Work of the intellect has always been highly valued by the Benedictine Rule and in the copying of the texts of the past, each amanuensis decorated the texts with refined miniatures. St. Benedict claimed that the monks should read and write to understand the word of God and to help the community in its growth.
Over the centuries this activity became a true art and the abbey of Montecassino (Guide of Cassino) was one of the major centres for the dissemination of manuscripts and new initial letters and new miniatures were created. But the artistic apex took place shortly after a thousand with the arrival of Abbot Desiderio and the appointment of Leone Marsicano as head of the scriptorium.
Desiderio was of noble Lombard origins, his father was the Duke of Benevento, and his knowledge of many different cultures would open his horizons and guide him in choices that were always considered wise.
He fled from his house at the age of 20 taking refuge with the princes of Salerno and lived for a long time as a hermit between the Tremiti islands and the Maiella mountain in Abruzzo. In 1055 he met Pope Victor II who made him enter the Abbey of Montecassino and appointed him a cardinal in Rome.
About 1058 he was elected Abate and remained in office until his death in 1087 after he had been elected Pope in 1086 with the name of Victor III. With his time we have the so-called “golden age” with the growth of the church and the flourishing of the arts.
In his role he always tried to promote peace with the Normans and to maintain ties with Constantinople even during the schism. Precisely because of these ties, he brought from Constantinople the artists who would work on the construction of the new church of Montecassino.
In fact, Desiderio decided to pull down the previous construction and to make a larger one adorned with paintings, mosaics and decorated floors.
He was directly interested in the work and told the stories of how he went to Rome to collect marbles and columns for its construction. At that time the remains of the imperial buildings were like quarries from which to take works and in a certain sense it was a great privilege to have stones that came from the ‘sacred city’, that of the tomb of the apostle Peter.
The modernity of Desiderio was also that of having created a kind of arts school in which the Byzantine artists taught the monks and assisted their art. In a sense, the artists who were the heirs of the post-Roman and early Christian arts continued in the Eastern Roman Empire and returned to Rome to teach their children what they had lost.
Thanks to this school and the great influence of the Abbey of Montecassino in the history of the whole of Southern Italy, Byzantine art spread rapidly, giving rise to an important artistic period.
The consecration of the church took place in 1071 with one of the most spectacular events of the eleventh century in which bishops, royal Normans, archbishops and obviously monks participated. The church was then destroyed by the earthquake of 1349.
In 1086 Desiderio found himself pope almost by chance, he had been nominated by Pope Gregory VII, for whom he was an advisor, on his deathbed. He took a long time to accept and was consecrated only in 1087 under the name of Victor III and immediately retired to Montecassino.
At the request of Matilde di Canossa, he returned to Rome where he had to oppose the antipope Clement III, who he excommunicated with a synod he held in Benevento. During the synod he fell ill and chose to die in Montecassino where he was buried after only 16 months of his pontificate.