Located in a dense forest a few kilometres outside of Siena in Tuscany, northern Italy is a hermitage first known as San Salvatore di Foltignano, but later as Lecceto. The hermitage (eremo in Italian) there goes back to the decades before the formation of the Augustinian Order in the thirteenth century. There was a medieval legend that St Augustine of Hippo visited there, or even lived there in a hermitage, sometime between his baptism to the north in Milan and his return to Africa from the port of Ostia, which is to the south of Lecceto.
Lecceto also made claim to another visit by St Augustine. In the first cloister there is a marble slab that commemorates the visit that Augustine made when he stayed at Lecceto for a while in the year 400, an impossibility because by then, he was already a bishop in Africa and never left that continent thereafter. The legend probably arose from an effort to prove the continuity they had with Augustine's North African monastic life by means of his companions who fled the invasion of the Vandals soon after his death. It was asserted that they came to and proceeded to found monastic settlements in Tuscany, where they lived independently until the Church brought them all together in the thirteenth century. In this way, they were keen to claim Augustine as the true founder of the Order of St Augustine that was founded at the Augustinian Grand Union in 1256.
Both of these legends about Augustine's visits, however, are now known to be patently false - as also were similar legends about visits there by Saints Monica, Jerome, Dominic and Francis of Assisi. The identity of the founder of the original hermitage there, and it date when it began, are not recorded, but the hermitage was dedicated to the Holy Saviour and to the Virgin Mary. As to the name Lecceto, the Italian word lecce refers to a type of holm oak tree that grows well in the area.
The earliest-known historical reference to any form of hermitage - probably small and quite rudimentary - at Lecceto is a document dated on the 18th September 1223. This is just over twenty years before the Pope aggregated the hermits of Tuscany under the Rule of Saint Augustine. By the year 1227 a hermitage - and possibly something more substantial - and church were under construction there, after the purchase of twelve plots of land by the astute Prior at Lecceto, Bandino Balzetti from Siena. With the support of the Commune of Siena, Balzetti developed substantial landholdings for Lecceto in the surrounding forest.
Bishop Bonfilius of Siena in April 1228 blessed the church at Lecceto, which had been granted papal protection only two months previously. During the episcopacy of Bonfilius in Siena, the reform of hermit life in the diocese took place. The hermits at Montespechio and San Leonardo da Lago petitioned the Pope Gregory IX to assign them one of the approved rules of community life. The Pope delegated the task to Bishop Bongilius, and this was probably when the Rule of Augustine was introduced to these hermitages, to Lecceto and to other hermitages in the Siena area. The late Augustinian historian (died 2005), Rev. Dr Michael Benedict Hackett O.S.A., suggested that Lecceto may have been under the Rule of St Benedict before adopting the Rule of St Augustine and that the monastery may have beed dedicated in honour of St Benedict at that time.
Bandino Balzetti had become the spiritual and temporal leader of Lecceto in 1223 and was still there as its Augustinian Prior when he died in 1270 or shortly thereafter. He was one of the chief promoters of the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256. In the year 1231 the hermitages of Lecceto and Montespecchio nominated to the Bishop of Siena that they would adopt the Rule of Augustine. Using this date as a basis of calculation, and subtracting the time in the 19th and 20th centuries when the building was not in Augustinian hands, by 2010 Lecceto has been a site where the Rule of Augustine has now been lived for a total of 617 years.
In both the grouping of Tuscan Hermits at the Little Union of 1244 and the Grand Union of 1256, Lecceto was a participant community. There still exist the original copy of sixteen papal bulls issued to Lecceto between 1254 and 1741, and twelve concerning the nearby Augustinian hermitage of San Leonardo al Lago written between 1144 and 1254, and four between 1244 and 1256 pertaining to the Tuscan hermits generally. The Prussian State Library in Berlin purchased them in 1866 from an Italian collector.
