San Leo, the origins of the Montefeltro, and the dilemmas of Cagliostro

Giuseppe Giovanni Battista Vincenzo Pietro Antonio Matteo Franco Balsamo is the name – and what a name – of one of the most vivid yet mysterious characters in the history of what would become Italy. Maybe not “history” so much as historical gossip.

Born in Palermo, he lived a wandering life, and certainly not a saintly one. He lived largely off his woman and her family’s business interests, which is how he sustained himself on his far-ranging tours of Europe, where he met the great names of the late eighteenth century. These included Goethe and Casanova, who had no hesitation in declaring him a rascal and a scoundrel.

Eventually his deceits and infamies caught up with him, and Balsamo was forced to change his name. He became CountAlessandro di Cagliostro, though it’s not clear on what he based his claim to aristocracy. But the church had had enough, and shut him up in the darkest dungeons of the castle of San Leo, in Montefeltro.

The name “San Leo” postdates the place, which had always been the epicenter of this extraordinary, breathtaking area, riven by bloody conflict and forced changes of lordship. In fact until the turn of the second millennium, San Leo was known as Mons Feretris, which means something like “the scarred mountain”.

But that doesn’t really explain the sheer wondrousness of this stretch of land, as rich as it is inhospitable. Just – we say “just” – climb the hundred or so bends that lead up to the main town square, and let yourself be stunned speechless by the almost Platonic beauty of the place. Gawp at the Romanesque cathedral of sumptuous elegance, just a few yards away from the church of Santa Maria Assunta, which was built not long after the year 1000. The Montefeltro fortress looms on high, with its fat round towers. And a little further on, you find an incredible viewpoint that opens up over the rural grandness of the Marecchia valley.

What wonderful things you see round here, and what wonderful things you eat too. Just try the lip-smacking cheese known as Formaggio di Fossa, devastatingly dense and intense in flavour; and make sure you come back when it’s truffle season. People eat a homely, earthy cuisine round here, but it has an aristocratic touch too, in memory of all the local lords that have governed the area. From the Montefeltro family to the Malatesta, from the Medici to the Della Rovere, and finally to the Papal States, which took the reins for something like four centuries.

The torturous history of San Leo did not stop with the fall of the Papal States, though. The municipality belonged to the Marche region – specifically to the province of Pesaro and Urbino – until 2009, when a referendum was held. The local populace, which numbers just under three thousand, voted to become Romagnoli, and San Leo joined the other six municipalities of the Val Marecchia, all within the province of Rimini.

It’s as if the restless spirit of Cagliostro still stirred over this gorgeous place, which you must visit at least once in your life.

The truth about me will never be written, because nobody knows the truth about me.
I belong to no time and no place; I exist outside time and space. My spiritual being lives its eternal existence, and if I delve down into my mind, I can change the course of history. I can turn my spirit towards a way of life far, far from the figure that stands before you; I can become who I want.
I am a conscious participant in the absolute being. I govern my actions as seems best to me.
I am that I am.
I have nothing but a father. Various circumstances of my life have brought me to this great and stirring truth, but the mysteries of my origin and the ties that bind me to this unknown father are and shall remain my secret.
[Cagliostro, to the Procureur General of Paris in 1786]