San Leo Things to Do

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Most Recent Things to Do in San Leo

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    The Castle/Fortress at San Leo, Part VI

    by von.otter Updated Dec 20, 2012

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    Armor, Fortress at San Leo, June 2010
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    “Even in riper times the aureole did not fade quite away from San Leo, and the longing sometime to see it remained laid away in a mental corner, only awaiting the occasion to be brought forth and transmuted into a realization.”
    — from “Wayfarers in Italy” 1901 by Katharine Hooker

    In the Middle Ages San Leo became part of the fief of the powerful family of the Carpegna, who granted the land from Frederick I of Hohenstaufen (1122-1190). The Carpegna family was first created the Counts of Montefeltro and then the Dukes of Urbino, moving their court to Urbino. When that happened San Leo became a municipality, but soon fell under the rule of the Tiberti family, followed by the Church State through Cesare Borgia [1475-1507] in 1503, then the Malatesta family, lords of Rimini, and finally returning to the Dukes of Urbino, under the force of Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino.

    Eventually the town became part of the Papal States, and part of Italy after unification in 1861. Today, San Leo is a quiet village; and thanks to its well-preserved historical and artistic heritage it is tourist destination. However, on the afternoon and evening we visited we were the only tourists! That was a joy.

    Both indoors and out, both old and new, weapons of war are displayed at the Castle/Fortress of San Leo.

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    The Castle/Fortress at San Leo, Part III

    by von.otter Updated Jul 12, 2012

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    Tom at San Leo?s Castle/Fortress, June 2010
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    “We reached the town of San Leo, where we came the other day to see the splendid old fortress, used for a time as a prison, but now kept only as a government monument. The room where the impostor, Cagliostro, was let down through a hole as the only entrance, and where he died in 1795, gave me the “creeps.” ”
    — from “Italian Castles and Country Seats” 1911 by Tryphosa Bates Batcheller (1876–1952)

    The location of the castle/fortress of San Leo, set atop a sheer cliff, offers very dramatic views of itself and the surrounding countryside.

    The first settlement of San Leo is thought to be as early as the eighth century BC. Over the following centuries came the Etrurians, followed by the Gauls and finally the Romans. The name San Leo first appeared in the tenth century. Leone Dalmata, a companion of St. Marino and who would be canonized himself, lived here toward the end of the third century.

    After the Western Roman Empire fell in AD 476, the invading Goths, Greeks, Longobards and Francs fought for control of the fortress at San Leo because of its military importance. Later San Leo passed to papal rule; and it became the center of a wide diocese whose territory is called Montefeltro.

    In AD 962 Berengario II retired to the castle/fortress of San Leo following his defeat at Pavia; he maked it the capital of Italy. In AD 963 Montefeltro surrenders to the German emperor Ottone I. It was at the fortress of San Leo, at the end of the first millennium, that German princes organized the Holy Roman Empire. In 1155 Holy Roman Emperor Frederich I Barbarossa gave the town to Montefeltrano I Carpegna, thus ennobling the house of Montefeltro.

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    The Castle/Fortress at San Leo, Part II

    by von.otter Updated Jul 12, 2012

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    San Leo Castle/Fortress, June 2010
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    “At last, round the shoulder of a hill, San Leo comes suddenly into sight: strange little wind-swept town, set high up in the eye of heaven, like Simon Stylites upon his column.”
    — from “Wayfarers in Italy” 1901 by Katharine Hooker

    From the Middle Ages onwards the area surrounding the fortress was used for defensive purposes. Its current design dates to the second half of the 15th century when Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482) put in place various works, under the supervision of the architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501). The structure of the fortress is divided into two distinct levels: at the top stands the impressive tower with an elongated shape while below there are two towers connected to each other. The fort’s cornices and corbels are decorative elements that Martini especially liked.

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    The Views from San Leo, Part II

    by von.otter Updated Apr 5, 2011

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    A View from San Leo, June 2010
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    “To-day we did not stop at the rocky height of San Leo, but went on and up until it seemed to me we were climbing literally to the clouds. The road made such continual turns that it seemed again and again that we had at last reached the "jumping-off place," and must turn back the way we had come, but always on reaching the curve "Antonio" would swing around to another glorious view of the mountains, and castles here and there, until I felt we were a part of a circular cinematograph, with the mountains of Montefeltro and the Apennines for a subject.”
    — from “Italian Castles and Country Seats” 1911 by Tryphosa Bates Batcheller

    From dramatic to tranquil, the views from our high perch at San Leo varied from moment to moment.

