San Leo, discover an ancient world
A once popular local proverb stated that there was “only one Pope, only one God, only one fortress of San Leo” and visitors to this marvellous hilltop will easily understand why.
The Marecchiese A-road (SS 258), which for centuries has connected Rimini to Arezzo and runs along the valley carved by the Marecchia River, offers spectacular views, with tall peaks that soar above the hilly landscape that rolls gently to the sea. Each of these peaks narrates the story of a worn-torn past, clearly visible in the ancient ruins of fortresses built to defend from attack from the coast. The most isolated of these is the mountain known as Montefeltro in ancient times and that became so famous its name soon became synonymous with the entire surrounding area.
Ancient populations sought shelter on this peak, which stands 650 metres above sea level, and even the Romans left their mark here. Even the name confirms this as the Romans called it “Mons Feltrius”, due to the presence of a temple dedicated to Jupiter. The name Montefeltro remained until it became San Leo in honour of the Dalmatian Leone who, after transferring here for work, quickly became famous for his fervent Christian devotion. Over the years, the area has had to ward off Barbarian invasions, the depressing events of the early Middle Ages, Byzantine and Frank domination and numerous feudal battles. First the Carpegna and then the Montefeltro families and the Dukes of Urbino, gave the feud its political and territorial structure. In the 16th century, it passed under the Della Rovere family and in the 17th century to the Papal State.
This is where the infamous Count Cagliostro was jailed and held for four and a half years in complete isolation in a cell known as “il pozzetto” or small well.
In 1860, thanks to the Unification of Italy, this part of Romagna became unjustly part of the lands of the Marche region that belonged to the Dukes of Urbino.
Although this is the symbol “par excellence” of an important past, its origins have been lost in time. What is known is that a number of buildings were built on top of each other and that the current layout of the fortress was given by restoration work carried out by the architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini from Siena, commissioned by the Duke of Urbino to consolidate and renovate the fortress. The left-hand tower houses an exhibition of arms dating from various periods as well as 17th-century paintings from the Monastery of Sant’Igne. The other tower also houses arms and documents from the Risorgimento period. There is a small art gallery in the Ducal apartments with exhibits that include a “Christ laid to rest” attributed to the Caravaggio school, a “Dispute between Doctors” by Correggio and a triptych of the “Madonna del Carmine with Child between Saints Leone and Marino” by Luca Frosino (Botticelli school). The rooms also house Carthusian-style furniture, a “Savonarola” chest of drawers and some 16th-century paintings.
Outside the fortress, visitors should walk back down Via Leopardi as far as the central square or Piazza Dante. At the far end of the square stands Palazzo Medici, which houses the Marini Library. In front of the fountain, which dates from 1893, stands Palazzo Nardini where there is a room where Saint Francis of Assisi once stayed. Opposite is Palazzo dei Conti di Montefeltro e Duchi d’Urbino, now the town hall.
The parish church
Also on this square is the apse of the parish church, one of the most beautiful examples of Medieval art in Italy. Built in reddish sandstone, the church does not have a façade and its apse faces east onto the square. The church was built in pre-Romanesque style and is dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. It is without doubt the oldest church in the Montefeltro region and was in fact, built from material recuperated from a pagan temple that stood here and where it seems Saint Leone had built his first chapel. The age of the basilica is also shown by an interesting bas-relief stone, on the upper right-hand side that dates from the Umbro-Sabellic period (8th century). Inside, the church is very old but still extremely beautiful and is thought to be the work of the Comacini Masters. It is divided into three naves by pillars and columns (including two Roman columns in cipolin marble) and has a trussed roof. However, the most beautiful part of the building is the elevated presbytery where there is a cipolin marble tabernacle donated by Duke Orso (881) that stands on four Byzantine capital columns. There are also two staircases that lead into the crypt, which is divided into three apses.
The Duomo or Cathedral
On the same square but a little higher up is the duomo, which was begun in 1173 and was completed during the 13th century. It is dedicated to Saint Leone and is the town’s cathedral. According to some scholars, it was built on the ruins of a Latin temple dedicated to Jupiter. It is golden sandstone and is one of the first Italian churches to show Romanesque-Lombard lines as well as Gothic ones. Entrance to the building is via a small side door because, like the parish church, it does not have a façade. It has three naves, separated by pillars and columns that support lancet arches. A wide, 16th-century staircase rises to the elevated presbytery where there is a copy of a Crucifix painted in 1205 that overlooks the original altar. Above this there is a silver urn that contains some fragments of the bones of Saint Leone, the only relics that remain of the saint. Just above the portal, visitors will also find a beautiful, late 16th-century Annunciation. Once outside, a narrow road leads behind the apse to the bell tower. The latter is built in Romanesque style and is fairly bulky. It has a belfry at the top and is illuminated by eight large windows that can be reached via a spiral staircase. According to historians, the bell tower once boasted nine bells although only the rope holes remain.
Museum of Religious Art
Commissioned by the Diocesan Administration of San Marino-Montefeltro and the Municipal Administration of San Leo, the Museum of Religious Art was founded in 1996 in the Medici Palace. This unusual collection includes a series of local works of art, mainly from religious buildings that for various reasons were no longer able to keep them (in fact, almost all of them were removed from their place of origin many years ago). They are nearly all pieces of religious art that once adorned altars or monasteries.
Tourist Information Office - Piazza Dante, San Leo 0541/ 916306
San Leo Pro Loco Association - Piazza Dante, San Leo 0541/ 916231
Museum of Religious Art - Piazza Dante, San Leo 0541/916306
San Leo Town Hall tel.0541/916211 fax 0541916184 e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
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