The historians have identified near Siena in Tuscany five eremi (hermitages) of historical significance in what might be termed the pre-history of the Order of Saint Augustine.
They are the hermitages called: San Leonardo al Lago ("at the lake"), S. Lucia (and S. Antonio) at Rosia, S. Maria di Montespecchio (Saint Mary at Montespecchio), S. Salvatore di Lecceto (the Holy Saviour at Lecceto) and S. Agostino di Monticiano (Saint Augustine at Monticiano).
None of these places was founded by the Order of St Augustine. They all began well before the Order of Saint Augustine was established by the Grand Union in 1256. Saint Leonardo al Lago is approximately 10 kilometres (13 miles) from Siena (which for centuries had an Augustinian convento).
San Leonardo is one kilometre through the forest from Lecceto. It is situated on a hill dominating a valley. The lake (in Italian, lago) in the valley was drained towards the end of the Middle Ages. The date of the beginning of this hermitage (eremo in Italian) is uncertain. Records indicated that it already existed in 1112. It probably began as a cave-chapel as early as 800 AD. It appears that the existence of the cave was historically responsible for the foundation of the subsequent eremo (hermitage). There still exist the original copy of twelve papal bulls issued to the hermitage of San Leonardo al Lago written between 1144 and 1254, sixteen issued to the nearby hermitage of Lecceto between 1254 and 1741, 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.
In the year 1112 San Leonardo al Lago contained two men Alberto (Albert) and Gerardino (Gerard). To replace the original cave-chapel, the first church there was founded by a priest with the name Benedict. Not much is known of this priest. It can be assumed that he came from one of the Benedictine monasteries somewhere in Tuscany. About the years 1120-1130 important donations of rights and lands from the local lords, the Ardengheschi, combined substantial holdings in the surrounding forest to support the hermits financially. The hermitage had been officially recognised by the bishop of Siena, Rainerio II, around the year 1168. This gave the hermitage autonomy under episcopal authority, in return for which the hermitage gave a yearly offering of wax to the cathedral of Siena on the feast of the Assumption of Mary.
The original hermitage turned into a fairly substantial complex, with a cloister known to have been constructed there before the 1199.
In his bull, Incumbit nobis of 16th December 1243, Pope Innocent IV ordered that all the hermits of the Tuscany, with the exception of the Williamites (Guglielmiti), to follow the Rule of Saint Augustine. The Williamites already had the type of papal approval that the Tuscan hermits were then seeking from the Pope, hence were not involved in the Little Union of 1244; it is of interest to note, however, that the Williamites were drawn into the Grand Union of 1256, even if they soon afterwards departed from it.
By the Little Union of 1244 these hermitages were among about sixty communities that become one religious group. Henceforth the having of remote hermitages such as at San Leonardo del Lago and Santa Lucia at Rosia would not be the prime focus of the amalgamation of groupings of Tuscan hermits that was begun at the Little Union in 1244. Any redeployment of members would generally be away from isolated localities to venues in the growing towns, where there was much more apostolic ministry that demanded attention. Because of the rise of the observant movement in the Order of Saint Augustine in the second half of the fourteenth century, however, the much larger Eremo di Lecceto would prove an exception.
Thus it was that a decree endorsed by Pope Innocent IV on 26th May 1252 merged the hermitage of S. Leonardo da Lago with the far larger Eremo di Lecceto (the hermitage of San Salvatore - the holy Saviour). This happened after an official visitation of the region that had been ordered by Cardinal Richard Annibaldi upon the Tuscan Hermits (i.e., the congregation formed at the Little Union of 1244 by the amalgamation of the hermits of Tuscany). Video (below): 'URSEA ALL'EREMO DI SAN LEONARDO AL LAGO (1 minute)
The prominence and fortunes of the hermitage at San Leonard da Lago were boosted by the presence there from 1300 to 1309 of a prominent member of the Order of Saint Augustine. This was Agostino Novello O.S.A. (c. 1245 - 1309). Because of his connections with Sicily, he is sometimes also called Augustine of Tarano. (For the pages of biography in Augnet upon Augustine of Tarano O.S.A., click here.) He had a brilliant career both as a layman and as a member of the Order of Saint Augustine. He studied law at the University of Bologna and became the personal councillor in Sicily to King Manfred, the son of Ludwig II.