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    Getting In and Out of San Leo

    by von.otter Written Mar 24, 2011

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    Porta di Sopra, San Leo, June 2010
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    “Quite unexpectedly, on crossing a mountain ledge, one comes in sight of S. Leo, a tremendous rock with utterly perpendicular sides, forming the most impregnable fortress. The town is entered by a ledge in the rock and a tunnelled way.”
    — from “Cities of Northern and Central Italy” 1876 by Augustus John Cuthbert Hare (1834-1903)

    There is only one way to enter San Leo and the same way to leave. The present-day Porta di Sopra dates from 1870.

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    The View from San Leo, Part I

    by von.otter Written Mar 23, 2011

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    The View from San Leo, June 2010
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    “During our imprisonment at San Leo there was an attempted flight, concerted with certain soldiers of the garrison. It was discovered. We were separated. Some of the soldiers were arrested, tried, and condemned to the gallies for a certain number of years.”
    — from “Memoirs and Adventures of Felice Orsini” 1857 by Felice Orsini (1819-1858)

    During the Risorgimento San Leo’s prison housed many activists, who were struggling to create a new kingdom of Italy. The Papacy, with its extensive territories, was eager to prevent the unification of Italy. One freedom-fighter was Orso Teobaldo Felice Orsini, an Italian patriot and author. Orsini was a member of the Carbonari, a secret revolutionary society, dedicated to the Italian nationalism. In the early 1840s he was imprisoned in San Leo because of his nationalist activities, but was released on the order of Pope Pius IX.

    Orsini continued his activities, and was later captured by Austro-Hungarian troops and placed in the supposedly inescapable fortress at Mantova. But escape he did, which made him famous throughout Europe. First, he made his way to England, and then to Paris where he set his sights on assassinating Emperor Napoleon III. Orsini threw a bomb into a theatre, but his stated goad was not realized; instead 12 people were killed and many more injured. From his Parisian prison cell he wrote an ultimatum to Napoleon III, promising ‘until you liberate Italy the peace of Europe and your own tranquility will be but a chimera.’ Orsini was guillotined in Paris in 1858.

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    San Leo, Piazza Dante, Part II

    by von.otter Updated Mar 22, 2011

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    San Leo, Piazza Dante, June 2010
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    “Then there is the bustle of horses being put to and the carriage made ready for the fleeting visitors’ return to the lower earth, though even this creates hardly an eddy in the serenity of San Leo. And so down and away again toward the sea, with new lights and shadows playing subtle changes upon the sweet landscape and the heart full of peace and precious memories.
    — from “Wayfarers in Italy” 1901 by Katharine Hooker

    Some small restaurants/cafés (Il Castello, Piazza Dante 11/12, 0541.916214-916926; Centrale, Piazza Dante 18, 0541.916235 and La Rocca, Piazza Dante, 0541.916235) face Piazza Dante, quiet, peaceful and unhurried.

    Residents moved through the square at a civilized pace, stopping to chat with each other. Others minded their children as they ran about.

    It was an ideal setting and an antidote to our modern world.

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    San Leo, Fontana di San Francisco

    by von.otter Updated Mar 22, 2011
    Fontana di San Francisco, San Leo, June 2010
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    “One finds the little cathedral worthy of investigation and may certainly do worse than to sit for a while by the fountain, watching the stray citizens of San Leo who pause there and who appear to have learned the lesson of unhasting calm in their exalted niche overhanging the world.”
    — from “Wayfarers in Italy” 1901 by Katharine Hooker

    Fontana di San Francisco, located in Piazza Dante, dates to 1893. Built on the site where an elm tree stood since mediaeval times, tradition says that the fountain’s water has miraculous powers. If water came from its spouts, but during our visit there was not any.

