 1944, transferred its vocation elsewhere. The drama of the bombing adulterated the genius loci of Cassino and gave birth to a landscape as a different social and cultural product, without credible links to the past in an area devoid of community, living space and moments of relationships. The spatial sphere that expresses the group's identity and which the group defends against internal and external threats was missing.  In the continuing attempt to understand the post-war nature of Cassino, to see at least the potential for the realisation of the same collective expectations, it should always be remembered how the uprooting generated by the bombing led to a malaise, a 'evil of return', an absence of place that De Martino (De Martino 1952: 60) indicates as 'territorial anxiety'. The evil of return that affects individuals forced to leave their place of birth, the village, their living space, thus making "the experience of a presence that does not maintain itself before the world, before history...". 

Dante Sacco, Progetto Summa Ocre