As a member of the Order of Saint Augustine he became Prior General in 1298. He did so out of obedience, and resigned in 1300 to retire to a life of prayer at San Leonardo da Lago. He lived there for the last ten years of his life, from 1300 to 1309. There he ministered to the people of the surrounding villages. In Siena he played an important role in the founding the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, and composed a set of guidelines for the hospital community. This activity and his renowned holiness prompted great generosity towards the hermitage of San Leonardo da Lago for many years after his death.
There was sufficient generosity towards the eremo at San Leonardo da Lago at that time to have a new church built there. The work of this eremo was further aided by the strength of the observant movement in the Order of Saint Augustine and in other mendicant orders in the second half of the fourteenth century. It was thus possible to commission frescoes there in 1370 by Lippo Vanni (c. 1340 – c.1375), who was the leading artist in Siena at the time. (See next page).
Part of this fresco showed Augustine as a bishop. Another part showed him at his moment of great restlessness and conversion in the garden of Milan, with his mother Monica praying fervently not far away. Lippo Vanni worked in and around Siena as an illuminator of manuscripts as well as a fresco and panel painter. Vanni was considered to be one of the leading painters of his day. For example, in 1356 a record of the painters working in Siena placed the name of Lippo Vanni at the top of the list. He illuminated choir books for the parish church in San Gimignano. He also painted frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico ("city hall") and in the Franciscan church in Siena.
In these same years the church at San Leonardo da Lago was also embellished with the paintings of the Virgin Mary, Saint Augustine, and of Saints Leonardo and Augustine together. A fresco there by Lippo Vanni in 1370 dealt with the life of Augustine. Part of this fresco showed Augustine as a bishop. Another part showed him at his moment of great restlessness and conversion in the garden of Milan, with his anxious and watchful mother Monica depicted as praying fervently not far away.
In 1366 the eremo was fortified in order to offer shelter in the event of war for the population of the village of Santa Colomba (10 km from Siena and 50 km from Florence). The eremo received a visit from Pope Pius II (Pope 1458 to 1464) in 1460. Siena was the area of birth of Pius, and while Pope he spent some time there.
In the fifteenth century, another artist was commissioned to assist the eremo. He was Giovanni di Paolo (1399/1403 – 1482). For San Leonardo da Lago he painted his only fresco, the Crucifixion. He also made the Antiphonal - illuminated choir book - made for the eremo of Order of Saint Augustine monks at the Eremo di Lecceto. It is now displayed at the Biblioteca Communale degli Intronati, Siena.
The eremo of San Leonardo da Lago had a community of the Tuscan hermit grouping formed by the Little Union of 1244 until the changing patterns in society and in the church - especially after they were swept into the Grand Union of 1256 - saw the focus of their ministry turn much more to the growing populations of the cities. In the face of this reality, the eremo was suppressed in 1782 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He amalgamated it with the Eremo of Lecceto, which he also suppressed. In 1808, the government of Napoleon evicted the Augustinian community from Lecceto.
Although the Order of Saint Augustine returned to Lecceto (after an Augustinian absence of 162 years, with Augustinian contemplative nuns in 1972), San Leonardo da Lago is still government property and part of the national heritage of Italy. Unfortunately the hermitage is closed to the public. The exterior of the church has an interesting façade, which can be viewed. It has a rose window over the main doorway.
Near the church are remains of the Augustinian monastery, which is now used as a residence for the caretaker of the property.
13th Century Augustinian Monasteries. Text by Fr. Brian Lowery, OSA, Ph.D, and uploaded by the Augustinians in California, USA. An excellent overview, with illustrations. http://osa-west.org/ancient-osa-monasteries.html