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    San Leo, Piazza Dante, Part I

    by von.otter Written Mar 22, 2011

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    Piazza Dante, San Leo, June 2010
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    “Let us go up to that festival, for with God’s help we will gather some good spiritual fruit.”
    — St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

    IN GOD’S SERVICE When St. Francis and Brother Leo, his traveling companion, reached the base of San Leo on the 8th of May 1213 they were told by villagers that a festival was in progress at the castle. Nobles had been drawn from around the region to celebrate the knighting of one of the counts of Montefeltro. Our Saint saw an opportunity to preach.

    Orlando Cattani, conte di Chiusi was attending the festival; he was impressed with Our Saint, who preached to the crowd in what is now Piazza Dante. He gave a sermon on the verse of a popular love song of the time: “This is so good that I expect every pain is my delight.’’ Later that night, in a verbal agreement, the count gave to Our Saint La Verna, a “very solitary and wild” mountain within his domain that was perfectly suited for “someone who wants to do penance.”

    After the count’s death a deed, dated 9.July.1274, and attested to by the count’s brothers and sons, was drawn up, confirming that legal ownership of La Verna had been granted to the Franciscans. St. Francis was blessed with the stigmata in 1224 on La Verna.

    Palazzo dei Conti Nardini (see photos #1 and #2), with its imposing size and appearance, stands along one side of the San Leo’s central square, Piazza Dante. The building dates to the 13th century. In a room on its second floor on 8.May.1213 the meeting between Francis of Assisi and Count Orlando Cattani took place. A plaque (see photo #3) on the side of Palazzo dei Conti Nardini takes note of the historic meeting between Our Saint and Count Orlando.

    The citizens of San Leo honored Dante Alighierei by naming their main square for him. A plaque (see photo #5) the wall of one of the buildings facing Piazza Dante explains this honor.

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    The Castle/Fortress at San Leo, Part VII

    by von.otter Updated Mar 21, 2011

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    Prisoners of the Fortress at San Leo, June 2010
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    “In the morning we were all four chained together and sent to Urbino. Ten days after, we were placed on horseback securely chained, and in two days arrived at the fortress of San Leo.”
    — from “Memoirs and Adventures of Felice Orsini” 1857 by Felice Orsini (1819-1858)

    The impregnable fortress served as a place of confinement for many people, the best known was Giuseppe Balsamo, better known as Alessandro, Conte di Cagliostro (1743-1793), the controversial alchemist, intellectual and adventurer of the 1700. Cagliostro has been called an “Italian charlatan.” His talents included a knack for medical science; he was a cheat (he pawned his mother’s jewelry), a counterfeiter, and a magician. After being sentenced to death by the Holy Inquisition for heresy, Cagliostro’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. On the order of the pope Cagliostro was sent to San Leo, where he died four years after.

    Imprisoned first in the castle’s so-called Treasury Room; he was then confined in the pozzetto, where he died after four years, refusing to take the sacrament. A legend says that he actually escaped and the body found in his cell was that of a monk who had gone to offer spiritual counseling to Cagliostro.

    The locals tell the following story: during a full moon, Cagliostro’s ghost can be seen standing by the road that leads up to the fortress.

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    San Leo, the Pieve, Part II

    by von.otter Written Mar 16, 2011

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    The Pieve, San Leo, June 2010
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    “In honor of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Mother of God, the Ever-Virgin Mary, Duke Orso I, a sinner, I do this work. I implore you readers to pray for me. Done in the days of Pope John and Emperor Charles III.”
    — An inscription by the Duke d’Orso in the Pieve di San Leo

    Entrance to the pieve is by a door in the side wall, topped by a characteristic loggietta, two blind arches in which the alternation of the two-tone tan recalls the art of Byzantine-Ravenna.

    Round arches, created by alternating supports, divide the two aisles from the nave. The supports are constructed in the succession of two marble columns and two brick pillars. This type of arrangement is often found Medieval architecture north of the Alps. All six columns (see photos #2, #3 & #5) are recycled elements, fragments dating to the late Roman period and originally used in other buildings. The same is true for the four Corinthian capitals, which date from between the first and fourth centuries, surmounting the columns of the nave. The interior walls of the church are thought to have been certainly plastered and decorated with frescoes in various styles.

    The presbytery, raised over the crypt (see photo #4), houses the beautiful central tabernacle, dated AD 882.

    The pieve, compromised by an earthquake, was almost completely rebuilt in the Romanesque style a few years after 1,000. The pieve is still one of the most fascinating Medieval monuments of Central Italy: together with the adjacent Cathedral and the Tower, they are a wonder to see and walk about.