Among the thirteenth-century friars at Lecceto who were noted for exceptional holiness were the friars Antonio and Patrizii Latono of Siena, Pietro de Rossi, Niccolo Bandinelli, a great contemplative, and Fra Bandino. It is impossible to do more here than just list their names. During the following few centuries, additions were made to the complex. Between 1317 and 1345 there was the construction of a new church, its portico, and a new monastery. During these years the Augustinian Prior (community leader) at Lecceto was successively Giovanni Battista Benincasa O.S.A. of Siena and Giovanni di Guccio Molli O.S.A. of Siena. The characteristic tower, an imposing fortress-like structure, was begun in 1405, and completed in 1408. The architect was a saintly lay brother at Lecceto, Blessed Cristofano Landucci O.S.A. It is well attested that Pope Pius II, during a visit to Lecceto in 1459, showed marked respect towards Cristofano, and there is a painting in the church of their meeting.
To keep Lecceto’s liturgical manuscripts secure, an 'armario' (a hidden wall safe, an 'armadio a muro') was cleverly concealed behind the choir stalls of the chapel on the south side of the choir behind the high altar. Its eighteen great choir books mentioned as being there in 1652 consisted of antiphonaries and graduals. Possibly at least some of the earlier manuscripts were illuminated by Brother Antonio da Montecchio O.S.A. of Lecceto, who entered the eremo there in 1440 and died in 1495. He was an excellent copyist of manuscripts.
Sienese friars at Lecceto noted for holiness were strongly represented in the fourteenth century. In addition to Giovanni di Guccio Molli and Niccolo Tini, there were Umberto Accarigi, scholar and saint, who is buried in front of the high altar at Lecceto; Felice Tancredi, author of La fanciullezza di Gesu; Giovanni Tantucci, master of theology of Cambridge; and Girolamo da Siena. Each of these latter three had contacts with St Catherine of Siena, especially Tantucci, who from 1375 until her death in 1380 occupied a commanding position in her entourage. Girolamo da Siena was a writer of some substance. Two of his treatises, Adiutorio spiritualis and Soccordo d' poveri, were popular.
His main apostolate was preaching, which made him something a celebrity, and he was also an active promoter of the Third Order of St Augustine. His spirituality belongs to the tradition of Simone da Cascia O.S.A., but Girolamo's fundamental ideas were derived from the writings of St Augustine. The building of the new church at Lecceto (or, indeed, the enlargement of the previous church there), the first cloister and of much of the monastery took place between 1317 and 1345, under the direction for much of that time by two successive priors, Giovanni Battista Benincasa O.S.A. and Giovanni di Guccio Molli da Siena O.S.A.
Already by the middle of the fourteenth century the eremo at Lecceto was famous as a centre of mystical piety. And so it was that, at the Augustinian General Chapter at Gran, Hungary in 1385 Lecceto was set aside as the first designated Augustinian house of strict observance. It thus became the official model for the Augustinian observant movement. This was reinforced by repeated decrees at the General Chapters of 1394, 1397 and 1400. Lecceto was taken from the Province of Siena, and placed directly under the Prior General in a special way.
Thus when the Augustinian Order was barely 130 years old, Lecceto became an Augustinian observantine congregation. Its friars thus obtained the authority to live a more strict interpretation of the Augustinian life. For the next fifty years the friars at Lecceto were noted in Augustinian records for a distinctive spirit, which included a love for solitude and the practice of works of mercy. In the midst of this observant movement, on 13 May 1398 Filippo di Leonardo di Cola O.S.A. was appointed Prior (Augustinian religious leader) of Lecceto, and retained that position until 1420. In 1408 he took a prominent part in an unsuccessful attempt to convert Lecceto into a house of the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, which was a completely separate religious order. Although this attempt was bitterly resented by the Prior General and many other Augustinians, Filippo was left in control at Lecceto until 1420, when he resigned from the office of prior. Over eighty years of age, he died there on 30 October 1422. The Observant movement in the Order of Saint Augustine had officially begun. The eremo (hermitage) of Lecceto, which was dedicated to San Salvador ("the Holy Saviour"), was to be the good example of Augustinian community living that hopefully other communities would then strive to copy. The plan was at least successful to the extent that Lecceto gave excellent example of Augustinian life.
