Sometimes you follow friends to a town in the middle of nowhere only to find a magician, a prison and an inexplicable history all tucked in to one small castle on a cliff.
San Leo is in the far west of Emilia Romagna, tucked between Tuscany, le Marche and San Marino. No matter what direction you come from, you’ll get there on a winding country road. A large sign will welcome you in multiple languages, and a smaller one will declare in Italian that San Leo is “one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.” It sounds vague, but looks official.
If it’s not immediately clear where the village is, look up. It’s teetering on the cliff above you. At the right angle you’ll see the fortress’ towers, though the cliff alone serves as nearly enough of a blockade, what with the 90 degree rock face below.The cliff is insurmountable, and only one small road cuts through the rock to arrive in town. It’s clear that this wasn’t made to be a bustling town, but rather a veritable fortress.
In fact, the ancient city was the battleground for more than 2,000 years of civil and military conflicts. So an enormous fort on the top of the hill only makes sense. Originally built by the Romans who saw the strategy in the space, the fortress was attacked in the Medieval Ages by the Byzantines, Goths, Franks and Longobards.
In the 17th century, however, the country was a bit more stable and the fortress was adapted into a prison. Cells were carved from the rooms of the military. Tiny, cave-like, all I could think was at least they had windows. Even with the windows, the fortress-turned-prison was a sort of hell under the heavens. Today a small wing displays just some of the many torture devices regularly used both in that time period and specifically in the prison.
The most famous prisoner, was Cagliostro. He’s like a legend for Italians, though the rest of us have surely never heard of him. He was a well-known Freemason and a world-famous alchemist and his knowledge scared many. He performed rites in Spain in secret, organized by five different spiritual levels and claimed to have visions, to evoke spirites and to find knowledge in words, herbs and rocks, the motto of his sect.
The truth is, Cagliostro was a scammer. He was illiterate and known for off-the-walls proclamations, such as when he claimed he could satisfy any sexual desire, or when he claimed to be the sun of an angel. Mostly, he was a nuisance to the Vatican and its work trying to control Europe. On the ground, however, he was having a ton of success and enjoyed a large following. They believed him to genuinely be some sort of wizard. His cures were sought by all of the most important noble courts in Europe, from London to St. Petersburg. He was friends with Schiller and Goethe and somehow got involved in the plot to defame Marie Antoniette and begin the French Revolution. In London he founded a lodge to perform ancient Egyptian rites and assumed the title of Grand Coptic, openly insulting and challenging the Vatican.
It was enough to end him. The Vatican arrested him in 1789 and threw him in the Castel Sant’Angelo prison (a fortress that you can still visit today right across the bridge in the Vatican City). He was sentenced to death for heresy, treason and distributing Masonic instruments and manuscripts. After renouncing those doctrines, Pope Pius VI changed his sentence into life in prison, and Cagliostro was sent to San Leo to live out the rest of his days.
His supporters wanted to help him escape, but Cagliostro was closed in the “cella di Pozzetto,” a sort of underground cell 9 feet by 9 feet dug into the floor of the fortress. Cagliostro was lowered down through a trap door, so there was no door to speak of for him to attempt to escape from. There was no window and he was forbidden to use paper, pen or ink. Soldiers guarded over Cagliostro day and night and were ordered not to talk with him, for fear that his smooth-talking and wizardry could convince the soldiers to help him. The trap door had three different levels of iron bars across it, and the only glimpse visible outside of it was of the Cathedral, surely not coincidental.
Upon his death in 1795, the arch-priest of San Leo left a not-quite objective death certificate, stating:
“Giuseppe Balsamo, nicknamed Conte di Cagliostro, of Palermo, baptized but unbelieving, heretic, celebrated for his bad reputation, after having spread to various nations of Europe the impious doctrine of Egyptian Freemasonry, which gained with subtle deceptions countless followers, fell into various mishaps and did not escape without harm, by virtue of his cunning and skill; Finally by the sentence of the Holy Inquisition relegated to perpetual imprisonment in the fortress of this town, with the hope that he repents, having already endured the hardships of the prison with equal vehemence and persistence for four years, four months, five days, caught by a sudden stroke, being of treacherous mind and evil heart and not having given the slightest sign of repentance, dies without mourners outside the Communion S. Mary Church at the age of fifty years, two months and eighteen days.
Born miserable, he lived miserable, and died unhappy on August 26 of the year above at the hour 22,45. Under the circumstances it was announced for a public prayer, if ever the merciful God were to turn his gaze toward the work of his hands. As a heretic, excommunicated, the unrepentant sinner’s burial according to the ecclesiastical ritual is denied. The corpse is buried right on the tip of the mountain that faces the west, almost equidistant between the two forts destined to the sentries, commonly referred to as the Palace and the Casino, on the ground of the Apostolic Camera on the 28th at 18.15 hours.
Today the fortress is quite bare-boned. There are big empty rooms and small windows with remarkable views in sharp contrast to the plain white walls inside. Still, it would be hard to appreciate without a bit of background knowledge. Visit San Leo because it’s small, it’s strange, it’s in the middle of nowhere or, quite literally in the middle of everywhere, tucked away as it is between so many regions. The strange cliffside castle houses a strange history, and the potions of Cagliostro can still be found inside. This wizard-scammer sought fame, and lucky for him his fame abounds even today.
After, head into the fortress’ courtyard to enjoy one of the most beautiful and characteristic views across the entire region. You don’t find “green” like in le Marche!
Want to know more about le Marche? Read more about Italy’s true countryside.