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The vale of Rieti with Lago Lungo seen from the Rieti - Leonessa bus
October 2nd, 1844. About eleven, off once more, and now began the ascent of the high range of mountains forming one side of the Vale of Rieti, and known all over the Campagna of Rome as, la Montagna di Lionessa, called so because it is within the territory of the little City of that name. Much difference of opinion has arisen among antiquaries as to the ancient name of these high barriers, the loftiest part of which, Terminillo, is 6567 Paris feet above the level of the sea; (..) to this day the glens and little plains among its fastnesses are celebrated for their pasturage. Winding slowly up the mountain, the view increases in beauty at every step: the whole vale of Rieti, with its many lakes, the Gorge of Terni, and, higher yet, the hills of Spoleto and plains beyond. Most delicious was the pure air, the morning brightness. Either to look forward, where the mountain began to be feathered with clumps of noble beech, or back to the long lines of country, even to Monte Fiascone, was a constant delight. There is a double pleasure in going over ground you have so long known at a distance only, (for I had drawn the Leonessa mountain continually in the Roman Campagna, and for years had longed to visit it,) and in finding, step by step, the real qualities of so old an acquaintance.
Edward Lear - Illustrated Excursions in Italy - 1846
(left) Remaining tower of the Angevin castle of Ripa di Corno above Leonessa; (right) the woods of Mount Terminillo seen from Leonessa
Great forests stretch away all over the huge sides of this beautiful mountain, and shelter numbers of wolves and roe-deer. Bears have not been known there of late years. What a walk! such rocks and velvet turf! such green hills, crested with tall white-trunked woods, like those in Stothard's paintings! Such hanging oaks, fringing the chasms deep below your path! Such endless flocks of sheep in the open glades! At a turn of the mule-path, through a sombre vale, we met a single capuchin, -the only creature throughout the day,- with a silver white beard below his girdle: a most merry old monk, who laughed till the tears ran down his face, because I would make a sketch of him. (..) Long after I walked on, the old man's noisy merriment showed that his perception of the fun was undiminished. Hour after hour followed of park-like wood: the red fallen leaves and the graystone reminding me of many a spot in old England. Towards the back of the mountain, a northern aspect,-shadows and cold wind prevailed, and dreary barren slopes of rock succeeded to the merry woods. Lear
Leonessa in an illustration from "Edward Lear - Illustrated Excursions in Italy - 1846": Porta Spoletina is depicted at its centre and Mount Terminillo in the background
A long descent brought me at last to the plain of Leonessa, and soon after to the city itself, than which, at the foot of its finely-formed wall of mountain, few objects are more striking. (..) There is a grand view of Leonessa, as you leave it towards La Posta, of which I had had no idea: but there was no time to stop for drawing, and we hurried along through the majestic pass behind the Terminillo range, whose sides are here wooded nearly to the summit. Lear
Raw wool imports in Florence, one of the principal woollen textile producers in late medieval Italy, show that there was a rising demand for southern Italian wool in in the fifteenth century. (..) The new wool markets were in central and southern Italy, mainly in Abruzzo. The penetration of Abruzzese wool into Florence must have started in the 1420s. (..) Many small towns produced woollen cloth, especially in Abruzzo Ultra. (..) In 1466 the cloth makers of Leonessa sought confirmation of a new statute of their craft. (..) They asserted that "arte della lana" (wool manufacturing) had always been a source of well-being for the town and the settlements in its hinterland. Five distinct grades of cloth were produced at Leonessa. (..) In 1473 the towns of Amatrice, Leonessa and Cittaducale were wealthy, not only because they had thousands of sheep registered at the custom house, but also because the "arte della lana" had been practised there for a long time.
Eleni Sakellariou - Southern Italy in the Late Middle Ages: Demographic, Institutional and ... - 2012
At the present day its only title to celebrity is in its manufacture of a sort of cream cheese called cacio fiore, which is very excellent. Lear
Similar to what occurred in many other towns in the Apennines the population of Leonessa declined during the whole XXth century and today there are almost no modern buildings outside its historical centre.