The seal of the eremo at Lecceto conveyed this message. It comprised three mountains, which were the symbols of the ascent of the soul; a cluster of ilex trees, the tree typical of the Lecceto district; and the figure of Christ. On the bottom section of the seal was the phrase in Latin, "Who by his Cross and blood has redeemed us." Attributed to Paul di Maestro Neri, a pupil of Ambrogio Lorenzetti, a series of frescoes (see picture at below-right) illustrates, among many other evils, the danger of those who gamble for money, with the devil at their elbow; gambling was regarded as a frequent vice of the people of Siena at that time.
Lecceto's famed square tower, an imposing fortress-like structure, was erected between 1405 and 1408, the architect being the saintly lay brother, Cristofano Landucci O.S.A. of the Lecceto community, The project began on 11 February 1404. In the sacristy of the Church, there is a painting of the famous 'Blessed of Lecceto' designed much like a family tree, depicting friars who achieved fame for their holiness even though they were never formally beatified.
The Lecceto region of Tuscany was revered as the homeland of Augustinian eremitical (hermit) life. After his baptism in Milan at the hands of St Ambrose and before his return to Africa, Augustine had come, so the legend had it, to the forest fastness of these hills, in imitation of St Paul, the first hermit, and St Antony of Egypt, the desert father. There Augustine gathered men of similar persuasion into communities, for whom he had, while on Monte Pisano, so the legend persisted, written his Rule, generally known today by the Latin title, Regulae Sancti Augustini. Into these woody solitudes over the years had come, in addition to Augustine, St Monica, St Ambrose, St Jerome, St William, St Galganus, and even St Francis of Assisi, whom the legend would have a hermit at Lecceto (and/or elsewhere in an Augustinian milieu in Tuscany) before he founded his own Franciscan Order.
In the inner cloister, there are frescoes on the walls depicting some of the legends, including the life of those special friars who spent long periods of prayer in the caves a little beyond the boundaries or the monastery. A few of the caves are still there.It is a fact that friars from different parts of Europe sought out Lecceto in order to live a contemplative life. Members of the community are known to have come from different parts of Italy, as well as from France and England.
The most famous of them was William Flete O.S.A. (c. 1310 – c. 1382, mentioned above), an Englishman from Cambridge University at the time of Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. In the year 1359, when he was about to attain his Master of theology degree at Cambridge University in England, Flete had a change of heart about how he should live as an Augustinian. He chose to discontinue his studies at Cambridge and to go to Lecceto and give himself over completely to a life of prayer. He stayed there for the remainder of his life, and became a master of the spiritual life, a guide to many persons and a personal confidant of St Catherine of Siena. Catherine, who died in 1380, visited William Flete at Lecceto on 7 January 1377, when she dictated an invaluable summary of her spiritual doctrine to him. She very likely visited Lecceto on other occasions not recorded in history. She counselled Flete just as much as he assisted her. Six letters from Catherine to Flete remain, written over a decade, with other letters no longer extant. A number of Augustinians of great spiritual depth opted, for prayer and solitude, to withdraw themselves from the Lecceto monastery to small hermitages or caves in the surrounding forest.
On Augnet's page about William Flete O.S.A., the historical question is raised as to the probability of some tension in the community because of this practice. For example, Chistopher di Giovanni Landcucci, became a lay friar in Lecceto around 1390 and for sixty years led a life of great virtue, simplicity, prayer, reflection and obedience. Lecceto was a point of great spiritual tradition not only for Augustinian religious but also for laity. Among these were Niccolò Guido Saracini, from the nobility in Siena, who when he died in 1367, wanted to be buried in the Lecceto church in front of the altar of Saint Anna. The aunt of Saint Bernardine of Siena, Bartolomea Albizzeschi, the widow of Tuliardo Tolomei, took the habit of an Augustinian tertiary and led a life of exceptional virtue there.
