Cesena and Its Valleys: Medieval Villages, Ancient Churches and Rugged Castles Set Amid Serene Hills.


The Apennine Valleys Around Cesena

Cesena – Outline of the Town

Cesena is the main town in an area immersed in a countryside of gentle rolling hills covered  in spring  with peach and cherry blossoms. As a town, it is both welcoming and discrete, reserved but lively at once, and full of civic commitment, rooted in the tradition of Mazzini and Garibaldi. It has produced numerous talented people in both the artistic and entrepreneurial sectors, as can be appreciated by the cultural traditions and the successful business activities of the 20th century. In short, the town has managed to combine its traditional agricultural vocation with the modern world, and it has even become an international standard bearer for the production and processing of fruit and vegetables.

The old town centre – shaped rather uniquely in the guise of a scorpion – is surrounded by well-conserved walls built in the late Middle Ages. The Cesuola stream runs through the old part of town while the Savio river is just down by its side; a third new bridge has been built, doubling the two historic ones. The town lies at the foot of the Garampo hill, which the ancient via Aemilia made a wide curve around, known in the old times as curva Caesena (‘Cesena bend’). In terms of natural pursuits in town, on top of the high wall linking the polygonal tower of the Castle to the Town Hall is the Loggetta Veneziana ('Venetian Loggia'), originally an uncovered walkway. This building houses today the Museo di Storia Naturale (Museum of Natural History), which has some old instruments once used in teaching science and is well worth a visit – if only for the wonderful views on the main square and over the old town.   

The Valleys Around Cesena

The valleys around Cesena begin at the edge of the ancient via Aemilia and wind through gently rolling hills covered in more vineyards and orchards. This is an area with views stretching as far as the eye can see, limited only by the sight of the sea at the end of extensive hills, across a land dotted with hamlets, parish churches and ancient castles. 

The RoncoSavio and Rubicone valleys reach deep into the marly-sandstone Romagna Apennines up towards the Tuscan border. In the first two valleys, which run along busy trade routes, several market towns are met at regular intervals along the way; for this reason, the settlements here tend to be on the valley floors, while in the Rubicone valley they are usually built on the ridges, to reflect a different origin: that of defense outposts, guarding the old boundary between Rimini and Forlì. Numerous  often wonderfully located – roads now connect the main centres to smaller valleys such as those of the Borello or Uso streams, where limestone cliffs rise sharply out of the undulated countryside.

In this area, where sulphur deposits were discovered a long time ago, three places stand out: Longiano, a beautiful and intact medieval village; Sarsina, a town initially founded by the Umbri and then occupied by the Romans, who turned it into a major centre a site where St. Vicinius was once worshiped and that now hosts an important Archaelological Museumwhich is a major institution of its kind in Italy (albeit not a very well known one, and which would do with more attention); finally, Bertinoro deserves a description in its own right, which is dealt with in this page.

Bagno di Romagna, in the upper Savio valley (in an area also known as ‘Tuscan Romagna’), is worth a mention too, as it is renowned for its spas and displays a beautiful town centre. Here is where the hills reach 800-900 metres of altitude and become mountains, skirting the edge of the Foreste Casentinesi National Park that opens up onto a very different landscape altogether, dominated by extensive beech woodland and ancient fir forests, with many open fields and pastures still roamed by wild animals (there have even been occasional sightings of wolves).

Monte Fumaiolo (1,408 m) is the highest summit of the region, in the middle of a very frequented summer holiday area, and it is equipped for skiing too. On the slopes of this mountain, at 1,268 m and not far from the Savio valley, there is also the source of the Tiber (the springs of this river are therefore in Emilia-Romagna: a fact unbeknown to many, even in Italy) – the river that has played such a pivotal role in the destiny of Rome and of the country as a whole.


San Giovanni in Galilea

History of the Pieve (Mother Church) of San Giovanni Battista

The historical digs of 1970, in the locality of La Piva, brought to light the foundations of a semicircular apse belonging to an ancient Byzantine Pieve (Mother church), crumbled following a landslide at the beginning of the 17th C. The building was situated in a strategic position, at the crossroads of ancient routes that linked San Giovanni in Galilea with the Val Marecchia and the Montefeltro, as well as with the Uso and Rubicone valleys. It is likely that the erection of such an imposing building could have been carried out by the Byzantines, as a crucial element of a project of evangelizing and repopulating this territory, in a place which was once isolated and arduous to reach, after the end of the disastrous Greek-Gothic wars, at the time of the Bishops of Ravenna Massimiano and Agnello (546-570). 