The vale of Leonessa and in the distance the mountains near Cascia
The vale of Leonessa is situated in the diocese of Spoleto, and that of Rieti. (..) Owing to its situation in two bishoprics of the Ecclesiastical States, its greater facilities of communication with Rieti than with other towns, and
to the whole of its flocks migrating with their shepherds to the Roman Campagna, from October to May, when the country round the Terminillo is deep
in snow, Leonessa, though in the kingdom of Naples, is, in almost all respects essentially Roman. Shut out from the world by a circle of hills, scarcely passable in winter, the little city looks forth from her immense mountain background on her tributary villages scattered below; and a cheerful prospect it is, though rather chilling, from being so enclosed by lofty heights. Lear
In the past during winter Leonessa could only be reached from Umbria. The vale of Leonessa is crossed by the River Corno which originates from Mount Terminillo and flows towards Cascia where it empties into the River Nera.
The entrance to the town is by a picturesque Gothic arch, combining strikingly with the solemn mountain ridge above, and a castle on one of its lower crags. Lear
In the VIIth century the vale of Leonessa was part of the Longobard Duchy of Spoleto and the first records about its settlements mention a series of fortified sites at the end of the VIIIth century one of which in 774 was donated to Abbazia di Farfa, an important Longobard monastery. In the XIIIth century Spoleto became a permanent possession of the Popes, but the vale of Leonessa was sought after also by the German rulers of southern Italy and after them by Charles of Anjou.
(left) Porta Aquilana (the church of S. Maria fuori Porta stood opposite the gate); (right) houses above the walls near Porta Aquilana
Leonessa (or Lionessa, for the name is spelt in both ways,) seems to have been built about a.p. 1252, under the patronage of the Emperor Frederick II. Four towns, according to Guattani and others, having united to make a single city. Lear
In 1274 the castle of Ripa di Corno which was controlled by the King of Naples housed a meeting of representatives of the major families of the area who decided to build a new town at the foot of the castle, a process similar to that which led to the foundation of L'Aquila. The construction of Gonessa (its initial name) was financed by the King of Naples and the town became part of the province of Abruzzo Ultra. Over time the border with the Papal State was defined, at least in an approximative way, because it was only in 1840 that this was done with preciseness.
Fonte della Ripa and detail showing the use of a local red stone
Fonte della Ripa is the oldest fountain of Leonessa. It is fed by the overlying spring of the castle and it was built using local red stone and limestone. In the old days it had other spouts and it was used also as a trough for farm animals. In the XVIth century an underground terracotta conduit was made to feed the fountain in the main square. In the past a public wash house stood near Fonte della Ripa.
There is little to be found concerning its history.
Charles V. bestowed it on his daughter Margaret of Austria, and it possesses one of the
four institutions founded by her for the benefit of poor orphans. Twenty-six villages are dependent on it, or united with it. Lear
During the XVth century, thanks to the trade and manufacture of wool, Leonessa experienced a period of growth and it enjoyed some degree of self government. It was divided into six quarters each of which elected a member of Consiglio dei Priori, a body in charge of the administration of the town under the control of a few officers appointed by the King of Naples. These charters were endorsed in 1539 by Margaret of Austria, to whom Leonessa and other towns of Abruzzo, e.g. Cittaducale, were donated by Emperor Charles V, her father, on the occasion of her marriage with Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma and grandson of Pope Paul III. She was eventually appointed governor of Abruzzo and she resided at L'Aquila.
Fontana Farnesiana: (above) coat of arms of Margaret of Austria (with the double-headed eagle of the Habsburg) and part of the 1548 inscription in Latin verses "Dulcior hac nulla est, hac nulla salubrior unda Monstrorum licet e faucibus illa cadat Austriacae donum est Divae, quae non modo nobis Sed docet ingenium milius esse feris"; (below) coats of arms of the Farnese (left side) and of the City of Leonessa (right side; see it in the image used as background for this page: a rampant lion holding the letter P for People or Peter)
The main Renaissance monument of Leonessa is an octagonal fountain at the centre of its main square. It was designed and sculptured by Mastro Nicola di Joanni Carlo da Firenze with two assistants. It was actually paid for by the local municipal authorities, but a long and flattering inscription states that it was a gift by Margaret. The long ribbons can be noticed in other Farnese coats of arms, e.g. at Bastione del Sangallo and it derives from a Roman relief which was discovered in the late XVth century.