Two Augustinians, Anselm of Montefalco O.S.A. and Mariano of Genazzano O.S.A., both of whom became Prior General, were members of the Lecceto community, as was the famous Prior General, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A., who praised the Lecceto community in writing. Giles wrote, "Whenever I am ordered to depart from holy Lecceto, I seem to leave my heart, my very self, affixed to the branches of its sacred ilexes. For this hill, Lecceto, because of the very nature of its peculiar trees, has a certain character, an aura of holiness, whereby it promises a most ample crop of the holiest of people. What should I say about these people who, eking out an existence among these trees, were brought to sanctity?"
Early Augustinian historians list by name a number of Lecceto community members for their saintly lives. In the year 1348, for example, was the death of Umberto Accarigi O.S.A., who had been the Augustinian Prior at Lecceto for many years. He was by all accounts master of theology from the Augustinian studium generale in Paris. When he died on 29th May 1348 he was buried in front of the high altar in the church where the memorial slab is still in position. In 1363 another friar, Giovanni Chigi O.S.A., died while attending those who had been plague-stricken. A member of one of the noble families of Siena, he had chosen a life of prayer as a non-ordained Augustinian at Lecceto. [Luigi Torelli O.S.A., Secoli Agostiniani, 8 vols., Bologna 1659-1686: V, 589 & VI, 72]
One of the most remarkable recruits to Lecceto was a non-Sienese. Carlo Sforza was the brother of Francesco, the Duke of Milan. He must have heard of the fame of Lecceto from the Augustinian friars at the Church of S. Marco in Milan. He was profoundly impressed and in 1442 decided to exchange the courtly life of Milan for the eremitical ("hermit") regime of Lecceto. He set out for the distant Tuscan hermitage and was received as a novice, taking Gabriele as his religious name. His master was none other than Anselmo da Mantefalco, the future prior general and every inch a saint. In due course, Gabriel followed in his master's footsteps as master of novices. He was still occuping that position at Lecceto when he was summoned from his beloved hermitage to become Archbishop of Milan in 1454. During his short time as an archbishop - he died in 1457 - he remained absolutely faithful to his Lecceto ideals, and managed at the same time to achieve unstinted praise for his gifted administration of the great Lombard diocese.
To mention another Lecceto friar, Alessandro Oliva, who was perhaps the most admirable Italian Augustinian of the fifteenth century; he considered it an honour to be affiliated to the Lecceto congregation. He became Prior General in 1459, and a cardinal in 1460. In 1447 he sent to Lecceto a man named Anselmo de Montefalco, who became Prior General in 1486. Mariano de Genazzano, who joined Lecceto in 1482, became Prior General in 1497. A Frenchman, Arnaud of Toulouse O.S.A. made his profession at Lecceto on 11th July 1494.Previously he had been a student of canon law at Toulouse University and joined the Order at Agen. He was recommended to the community at Lecceto by the Prior General, Anselmo da Montefalco O.S.A. and Arnaud did a second novitiate before being professed for the Lecceto monastery. Arnaud died there in 1507, and was buried in the cloister, a sign of the esteem in which the community held him. He was followed to Lecceto in 1502 by another Frenchman, Nicolay of Metz O.S.A. Like Arnaud he was already a professed Augustinian when he set out for Lecceto in search of a genuine eremitical life within the Order. He, too, did a second novitiate before making his profession as a conventual of Lecceto on 30th April 1503 He led a most holy life there until his death in 1527.