The Documents. The first documents attesting to the existence of a Pieve are two scrolls of the Codice Bavaro dating between 750 and 980, with an act of 970, where is being mentioned the “plabato (village) of San Giovanni in Galilea”. Quite numerous are the quotes related to lists of chapels depending on this Pieve, and the registers of the payment of tithes for the benefit of the churches belonging to the Diocese of Rimini, between 1059 and 1376. Until the beginning of the 16th C, however, there were no detailed information regarding the Pieve, even though it was obvious that this was the main administrative and religious center (until the 13th C) for the sparse villages all around (including San Giovanni in Galilea, Castello dei Borghi, San Martino in Conversano, Sogliano and Scorticata — now Torriana), where the inhabitants would gather for religious worship and civilian reasons too. In the following centuries, the documentation available increases, and it is often rich in particulars (pastoral visits, notation acts, memories of the parish church, etc.). 

The Renovation of the building. With the passing centuries, it is likely that, because of the worsened climatic conditions, the original church suffered some damage, and works of re-arrangement were deemed necessary. It is also possible that, at this stage, a crypt was built in the interior, and that an external decoration clad by roughly-cut square stones would be added, as it is testified by the thick walls built with blocks that surfaced downstream of the landslide, in the Rio Ferale (now Puccio) area, built according to new building techniques introduced by the Roman workforce coming from Lombardy, between the 12th and 13th C. 

The ‘new’ Pieve. At the beginning of the 16th C the Pieve — by now unusable because of the landslides  was abandoned. To the east of the old apse is then built the ‘new’ Pieve (Pieve nova), which has been rediscovered in the occasion of the digs of 2004-9 (described below). Worth noticing is also an act (testament) of 1525, where the church defined as “chiesa nova di San Giovanni Battista” is being mentioned. But after just a few years, also this new building starts being affected by the landslides, and humidity begins to filter inside the walls. In 1544, Bishop Parisani — in the account of his pastoral visit — manifests his concerns regarding the foundations of the new building; in 1572 the font is being placed in the church of San Pietro, inside the walls, to then be brought — after some restoration work — in the ‘chiesa nova’. In 1620, Bishop Pavoni leaves us a detailed description of the church and its inside furnishings; from this, it results that the altar had already been moved to the western end. In 1681, the building is declared ‘unfit for use, because the eastern end threatened to crumble; Bishop Galli orders therefore to shorten it, with the abandonment of the apse, now perhaps readapted as a small chapel. The last attempt at restoring the building — due to Don Gaudenzio Giovanardi — is fruitless, as soon the walls of the church present signs of splitting open, and in 1741 the font is being moved into San Pietro for good, where — a year later — also all the paintings and the remaining ornaments are being transferred. In 1742 the roof collapses, and this church is also abandoned.

The Archaeological Digs

In 1970, some archaeological digs have been carried out in order to retrace the remains of the ancient Pieve of San Giovanni; following advice and proposals by the then director of the Museo Renzi, as well as the Superintendent (‘Soprintendenza’), the imposing foundation wall of the semi-circular apse of the ancient Pieve, sited above the edge of a landslide, was being found. The foundations of the apse, in large pebbles connected by mortar, have a thickness of circa 1,40 m, while the nave must have been roughly 15 m wide. At the center of the apse is a large pillar of a cylindrical shape of about 2 m of diameter, probably the support of a crypt. The Pieve, between the 6th and the 7th C, must have been similar to that of nearby Santarcangelo (still standing, although restructured), with the apse facing east and consisting of a unique nave. The external decoration of the Pieve is basically unknown, even though some sections of the wall — built with large blocks, and resurfacing in the area of the so-called Rio Puccio, downstream of the landslide — suggest a construction made with roughly cut stones, typical of the Roman buildings. 

In 2004, a new research started, promoted by the director of the Museo Renzi and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici of the Emilia-Romagna region, as it was necessary to verify the data that were emerging from the written sources. Consequently, digs were started east of the Pieve; in this way, the foundations of the Pieve ‘novacame to light, as mentioned in the ancient sources, and built at the end of the 15th C. The Renaissance church of San Giovanni Battista was built in pebble and brick, connected with mortar, with the apse facing east and a single nave. At the beginning of the 17th C, because of a structural caving in, the church was then abridged, the apse emptied, and the altar turned around; that is, facing west (thus it was described during the pastoral visits). In the interior of the nave, under the flooring (now disappeared), there are four ossuaries, built in masonry, and covered by a vaulted ceiling, one of which was dedicated to children and infants. 