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    San Leo, the Pieve, Part I

    by von.otter Updated Mar 16, 2011

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    The Pieve, San Leo, June 2010
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    “S. Leo was the most important fortress of the Dukes of Urbino, and was three times besieged while in their hands, the last time in 1516, when, in the reign of Duke Guidobaldo, it was captured by the papal troops under Lorenzo de’ Medici.”
    — from “Cities of Northern and Central Italy” 1876 by Augustus John Cuthbert Hare (1834-1903)

    Backing onto the village’s main square, Piazza Dante, the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta is the oldest religious building in St. Leo, as well as in the entire territory of Montefeltro. It is the first evidence of organized Christianity in the area.

    In Middle Ages Italy, a pieve was a country church with a baptistery, and other churches, which did not have baptisteries, depended on those that did. The Italian word pieve is derived from the Latin word plebs, meaning the people. Once Christianity had spread throughout Italy, plebs was used to refer to a community of baptized people. Most pievi appeared in the fifth century, as Christianity expanded in the rural areas outside the large cities.

    Montefeltro was evangelized by the St. Dalmatian Leone in the third and fourth centuries. St. Leone’s trade was that of a stonemason, which he used to build this church dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    The Pieve di San Leo, which can be thought of as a ship run aground on a rock, a stone ship anchored to the rock from which it rises, is built on a basilica plan. The outer walls are made from blocks of sandstone, limestone and other stones. The curved profile of the three apses (see photo #5) is highlighted by arches. Slightly raised pilasters form multi-arched recesses that alternate over the course of these three apses.

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    San Leo, the Duomo, Part II

    by von.otter Updated Mar 15, 2011

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    Duomo, San Leo, June 2010
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    “The little old Romanesque church that the sweetest, bright-eyed old peasant woman led us to see pleased me much better than the grim castle. The choir and main altar were raised after the manner of the early Christian church over a spacious crypt, where the silver sarcophagus of the patron saint, San Leo, is placed. A flight of steps on the left leads up to the choir, completing the old Romanesque arrangement of the interior. It was extremely simple and lovely.”
    — from “Italian Castles and Country Seats” 1911 by Tryphosa Bates Batcheller (1876–1952)

    The plan of the church is that of a Latin cross, with a central nave and two side aisles, which halt before the transept of the high sanctuary that has three apses. The sanctuary is built above a large crypt where the sarcophagus (see photo #3) containing the remains of San Leo are kept. Because of Our Saint’s tomb the church became a destination for northern pilgrims who had abandoned the Adriatic coast, heading to the Apennines through St. Leo on their way to Rome.

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    San Leo, the Watchtower/Belltower

    by von.otter Written Mar 15, 2011

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    Belltower of il Duomo, San Leo, June 2010
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    “We stopped to gaze at it early the next day as we took our way toward San Leo. I do not know whether it was the invigoration of the limpid morning air or the exultation that pervades the heart in the achievement of a long desire, but as we advanced the feeling was of being swept along and upward, quite independent of such aids as carriage-wheels and soberly trotting horses.”
    — from “Wayfarers in Italy” 1901 by Katharine Hooker

    A few feet from the Duomo of San Leo stands the 12th century Watchtower. It is built in sandstone with an square exterior, yet the interior is circular. Initially used as a watchtower, it was later transformed into a bell tower, and there is a bell dating from the 14 th century.

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    San Leo, the Duomo, Part I

    by von.otter Updated Mar 11, 2011

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    Duomo of San Leo, June 2010
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    Firmly anchored to the rock that supports it (see photo #5), the Cathedral of San Leo stands on a ridge, in a place that has been consecrated to the divine since prehistoric times.

    One of the best examples of medieval architecture preserved in the Montefeltro area, it is one of the most unique examples of the Romanesque-Lombard style. In 1173 it was built on the remains of a cathedral from the eighth century, when Montefeltro became the site of a new diocese.

    The inside walls are built from gray-iron sandstone and outside ones are ocher sandstone. The entry door is not at the front of the church but opens on one side (see photo #3). Above the arched doorway are carved busts of San Leo and San Valentino, saved from the eighth century church. The bust of St. Leo is the oldest depiction of the saint we have today.

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