In 1459 Pope Pius II visited Lecceto on his way to the Diet at Mantua. He stayed there a second time from 28th June to 1 July 1460. Giles of Viterbo O.S.A., probably the greatest preacher in Europe for part of his lifetime, and one of the greatest influences on the reform of the Order of Saint Augustine on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, joined the Lecceto community in 1503. This was fifteen years before Martin Luther posted his famous and fateful ninety five theses in Wittenberg, Germany. The enthusiasm of Giles for Lecceto was unbounded. During the four short years between 1503 and 1506 when he was not yet burdened by high office or with the task of being an emissary of the Pope, he found that Lecceto was a place of peace and study which could lead him to a closer union with God.
Still in existence are words of praise about Lecceto that he wrote to the community at Lecceto. He wrote that, when he had first walked among the ilex trees for which Lecceto is famous, he had cried out the words of Jacob in the Bible, "Truly this place is holy, and is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven." The sojourn of Giles at Lecceto ended unexpectedly three years later. While he was praying in its garden with other members of the Augustinian community of Lecceto on 27th June 1506, a messenger arrived from the Pope. Giles was summoned immediately to Rome to be Vicar General of the Order of Saint Augustine.
During the 15th century a new refectory was built in 1484, with a dormitory above it. Another enlargement of the monastery progressed throughout the 16th century, bringing the complex to its present dimensions and general appearance. Beginning in 1510, this included a second dormitory and a second interior cloister (clausura, patio), which was done largely at the expense of the Bishop of Pienza, Girolamo Piccolomini. The bishop had two of his brothers in the Lecceto community, i.e., Lattanzio (Prior in 1533-1534) and Rafaello. The upper part of that cloister was not added until 1548-1550.
A life-size fresco of the legend of Saint Augustine talking about the Trinity to a child on the sea shore was painted on a wall of this cloister in 1712 by Bartolomeo Fellicuti, but is now almost effaced. In warfare during 1554 in which soldiers of Florence besieged Siena near Lecceto, troops invaded the hermitage (eremo), plundered it, and expelled all but two of the Augustinians. Once the warfare ended, restoration of the monastery began. In its subsequent repairs and decoration, the church was given a decidedly baroque style. This style of chapel was the initiative of Camillo Nocci O.S.A. as Prior of Lecceto in 1611-1615, and has been judged by some experts to have been an aesthetic disaster, and even an artistic desecration. He obliterated earlier paintings, and added an ill-advised balcony above the main door.
In the seventeenth century, Ambrogio Landucci O.S.A., who was elected Augustinian Prior there in 1634, enriched Lecceto with a library and the archives. He also wrote two books: the Sacred Ilicetana Sylva and the Sacred Leccetana Forest.
In the period of 1649 to 1652, as a result of a series of papal directives to all houses of religious orders in Italy, a detailed report of the physical and financial structure of the eremo at Lecceto was made at that time. A copy of the report still exists. The report was carefully compiled by two friars deputed for the task, Dorotheo Spinelli and Agostino Teodosi. Of the two, it was Teodosi who actually wrote up the report and finished it by 6th April 1650, within the time limit set by the Holy See. The report, again in conformity with papal instructions, covered the statistics of the preceding six years.
Its contents covered:
1. The geographical location of Lecceto. 2. The origin of the monastery and Congregation of Lecceto.3. Description of the church and the monastic buildings. 4. The community. 5. Farms, cultivation, livestock. 6. Rents from properties in the city of Siena, etc. 7. Income, mostly from farms. 8. Credits. 9. Mass obligations. 10. Expenditure. 11. Debts.
In terms of the monastery's cash flow, income exceeded expenditure slightly, but there were assets in the form of loans extended to workers engaged to manage the eleven farms that the eremo owned. Most of these farms were nearby, some being just over one mile away near the former Augustinian hermitage of S. Leonardo al Lago; other farms that had been bequeathed to the eremo in 1477 were thirteen miles away. A number of the farms were on poor land. The Lecceto monastery was in receipt of rent from properties it owned in the city of Siena. The backbone of its economic sustenance, however, was its farm holdings. In all, the financial situation of the eremo was modestly secure; the undertaking of any building projects depended on major donations from benefactors and bequests, which fortuitously materialised down the centuries. This report provides a particularly valuable insight into the economy of a rural Augustinian monastery mid-way through the seventeenth century.