In 2009, the Museo Renzi was being refurbished and inaugurated, with two rooms dedicated entirely to both churches, where have been exhibited part of the materials that had previously been found. Soon after, began the works of restoration and setting up of the archaeological area as museum, financed by the local municipality of Borghi and the Emilia-Romagna region, with the coordination of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici of the Emilia-Romagna. These works have allowed the discovery of a 14th C church apse and of a lime producing plant, which was obtained out of at least three types of calcareous stone, then used in the Renaissance building site. 

The archaeological area has a strong landscape value, by becoming an integral part of it. It interacts with its surroundings by creating an exchange, in the sense that it takes from it the elements of which it is constituted and, at the same time, it gives back to the environment the culture from which it takes its origin. Precisely this exchange between nature and culture originates what can be defined as ’landscape’, but most of all, that is what keeps it alive. The archaeological site of San Giovanni in Galilea inserts itself well in the territory, and despite transforming its perception, it nevertheless helps to maintain its characteristics.

The Hamlet of San Giovanni in Galilea

San Giovanni in Galilea, the ancient Castel Lungo (‘Long Castle’), is outstretched along the ridge of an elongated hill, and it is open towards a landscape composed of hills and mountains often turreted or crowned by ancient castles (Torriana, San Marino, San Leo), looking towards the verdant region of Montefeltro on one side; on the other side, instead, the vision opens up on the Uso and Rubicone valleys, while far away — when the northerly winds, or the gusts of the local wind known as ‘garbino’ clean the air — one can see as far as the sea and the city of Ravenna in the distance.

Frequented since the Neolithic, this locality was inhabited by the populations of the Villanoviano, whose artifacts in bronze or terracotta are the result of archaeological digs carried out during the last century, and one of the main attractions of the local Museo Renzi. Over time, to inhabit the area, followed the Galli Senoni, to whom can perhaps be referred the toponym ‘Galilea’, as this — in all likelihood — is not a reference to the region of Galilee, but rather to be intended as “territory of the Gauls” (derived from a root Gallilea, or Gallinea); the Romans and the Byzantine followed suit. The area remained under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rimini until the 13th C, then it fell under the dominion of the Malatesta, first of Rimini, then — since 1464 — of the branch of the same family from Sogliano (taking their name from a nearby village). Carlo, Ramberto ‘il Filosofo’ and his descendants all lived in San Giovanni in Galilea, in a castle (‘Rocca’) which had been erected by them in 1645, and of which the ruins can still be seen. Around that time, the Church took hold of the castle; at that point, the autonomous community (regulated by ‘Statuti’, charters) became run by a Governor (‘Governatore’), then a Podestà, nominated by the Apostolic Chamber. During the occupation of the Napoleonic troops, San Giovanni — together with the nearby locality of San Martino in Converseto — definitely became part of the municipality of Borghi, to which it still belongs today.

The “Fonte del Coppo” Spring

In 2010, the restoration of this spring has been executed, financed by the municipality of Borghi and the Emilia-Romagna region, coordinated by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici of the Emilia-Romagna. The structure was first freed externally by the vegetation that swamped it, then consolidated and restored. The interior measures 2,20 m x 1,80 m, with a height of 3 m and a vaulted ceiling. The bricks posed on the flooring cover entirely also a small well, which measures 0,8 m in diameter, and has a depth of 0,6 m. The water springs from a corner to the south, through a small aperture. 

The “Fonte del Coppo”, with its fresh and pure waters, has quenched the thirst of the local population since time immemorial, and until the last century the people of San Giovanni in Galilea would gather here, and bring their animals and livestock with them too; for a long time, this has also been a meeting place for the local women, who would come here to wash their laundry. This location, accidentally, also saw a relevant historic fact; on August 1st, 1848, Giuseppe Garibaldi, fleeing from Rome after the fall of the Roman Republic, coming from San Marino, where he had relinquished his Legion, arrived with his lifelong companion Anita and two groups of volunteers in San Giovanni in Galilea. An account from the time recalls: “The first (group) passed by a place belonging to the parish of San Giovanni in Galilea known as Masrola, and the other by the family Cola (…), then they rejoined by the Pieve. From Masrola, the column in which Garibaldi also served ascended through a place known as Il Fossone (…). From Casa Molari, the group rose further to Casa Soardi, and (passed) under the cliff of the castle, (then) through the thick wood (existing at the time), (and) belonging to the family Barbieri, while the other group had already reached the Pieve. At the northwestern slope of the mount of San Giovanni in Galilea there exists a spring of excellent water, and here both parts of the column (coming) from (the) nearby Pieve, where they had joined, could go on to water men and animals alike”.


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