A sharp peak surrounded by steep crags with a view that goes from the Apennines to the sea; a cluster of old houses set between a superb fortress and a vigilant bell tower; a tapestry of history and legend, of the sacred and the profane, amidst dank dungeons and demure parish churches: all of this is San Leo. This plateau was considered sacred to the gods when St. Leo arrived there in the third century. He decided it was the perfect place to begin preaching Christianity, and set out from here to go to the entire surrounding area, which would later become the diocese of Montefeltro (the ancient name of the city).
In the ongoing wars between the Goths and the Byzantines, the Longobards and the Franks, San Leo became known as an impregnable fortress. Berengar II, who took refuge here, made it the capital of the Italic Kingdom in 963, and for many months the tiny but powerful city was assaulted by Otto I, emperor of Germany.In about 1200, the seigniory of the Counts of Montefeltro was established here. The counts, who later became the Dukes of Urbino, played a fundamental role in the development of the Renaissance culture. In the meantime, the fortress was expanded and embellished, thanks above all to the genius of Francesco di Giorgio Martini, the military architect of the Dukes of Urbino. Bembo defined the fortress as a "marvellous tool of war".
The political and military pomp of San Leo ended in 1631 when, after the ducal family of Urbino died out, the territory went to the Papal State.The fortress thus no longer served any military purpose and was turned into prison.This is also where Giuseppe Balsamo, better known as the Count of Cagliostro, an enigmatic and fascinating figure about whom much has been written, spent his last days. The fortress has now been renovated and the nineteenth-century superstructures that marred its elegant Renaissance lines have been removed, restoring the architectural splendour that made it one of the most celebrated testimonials of military art. The view from here is breathtaking, sweeping from Mount Fumaiolo to the Adriatic, across a landscape covered with woods, rocky peaks and badlands, and dotted with fortresses, hamlets and rural houses. The well-preserved seventeenth-century layout of the town centre also flaunts a monumental religious complex that is unique in its kind, making San Leo an "art city" to all effects. The parish church, cathedral, bell tower and convent of Sant'Igne reflect the complete Romanesque cycle, particularly with the last basilica-style layout of the parish church the first signs of the Gothic that can be seen in the cathedral and Sant'Igne.
Marble inscriptions and aristocratic coats of arms embellish the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century buildings overlooking the square, the "drawing room" of the city where, amidst the gurgling fountain and the swooping pigeons, visitors can hear the voices of the local residents and smell the fragrant local cuisine.A beautiful and evocative atmosphere of peace and quiet is what San Leo offers the unhurried tourist, in one of Italy's most beautiful historic and artistic settings.