Sunday, July 21, 2013

San Leolino, Panzano

A Charming Church

the view from the church, looking west
It is a truth universally acknowledged that churches are to be found in the most panoramic sites. San Leolino, near Panzano in Chianti, is no exception. 

The oft-cited explanation for churches' prime locations is: they got there first. More accurately: they frequently took over from other cults and civilizations which got there first. The Etruscans preferred hilltop sites for their towns and their necropoli, often situated on two adjoining elevations. (One wonders if it was simply for defensive reasons.) Panzano is a case in point: of Etruscan origin, it was also inhabited by the Romans who were keen on elevation, when available


the elegant 16th century facade with its asymmetrical portico or loggia


San Leolino was founded in the 10th century: 982 CE to be precise. In its enviable position on the top of one of Panzano's hills, the church is visible from many vantage points. We see it on the northerly skyline from Le Ripe and it is one of the first features we point out to guests.

San Leolino and its bell-tower seen from Le Ripe: this view is side-on
Naturally the church has been restored many times, most recently in the 1940s when it was thankfully pared back to its original Romanesque stone structure: a nave and two aisles ending in apses with lovely simple arches between nave and aisles resting on sandstone pillars; above, timber rafters.


Perhaps the most charming aspect of this charming church is the cloister, situated on the southern side. Dating to the 13th century, the cloister is home to some plants - not the 'simples' of the middle ages, but pots of geraniums mostly - and a great deal of peace and quiet. The pillars are original and are interesting for their rounded bricks.
 
the tiniest cloister I have ever seen

The church proudly displays several works of art. The most ancient is the carved sandstone slab of the altar, from the 8th century. A painting attributed to Meliore di Jacopo of 'Our Lady enthroned between Peter and Paul', dated to about 1270, contrasts stylistically with the 14th century triptych by the 'Master of Panzano' depicting the Madonna and Child and the mystical marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. The first work adheres to the stylized iconography of earlier centuries while the second evinces the warmth and expression of contemporaries of Giotto. Both are striking, so different from one another.

Our Lady enthroned between Saints Peter and Paul, Meliore di Jacopo, 1270
Behind the altar hangs a polyptych (1421), attributed to Mariotto di Nardo, portraying the incarnation of Christ and a series of saints including Saint Eufrosino, who preached in Chianti. The tabernacles on either side of the main altar are by Giovanni della Robbia (16th century). 
 
view from church, looking north towards Panzano

San Leolino is also home to a small but active community, composed of priests and laymen, who live and work together as a religious collective studying the relationships between culture and religion. They promote a series of cultural events and exchanges while living the contemplative life. And what better place to do so?

shelter and shade
As a visiting friend commented upon viewing San Leolino on a hot summer's day, "They [monks and their builders] were masters of shade." She was right: the cool church interior behind its thick walls of stone, the arcaded cloister, the rows of cypresses and some glorious linden trees casting deep shadow, must have provided respite over the centuries to those seeking comfort and guidance in this ancient place.


San Leolino is usually open but if it is not you can try ringing the bell to see if they will let you in. The cloister, to the right of the nave, is also not always open. I hope you are lucky when you visit...
The Pieve di San Leolino can be reached from the 222, the Chiantigiana, after Panzano going towards Radda, up a narrow road on the left. Or from the road which passes Cecchini the butcher continuing on to the unsealed road towards Volpaia. There are signs as you approach. In the summer the community of San Leolino organises concerts and other events.

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