The origins of the church of San Leone are found in the 1379 founding of the oratory by a congregation of secular devotees from Pistoia’s Spirito Santo. The oratory first occupied the space of the present-day nave and was built with donations by the merchant Jacopo Berti and his confrères.
The congregation’s prestige grew over the centuries and their economic fortunes prospered to the point that, in the eighteenth century, the property was enlarged with the purchase of adjacent lands. Following these annexations, the confrères decided to enlarge the church’s structure and decorate it again in order to make it richer and closer to the style of the time. The work was entrusted to the Pistoian architect Raffaello Ulivi. He gave architectural unity to the complex, with the church assuming its current aspect of a single hall with three bays, flattened barrel vault ceiling, and a choir with ribbed covering.
The fresco painter Vincenzo Meucci and the quadraturista Giuseppe del Moro were summoned from Florence for the decorations. attributable to the hand of these two masters are the choir vault, with its representation of the Pentecost (much appreciated at the time by the confrères); the lunettes, with their personifications of the Cardinal Virtues (Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence, Justice) and, at the center of the barrel-vaulted nave, the Glory of Saint Peter.
The choice of decorations a quadratura (an illusionistic painting of architectural spaces) and the apotheosis of the saints were typically Baroque. The Glory of Saint Peter is fully attributable to painting a sfondamento, a style that opens up the room owing to the perspective from below. In this apotheosis of the saint, Meucci uses a light-colored painting with chiaroscuro effects on the ceiling to present worshippers with emotional suggestions, as if they were in the presence of a true ascension. Looking up toward the sky, Saint Peter is surrounded by light and carried in glory on a cloud drawn by angels. Below is the allegory of Heresy, personified by a female figure being driven away by some angels.
Meucci and Del Moro did not finish the decoration because of other commissions. The work in the choir area was completed by lesser workers with decorations that reproduce in a simplified way the paintings in the Badia Fiorentina choir.
In 1764 the decorations were completed by an artist from Bologna, Mauro Tesi, nicknamed Maurino. This marked the transition from Baroque to neo-classical with the sophisticated false honeycomb-coffered vault and faux bas-reliefs depicting evangelical episodes in which the Holy Spirit intervenes. This attention to the Holy Spirit is found specifically in the congregation’s dedication. The interior space was completely embellished with colorfully painted faux marbles on all the architectural cornices, subtly “tricking” the viewer’s eye by giving the illusion of being in an elegant aristocratic room.
The paintings still on the two side altars in the nave are from the XVII century. To the left is depicted the Ascension by Stefano Marucelli for the Bronconi family, and to the right, the Resurrection of Christ by Giovanni Lanfranchi for the Arfaruoli family. The coats-of-arms of the two client families are visible on the plinths of the two altars.
In 1773, after 400 years, the congregation was transferred and the oratory went to the Episcopal seminary. It was at this juncture that the church took on its dedication to St. Leo the Great, the seminary’s patron. After only about ten years, in 1787, the reforms by the Bishop of Pistoia Scipione Ricci meant that the seminary was moved to new premises and the church passed to the cathedral chapter.
This began the structure’s upward path that was marked by a decline in the 1930s after changes in the urban fabric and the destruction of the district in order to construct the post office. Marginalized since that moment, the church (now open only on special occasions) has been neglected, serving as a storage location despite its historical and artistic value and an example of Baroque style and the transition to neo-classical.
Text: Beatrice Landini, Elena Zinanni, FAI Giovani Pistoia
Photo: Nicolò Begliomini