San Leo Castle

San Leo Castle – photo © Paolo Marini

The Fortress of San Leo was built in the Middle Ages and it was here at the end of the first Millennium, that Germanic rulers gave birth to the Holy Roman Empire. The fortress of San Leo itself was enlarged in the 16th Century by the great Siena military architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini under Duke Federico II da Montefeltro. It was here, in this impregnable castle, that the famous adventurer Giuseppe Balsamo, better known as Count Cagliostro, lived his last days of imprisonment.

The facts and legends surrounding the life of this extraordinary alchemist, doctor, magician and freemason are hard to separate. It ended with his sentence to death by the Holy Inquisition for heresy. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment which he served here at San Leo.

San Leo Castle – photo © Paolo Marini

But this was to bring him little comfort. He died a long agonizing death, imprisoned first in the castle’s so-called Treasury Room and then confined in the ‘pozzetto’, where he died after four long years, refusing to take the sacrament.

The fortress of San Leo is un-doubly the most well-known in the Dukedom; It enjoys a great fame as a military bulwark, unconquerable less for its fortifications than for its extraordinary geographical position.

Marche San Leo fortress

Nevertheless, this fortress too, necessitated remarkable restoration works during the course of the centuries, both because of the continuous landslides and the ambition to keep it always perfectly efficient. It was known as the “eternal object of contention” between the families of Malatesta and Montefeltro in the harshest land of their borders. The time of the fortress’s first construction is unknown, but surely it was during the Longobard age. The old body of the fortress dates to the time of the Malatestas, who restored and modified it. However, only under Federico the fortress underwent substantial changes. This happened around the second half of the 1470s at the same time of the fortress of Cagli, or at least few years before.

Infact in the fortress of San Leo the traditional round towers with corbels and machicolations exist together with the elbow-shaped walls which mark the giving up of the round walls experienced in the fortress of Sassocorvaro.

The fortress bears the traces of the architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s first work in the territory of the Montefeltros.

Marche San Leo fortress

Martini’s work is manifest in two ways: from one side there was a felt need to fortify an important border bulwark, on the other the fortress is very similar to the fortress of Volterra against which Federico fought in 1472. Martini had done some work in that fortress which was similar to the one of San Leo, enclosed by walls and delimited by a cliff. The fortress of San Leo presents itself in a single block with the extremes in the shape of a triangle.

In comparison with other fortresses in the Montefeltro territory, San Leo had a different fortune, because it escaped the demolitions ordered by Guidobaldo during the war against Valentino (1502).

San Leo Castle – photo © Paolo Marini

In comparison with other fortresses in the Montefeltro territory, San Leo had a different fortune, because it escaped the demolitions ordered by Guidobaldo during the war against Valentino (1502).

A proof of the importance of San Leo resides in the painting by Vasari kept in the Signoria Palace in Florence, picturing the assault to the fortress in 1516, during the brief conflict between the Della Rovere and the Medicis. After that the land passed under the rule of the Church (1631), the fortress tied its fame less to its function of military defense than to that of prison.

After the 1789 earthquake and because of the many landslides, Valadier worked on the enforcement of the prison and rebuilt the round northern tower, which had completely sledded.

From Gianni Volpe, Rocche e fortificazioni del Ducato di Urbino

Where to stay in San Leo

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