Valentine, the mysterious figure of a saint between faith and mass culture

It is curious that one of the most heartfelt and celebrated holidays in the world is connected not only to the mysterious hagiography of the saint from which it takes its name, but that the figure of the martyr himself is still, to a large extent, confused with that of other saints of the same name, generating a non-negligible confusion about the origins of the festival and its diffusion up to the present day. But let’s go in order.

Sources tell us that a certain bishop Valentino, born in Interamna Nahars (today’s Terni), was summoned to Rome by the Greek philosopher Craton to take care of his son Cerimone, suffering from a serious neurological pathology. It seems that Valentino enjoyed the reputation of a miracle worker because, some time before, he had successfully treated a young man in the exact same conditions.

Cerimone’s recovery pushes his entire family to convert to Christianity; some of Crato’s disciples also converted, including Abbondio, son of the Prefect Furioso Placido. At that point the Senate intervenes, arrests Valentino in the middle of the night and secretly has him executed. The same end happened to three of his disciples who, in bringing his remains back to Terni, were arrested and executed by the local magistrate.


chiese di terni
Basilica di San Valentino


Other details, such as the date of death (14 February) and the city of burial (Terni), are found in an official Church document called Martyrologium hieronymianum (5th-6th century), while in the Passio Sancti Valentini episcopi et martiri (6th century .) lingers on the details relating to torture and death by decapitation. The sources allow us to reconstruct the era in which the story takes place, presumably between 346 and 347, in the full post-Constantinian era. This would also explain the secret action: the magistrates no longer had the power to legally prosecute Christians. The bishop and his disciples were then buried on the hill of Terni, at the LXIII mile of the Via Flaminia; a basilica later arose here which, after being destroyed and rebuilt several times, is remembered for having hosted the meeting, in 792, between Pope Zacharias and the Lombard king Liutprand, who thus donated numerous cities to the Church of Rome, including Sutri. The place was chosen precisely because the Lombards held in high regard the thaumaturgical abilities that had accompanied the figure of the saint in life and in death.

The basilica, as we see it today, is the result of a seventeenth-century reconstruction carried out following the re-evaluation of the figures of the first martyrs by Pope Paul V. In fact, excavations were promoted to recover the remains of Valentino, who rested for around thirteen years in the cathedral of Terni, waiting for the renovation works to be completed. Today they are kept in an urn placed under the altar.

San Valentino

The love story between Sabino and Serapia

Not far from the basilica, there is also a necropolis, called the Steelworks. In 1909, a bisomous sarcophagus, that is, with two bodies, was found there, whose funerary objects also featured, among other things, two intertwined bracelets. Some interpreted it as the symbol of the eternal love of two figures much appreciated by popular tradition, namely Sabino and Serapia who, with Valentino’s blessing, would have loved each other forever. From here someone has derived the association between the Saint and the feast of lovers. In reality, analyzes have shown that these are the bodies of two little girls, 8 centuries earlier than Valentine’s Day: their tomb was completely recreated within the archaeological section of CAOS (Centro Arti Opificio Siri).

The other Valentino

In reality we know very little about the figure of Valentino, especially if we think about the cases of homonymy and the many controversial theories according to which he became the patron saint of lovers. In fact, there was also talk of another Valentine, also martyred on February 14, who however was a priest from Rome. However, the dates do not correspond: it seems that the story of the Roman Valentine took place under the empire of Gallienus, between 253 and 268, and that his body was buried at the foot of the current Parioli hill. So, for some time, scholars believed that they were simply two different people.

For others, however, the name of saint would have been given to the financier of the basilica above the catacomb of San Valentino, in Rome: it was common practice, in fact, to thank the benefactors with high-sounding names, as in the case of Santa Prassede or Santa Cecilia . Only recently has the idea been accepted that the two Valentines were actually the same person, whose cult would have spread from Rome to the saint’s hometown, not so far away, where fellow citizens would have honored him with the title of episcopus.

The hand of the English

However, this does not explain how a saint, famous for his healing abilities, became the patron saint of lovers. For some, Valentine’s Day derives from the Lupercalia, wild celebrations relating to the veneration of the pagan god of fertility Lupercus, which fell on February 15th. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius decided to transform the connotation of the celebrations in order to make it more in line with Christian morality and to bring everything forward to the 14th, so that they coincide with the day dedicated to Valentine’s Day. This tradition was reinforced by the Benedictines, the first custodians of the Terni basilica, but was consecrated by a culture that we could define as mass – although ante litteram – by Geoffrey Chaucher. The English poet, in his work The Parliament of Birds, associates Valentine’s anniversary with the engagement of Richard II of England with Anne of Bohemia and calls the saint to supervise the “love festival” which takes hold in late February all the creatures spread across the Earth by Mother Nature, including birds. The same image was then taken up by Shakespeare and some French poets, who brought it towards modern times, increasingly similar to the form in which we know it today.

San Valentino in Umbria

Chiesa di San Valentino, Casteldilago

In Umbria, several buildings and places of worship are dedicated to the Saint, as well as numerous toponyms. One of these is San Valentino della Collina, a hamlet of the Municipality of Marsciano already mentioned in 1163 in the imperial diploma granted by Frederick I to the bishop of Perugia.

The main church of the village is dedicated to Valentino. In Valnerina, in Scheggino, there is the castle of San Valentino – also enriched by the church of the same name – built as a villa dependent on the abbey fiefdom of San Piero in Valle. Votive frescoes are preserved in the church in which Saint Valentine now appears at the foot of the cross with Saint Catherine of Alexandria and now surrounds the Blessed Virgin together with Saint Blaise.

Going down towards Terni, a church dedicated to San Valentino is also found in Casteldilago, a small village in the municipality of Arrone. Here a statue of the saint protectively holds a miniature reproduction of the village in his hands.