Towns & Villages

San Leo: Religion and Wizardry in the Heart of Romagna


“The most beautiful town in Italy? San Leo: a fortress and two churches”: that’s how Italian novelist Umberto Eco, author of the best-seller The Name of the Rose, has referred to San Leo, an ancient village in Romagna, in the south-east corner of the region, near Rimini.

Strategically positioned on a hill overlooking the Valley of Marecchia, San Leo, officially classified as one of the most beautiful borghi (historic villages) in Italy, dates back to Roman times; documents show that around the 3rd century, the Romans had built a fortress on top of the hill (open for visits).

San Leo Emilia-Romagna
Approaching San Leo – a great day trip from Bologna.

Around the same time, the Christian devotees Leone and Marino arrived from Dalmatia in the area; they were instrumental in spreading the Christian religion in the area. Leone became the first Bishop of the newly-born Diocese of Montefeltro. San Leo reached its splendor during the Middle Ages, when the powerful dinasty of the Montefeltro made it their residence. Saint Francis in 1213 and Dante in 1306 both passed by San Leo.

Disputed by powerful families such as the Medici and the Della Rovere over the centuries, San Leo became part of the Papal States in 1631. It was then that the fortress lost its military function to become a prison. Its most famous prisoner was Cagliostro. Born in Palermo in 1743, Cagliostro quickly established himself as one of the most prominent figures in the Masonry world and became famous at courts all over Europe for his skills as an alchemist and a healer. He openly defied the Catholic Church and soon the Church responded by sentencing him to death for heresy. To be spared from the death penalty, he swore off the principles of his doctrine, and was sent to the prison of San Leo in 1790, where he died five years later.

San Leo Italy
Begin your visit at the Romanesque-style Cathedral, built in 1173 and dedicated to the town’s patron saint Leone.
San Leo Emilia-Romagna
Near the Cathedral, you’ll be able to take in the beautiful view of the Romagna countryside.
This is also a good spot to observe the ‘calanchi’, created by the soil erosion produced by the effect of run-off water on clay rocks.
San Leo
Continue to the Pieve, the most ancient religious monument of the Montefeltro area. According to tradition, the building was erected on the site of the tiny cell where Leone retreated to pray (4th century).
San Leo, Romagna
Take your time to simply stroll and linger by the main piazza in the center of town.
San Leo fortress
End your visit at the Fortress. The view from up there is gorgeous.
6. Valley of Marecchia
Panoramic view of the beautiful Valley of Marecchia from the Fortress.

Do you love Emilia-Romagna’s ‘borghi’ (historic villages)? Then check out:


12 thoughts on “San Leo: Religion and Wizardry in the Heart of Romagna”

  1. Very nice article and very nice place. I definitely go to visit this peaceful place that I didn’t know about.
    Fun slideshow!

  2. Un posto veramente bello e spesso dimenticato. Il fascino di questi luoghi e della loro storia è sempre incredibile

  3. Posto delizioso spesso dimenticato. Il fascino di questi luoghi e della loro storia è sempre incredibile

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