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San Leo


San Leo´s ancient name, Mons Feretrius, goes back to the city´s first Roman settlement, centred on a temple dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius.


Although historical records on the exact year the Romans came to the region are scarce, we can nevertheless say that in the III Century AD they started building fortifications on the top of the mountain. They did not build city walls, as the rocky peak structure was a good enough safety device. At the end of the III Century, Leo and Marinus came here from Dalmatia and helped spread Christendom through the region, by creating the area’s first dioceses, which is still called today Dioceses of San Marino and Montefeltro. While Leo is traditionally considered the first bishop, the dioceses itself was probably established between the VI and the VII Century AD, when San Leo was incorporated as a city (the first documents mentioning a Bishop appear much later and date back to 826 AD). The parish covered, at the time, a wide hilly and mountainous area scattered among the valleys of the Rivers Savio, Marecchia, Conca and Foglia: minor changes apart, the current Dioceses extends over the same area and it is called Dioceses of San Marino and Montefeltro).
Tradition says that Saint Leo was a skilled stonecutter and the Parish Church was built on the very shrine Leo himself built and dedicated to the Eastern worship of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The Parish church was erected right at the heart of the medieval town, during the Carolingian period and later remodelled in Romanesque style. The works to build a Cathedral, rising next to the Parish Church and dedicated to Saint Leo, began in the VII Century. It was entirely restructured in 1173, taking up a Lombard Romanesque style, and the old byzantine-style tower was turned into a squared bell tower. The Parish Church, the Cathedral, the Bishops’ Palace and the Canons House represent the core of the ancient city, of the so-called civitas Sanctis Leonis. Around the medieval town, the Montefeltros, a family descending from the Counts of Carpegna, erected other important buildings when they moved to San Leo, around 1100 AD. They take their name from the ancient citadel Montefeltro-San Leo.

The Romanesque buildings (Parish Church, Cathedral, Bell tower) of the medieval town are still well preserved, whereas the palaces were destroyed and rebuilt several times during Renaissance. The town developed mainly on the area around the churches and the main square, dedicated to Dante Alighieri and featuring a good deal of historical palaces like the palace once belonging to the Counts Severini-Nardini (XIII-XVI Century AD), Palazzo Mediceo (1517-23 AD), Palazzo Della Rovere (XVI-XVII AD.), a church dedicated to the Our Lady of Loreto and residential buildings built between the XIV and the XIX Century.
Just a short walk from the city centre, for defence reasons, rises the Fortress built by Francesco di Giorgio Martini. The first castle was built in the Early Middle Ages, when the city was besieged by Berengar II, King of Italy, and Otto I of Germany, between 961 and 963. When the Malatesta family succeeded in winning the city back, Federico da Montefeltro had the fortress totally rebuilt in 1479, on a project by Fr¬¬ancesco di Giorgio Martini, an architect he summoned expressly from Siena. He conceived the double curtain walls built between each of the four round towers with a bracketed cornice. On the southern side of the walls he added a huge rivelin, fac¬¬ing South, and just below it a casement sentry post.

This new structure allowed the fortress to fire back in a more dynamic way as canons could fire in more than one direction, no matter where the attack came from. The fortress took centre stage in many of the most famous Renaissance battles: Duke Valentino won the castle back from the Montefeltros for a very short time in 1502, and the Medicis took it away from the Della Roveres in 1517. When the entire Dukedom of Urbino was handed over to the Papal States, in1631, the fortress lost its military role and was turned into a prison. Since the cells of the fortress were insalubrious and threatened to crumble down, in 1788, Pope Pius VII appointed Giuseppe Valadier, official architect to the Papal States, to refurbish and improve them. From 1791 until 26 August, 1795, the day of his death, Giuseppe Balsamo, better known as Alessandro, Count of Cagliostro, was held captive in those same cells. He was one of the most interesting and fascinating characters and adventurers of the Enlightenment era. After the unification of Italy, the city underwent major restoration works thus preserving its original structure and style.

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  • How to reach San Leo, in Italy Getting here

    San Leo lies in Rimini's hinterland, in southern Emilia Romagna, on the border of Tuscany, Le Marche Region and the Republic of San Marino.
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