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 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The earliest-known historical reference to any form of hermitage - probably small and quite rudimentary - at Lecceto is a document dated on the 18th September 1223.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.
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For pictures of Lecceto on Augnet: select Italy: Lecceto after you click here.