October 2nd, 1844. There are several
churches with gothic doorways, more or less perfect; San Pietro degli Agostiniani, date a.D. 1467, and Santa Maria fuori della porta, a.D. 1352, were
among the most sketchable.
Edward Lear - Illustrated Excursions in Italy - 1846
The 1352 crumbling church of Santa Maria extra et prope portam (outside and near the gate) stood opposite Porta Aquilana and it was demolished to favour the access to the gate. Its portal was placed inside S. Francesco. S. Pietro degli Agostiniani was and still is the landmark of Leonessa (see it in page one).
Leonessa was ignored by tourist guides until Lear published his book; afterwards they almost quoted him: Leonessa is surrounded by villages, and shut out from the rest of the world by an amphitheatre of mountains, scarcely passable in winter. It is entered by a picturesque Gothic Arch, combining strikingly with the mountain ridge above, and a ruined castle on one of its crags. The chs. of S. Pietro degli Agostiniani and Santa Maria fuori della Porta have handsome Gothic doorways.
John Murray - A Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy - 1883
S. Pietro: (left) main portal; (right) its upper part containing the heraldic symbol of the town: a rampant lion holding the letter P for People or Peter
Leonessa was situated in the Diocese of Spoleto until 1859 when it was moved to that of Rieti. Its closeness with Umbria is testified to by the use of a local red stone to enhance the decoration of its churches, similar to what occurred at Spoleto, Foligno and Assisi.
The portal of S. Pietro was built in 1467 whereas the fašade was completed at an earlier time. Its design was perhaps influenced by portals at nearby Cascia and Norcia. The flat upper end of the fašade does not reflect the pitched roof of the interior, but was designed following the example of S. Maria di Collemaggio, the finest medieval church of L'Aquila.
S. Pietro: (left/centre) other details of the main portal; (right) one of the two decorative pillars at its sides
The portal is definitely a Renaissance work of art, yet some faces peering out of the capitals and a small lion at the base of a pillar are typical of an earlier iconography which goes back to the XIIth century e.g. at S. Maria Impensole at Narni, another Umbrian town.
S. Pietro: (left) interior; (right) XVth century fresco portraying St. Peter
A major earthquake struck Leonessa in 1703 and it greatly damaged S. Pietro which had three naves. The two side naves were replaced by chapels and the interior acquired a Baroque aspect. At the centre of nave there is a passage leading to a lower church. In 1997 a restoration of the whole building led to the discovery of some XVth century frescoes which had been whitewashed in the XVIIIth century.
S. Pietro - Lower church: The Descent from the Cross (XVIth century painted terracotta (see some other painted statues at Museo Nazionale d'Abruzzo at L'Aquila)
In 1223 St. Francis prepared the first crib at Greccio, a small town in the vale of Rieti. The practice became very popular especially in Southern Italy and figurines of painted terracotta were created by talented artisans. In this field Italy had a tradition which went back to the Etruscans. The Descent from the Cross was an unusual subject for this type of minor art, but that at Leonessa is full of movement and pathos. It could be a work by Giacomo and Raffaele da Montereale, a town near Leonessa, two brothers who were active in Umbria and Sabina in the XVIth century.
S. Pietro - Lower Church: Baroque altar
The lower church, which was entirely redesigned after the 1703 earthquake, was built at a much earlier time than S. Pietro, perhaps even before the foundation of Leonessa in the XIIIth century.
S. Pietro: (left) Glory of Mary and Saints by Iacopo Siculo (1543); (right) Virgin and Child with Sts. Charles Borromeo, Catherine of the Wheel and Augustine by Giovanni Lanfranco (1616)
The main altarpiece is a work of a Sicilian painter who was mainly active at Rieti and it follows a pattern established by Raphael in his Transfiguration. Giovanni Lanfranco was a painter from Parma and his work might have been a gift by the Farnese Dukes of Parma. He worked in Rome with painters from Bologna, in particular at S. Andrea della Valle.
S. Pietro: loggia of the attached Augustinian convent
The Augustinian convent is recorded as early as 1182 and the lower church was most likely part of the complex. After the foundation of Leonessa the convent grew in importance and it had many possessions in the environs of the town. It had a cloister with a long loggia above it. The loggia is dated XIVth-XVth centuries and the pillars supporting its roof have a peculiar design as they are alternately large and slender. The convent was closed in 1865 by the newly established Kingdom of Italy.
S. Francesco: (left) fašade; (centre) side view; (right) bell tower
In 2016 a series of earthquakes struck Norcia, Cascia and Amatrice and to a lesser extent Leonessa. Many of its churches were damaged and in 2023 their fašades and bell towers still required supporting structures to avoid their collapse. S. Francesco was built almost immediately after the foundation of Leonessa in a central location of the town and by 1296 it was already completed. The bell tower was added in the XVIth century. After the 1703 earthquake the fašade was redesigned in Baroque style, but in the 1950s it was given a medieval aspect.
S. Francesco: portal (a detail at its right end is shown in the image used as background for this page)
The lintel was not designed for this portal, but for a smaller and earlier one, because the two young lions or she-lions are not symmetrically placed at the sides of the Lamb of God and their reliefs are rather rough. In general the portals are the part of the churches which have best withstood the effect of the earthquakes.
S. Maria del Popolo: (left) portal; (right) archaic statues
In origin it was the church of one of the six quarters of Leonessa, but works began in 1452 to enlarge it in order to officiate there ceremonies which were attended by the magistrates of the town. The modifications and embellishments lasted until 1598. The elaborate portal houses an archaic Madonna between two altar servers carrying a thurible.
S. Nicola di Bari (deconsecrated): (left) portal; (centre) St. Nicholas; (right) a detail of the portal
This too was the church of one of the six quarters. St. Nicholas, a IVth century Greek Bishop of Myra in today's Turkey was very popular in the Kingdom of Naples after his body was carried by seamen from Bari to their hometown in 1087.
S. Giuseppe di Leonessa seen from the main square
Cascia and Norcia were the hometowns respectively of Blessed Rita and of St. Benedict. The inhabitants of Leonessa had a particular devotion for Eufranio Desideri (1566-1612), a Franciscan monk who adopted the name of Giuseppe, and who assisted the Christian prisoners in the hands of Ottoman Sultan Murat III at Constantinople. After his return to Italy he preached in many towns of Abruzzo and Umbria where he worked some miracles. In 1629 the inhabitants of Leonessa built an oratory where they eventually buried the body of Fra Giuseppe. He was beatified in 1737 and canonized in 1746 and the oratory was turned into a large church dedicated to him with a second dome. In 1950 it was completed by a travertine fašade. Its structures did not collapse in 2016, but they still require supporting structures.
(left) S. Carlo Borromeo; (right) S. Matteo
These two small churches were both redecorated after the 1703 earthquake. S. Carlo Borromeo was built in the early XVIIth century, whereas S. Matteo was already mentioned in XIVth century chronicles.
Return to a page on the town 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)
Appendix - Other excerpts and illustrations from Lear's book covering minor towns and sites