Leonessa was inherited by the Farnese, but it remained part of the Kingdom of Naples. In 1652 after the importance of the family declined because of the loss of the Duchy of Castro in 1649 new taxes were imposed by the Neapolitan government.
On the 14th of January 1703, it was
not spared by the earthquake, which devastated all the northern provinces of
the kingdom of Naples: all the walls fell, and the greater part of the city was ruined: one thousand of the inhabitants were killed, and as many severely injured. Lear
The economic and demographic decline of Leonessa precipitated after the town was struck by an earthquake in January 1703. A few weeks later it was the turn of L'Aquila to be similarly devastated.
In 2016 a series of earthquakes struck Norcia and Amatrice and to a lesser extent Leonessa. Many of its churches were damaged and their fašades and bell towers required supporting structures to avoid their collapse. In this respect S. Pietro degli Agostiniani, a mainly XVth century church, suffered only minor damage (see its interior and the other churches in page two).
Palaces: (left) Palazzo Viscardi (XVI-XVIIth centuries); (right) Palazzo Zelli-Cherubini (XVIth century)
The streets are narrow and clean, and the look of the place is rather Swiss or North Italian-roofs steep, &c.,- though some long lines of convents are quite in the style of Southern Italy, and very beautiful in form. Lear
The Farnese dynasty of Parma became extinct in 1731, but Don Carlos, son of Philip V King of Spain and Elisabeth Farnese recovered the Farnese fiefdoms in Abruzzo which became his personal possessions as Charles VII, King of Naples.
XVth century windows with the Farnesian fleur-de-lis: (left) Palazzo Clivi Foglia; (right) Palazzo Mongalli
The economic and demographic decline of Leonessa had the effect to minimize the alterations or demolitions of its historical centre. The limited number of tourists who visit it is not enough to justify the opening of many businesses catering for them and which would impact on the quiet aspect of the town.
Side streets with arches which strengthen the structures of the buildings in case of earthquakes
Appendix: An old lady of Leonessa by Edward LearOctober 2nd, 1844. But little trouble was given me at the Dogana, and so I went to my host the vicar of Spoleto, a hospitable old man. A lame old lady, his sister, showed me my room, a place of such combined magnificence and filth, that I was glad to escape to the town to sketch. (..) But the cold, as evening approached, drove me back to my host's house. The supper would have been agreeable if it had not been for the old lady of the house, whose conversation was of the oppressive order, being strictly confined to a detailed description of the dislocation of her hip during the preceding Autumn, on which unpromising subject she was peculiarly fluent.
The whole account she gave about five times in the course of the evening, and every time she came to the resetting by an unskilful surgeon, by whom she was "rovinata," and "sagrificata," she performed what she was pleased to call the "strilli e convulsioni" with so alarmingly natural an effect, that a huge house-dog rushed wildly into the room in a paroxysm of sympathy at every repetition, and joined in the chorus, just as, no doubt, he had thought it his duty to do on the original occasion. As for me I sat grinding my teeth in patience.
October 3, 1844. The whole of the early morning passed in hard sketching. The inhabitants seem a simple good sort of people. No man and mule at eleven, as had been arranged on the previous evening, and long waiting ensued, during which they repeated the eternal "mo,- mo viene" every five minutes. My hostess also did the "strilli" once more, besides telling me all her family affairs, specifying the amount of her dowry, and recapitulating all the good and evil qualities of her departed husband. After much storming and entreaty, the mule and man were ready-but not, alas! before two o'clock, though I had wanted to reach Mopolino (on the road to L'Aquila) by night-fall.
Go to page two and see the churches of Leonessa or go to:
Introductory page to this section
Atri - the Town
Atri - the Cathedral
Borgocollefegato and the Cicolano
Chieti - Roman memories
L'Aquila - the Vale
L'Aquila - Historical outline
L'Aquila - S. Maria di Collemaggio
L'Aquila - S. Bernardino
L'Aquila - Other churches
L'Aquila - Other monuments
Luco and Trasacco
S. Benedetto dei Marsi and Pescina
XVIIIth century Sulmona
Sulmona: Easter Day Ceremony (La Madonna che scappa - The Fleeing Madonna)