“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).
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.
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