Even before we packed our bags and drove to Italy, we knew we wanted to visit it. Sure, we were going to visit beautiful and important cities like Firenze (Florence), Siena, Arezzo and even wonderful Ravenna, but we also wanted to see something “local”, a building or a work of art that is not frequented by tourists from all over the world. We were going to stay at the picturesque Fattoria Pagnana in Bombone, a small village just outside the larger town of Rignano sull’Arno. While exploring Rignano with Google Maps and Street View, we found the lovely Pieve di San Leolino. The little church looked charming, and the limited information that we found online indicated that it was old and had some interesting late medieval frescoes. It only took seconds for us to add the Pieve di San Leolino to our list of things to see.
Getting to the Pieve di San Leolino is quite easy: it is located in the Via della Pieve, a little bit north of the town centre. Just drive past the COOP supermarket – where the car park is always full and the polizia municipale can be found giving tickets to motorists exceeding the maximum parking time – and go straight on for about two more minutes. A pieve is basically a rural church with a baptistery, which meant that other rural churches without a baptistery were dependent on it, baptism of course being one of the most important rituals in the Christian religion.
The Pieve di San Leolino must have been important once, but when a new church was built in the centre of Rignano in 1954, the San Leolino was practically abandoned. We had difficulty finding opening times online, but with a little help from the staff of the Fattoria Pagnana – thanks, Alice! – we found out that mass was still being celebrated in the San Leolino on Sundays, and that the church was open from 16:00 to 18:00. We managed to arrive just before 17:00, and saw a sizeable group of worshippers gathered outside the pieve. The doors were open, and we sneaked inside to see the church and its treasures before mass started. Obviously, we did not want to disrupt the religious services and annoy the churchgoers.
The building and the saint
Who exactly is San Leolino, whose name would have been Sanctus Leolinus in Latin? First of all, there seems to be a lot of confusion about his actual name. A map of the Rignano region that we have refers to a pieve dedicated to a San LeoNino. Clearly that name is incorrect. The information panel outside the church itself has the correct name LeoLino and claims he was a “travelling bishop” who lived at the beginning of the fourth century and was probably martyred in the Valdisieve. That is apparently all the information about his life there is, and this makes San Leolino a rather obscure saint. With some justification, one can wonder whether he existed at all; in any case he is not listed as a saint on Catholic websites like catholic.org. However, people certainly believed he existed and was martyred, and the Guidi counts – local feudal lords – are credited by the information panel with encouraging his worship since the ninth and tenth centuries. Three more churches dedicated to San Leolino can be found in the region.
The Romanesque Pieve di San Leolino dates back to at least the early eleventh century. It was first mentioned in 1008, and then again in 1066. This means it is certainly over 1.000 years old. Parts of the church are still original: the base of the tower, part of the nave and the three apses, typical of Romanesque churches. These are best seen by walking around the church – in our case, this alarmed the neighbour’s dog, but it was actually a friendly little dog, who intended no harm. The rest of the church is much more recent. Apparently much of the church was destroyed during an earthquake in the eighteenth century, and the facade and a large part of the nave had to be rebuilt. The consecration of a new church in the town centre could have led to the demolition of the San Leolino, now no longer in use, but fortunately the citizens of Rignano chose to preserve their cultural heritage. In the 1990s, the church underwent restorations, and the result is an interesting combination of very old and very new.
The interior of the present church is very simple (see the image above). Much of the art that was once here – paintings, statues – has been moved to the new church, and some of it has been lost altogether. The San Leolino today has three works of art that are worth seeing.
The first is the hexagonal baptismal font near the north entrance. This beautiful work of glazed terracotta is decorated with scenes from the life of John the Baptist. For instance, we see the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan on the left panel of the font (see the image on the right). One might easily mistake the baptismal font for a work from the Della Robbia workshop (Luca, his nephew Andrea and his great-nephew Giovanni), but this is incorrect. The font is attributed to the school of Benedetto and Santi Butiglione. Benedetto (ca. 1460-1521) and Santi (1494-1576) were an uncle and a nephew, and they learnt their sculpting skills in the Della Robbia workshop, which explains the similarities.
The second interesting work of art is a late fourteenth century fresco depicting the Coronation of the Virgin. The artist is unknown. During the restorations of the 1990s, this fresco was also restored, at least partially. The man on the left remains blurry, but one can see that he is wearing a bishop’s mitre. Perhaps this is the famous but obscure San Leolino himself? It seems fitting in a way that we only see the contours of this mysterious man.
When the fresco was being restored, the sinopia – i.e. the preparatory sketch for a fresco – was discovered and it was placed on the opposite wall in the church.
Thirdly and finally, the San Leolino has an early fifteenth century fresco of the Madonna Breastfeeding, Madonna che allata il Bambino in Italian. The fresco is attributed to Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452), a painter from Florence. Not much is known about his life, but he came from a family of painters: his father Lorenzo – ‘di Lorenzo’ means ‘son of Lorenzo’ – was a painter and so was his son, Neri di Bicci.
We hurried out of the church again when mass was about to start. The San Leolino did not disappoint us. Although it is hardly the most spectacular church in Tuscany, the fact that it is over 1.000 years old and still standing, with some interesting works of art inside, definitely makes it worth a visit. Highly recommended!