Lecceto at the beginning of the 1700 was still a vital centre, with continuous improvements being made to the church, the monastery and the other property. On 29th May 1740 lightning struck the campanello (the church bell tower, not the monastery's square tower). It was badly damaged, and the decision was made to demolish it and replace it (i.e., the present tower) though in a different position, at the rear of the church. This new bell tower was designed by an engineer from Siena named Franchini, and building began in 1706. Construction had only reached the level of the church roof when it collapsed, no doubt because of faulty workmanship. Work began again, and the campanello was finished in 1708. A large new bell was installed in 1709, a previous one was recast, and a older third bell was also hung.
By the time an inventory was made in 1808 when the monastery was suppressed, there was also a fourth bell. After 1808 one of the bells went to the Carmelite church in Siena, and another to the parish church at Vico Alto. In 1782, at the insistence of Peter Leopold, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the Lecceto monastery was incorporated into the Augustinian Province of Siena. During the social and religious turmoil occasioned by Napoleon and his armies of occupation throughout Europe, the last Prior of Lecceto, Gulglielmo Lucks O.S.A., confirmed the end of the hermitage (eremo) and its community on 8th October 1810. With sixteen other Augustinians, Lucks was forced out of Lecceto without any money.
After the Napoleonic era, the Lecceto monastery (eremo) was abandoned. It was unoccupied for decades, and eventually was taken over by the Diocese of Siena as an occasional seminary residence during the summer holidays. From 1952 onwards, the building was unused to 1970, and the monastery was largely deserted and unguarded. From then on, the building fell into ruin, victim of vandalism and neglect. By 1968, the roof had fallen in, the wood had rotted, the insides were burned in several places, chickens and pigs occupied the ground floor. No longer needing the building but wanting it in good hands, the Archbishop of Siena, Mons. Mario Castellano O.P., offered it back to the Augustinian Order, and an agreement was reached for its use by the Augustinian contemplative nuns who were then in Siena.
With support of the civic and provincial authorities and various friends of Lecceto, the monastery was restored to a habitable condition. The work was in the charge of the archbishop's administrative delegate, Mons. Orlando Donati, who personally supervised the restoration and modernization of the west range of the monastery, and the badly-needed redecoration of the interior of the church. And then on 30th December 1972, after an Augustinian absence of 162 years, a community of enclosed Augustinian nuns took possession of the monastery, transferring there from their former residence in Via Sperandie in Siena. They still occupy the building, and have returned it to its initial purpose of being a place of worship, contemplation and the promotion of the Christian Faith. Guest accommodation is now available so that visitors and persons of prayer may stay in a portion of this ancient and holy place of peace.Photo GalleryFor the Augnet gallery on Lecceto, click here.
For further reading
Augustinian Origins, Charism and Spirituality, by Balbino Rano O.S.A. (edited in English by the late John Rotelle O.S.A.): Augustinian Press, Villanova, Pennsylvania, 1994.
The Hermitage and Monastery of the Holy Saviour. A brief history of Lecceto in English. http://www.sovicille.net/lecceto_en.htm
A day visit to Lecceto. Part of a Blog by visiting Americans with U.S. Augustinian connections. Click on the images to see them at a larger size. http://pellegrinaggioagostiniano.blogspot.com/2008/03/rosia-lecceto-fourth-day-30408.html
A Brief history of the Hermitage of Lecceto, written by Gianni Cardinale in 30 Days (December 2004). http://www.30giorni.it/us/articolo.asp?id=6803
Lecceto monastery website, 2013. Written in Italian. The website also contains historic black-and-white photographs og the hermitage just before the Augustinian Nuns moved there. http://www.agostinianeeremolecceto.it/ILICETUM/Deo_Gratias.html