Basilica di San Valentino (facade)

The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Saint Valentine of Terni

Not many tourists make it to Terni. But many of those who do come to Umbria’s second largest town come specifically to see the church of Saint Valentine.

Terni’s Basilica di San Valentino is an elegant Baroque church that sits in a valley below the main city. Consecrated in 1630, the basilica of San Valentino is built on top of the remains of two previous churches, the first of which dates from the 4th century (destroyed by the Goths in the 6th century) and the second of which dates from the 7th century. The church was built on top of the tomb of Saint Valentine, but his remains now lie enshrined behind glass atop the main altar of the church.

Saint Valentine of Terni
Saint Valentine of Terni © Melanie Renzulli

Visitors to the church can descend below the main altar to see the remains of the original tomb, where there is a commemorative plaque. There are also places to leave behind notes of gratitude and love to the saint.

Although Saint Valentine is the patron saint of Terni, his basilica is not the city’s Duomo. That honor is held by Santa Maria Assunta, where Valentine’s remains were housed during the construction of the present church. The duomo was also the church at the center of a controversy in 2016, when the parishioners of San Valentino created a human blockade against a procession that would temporarily transfer the saint’s remains to the city cathedral.


The life, death, and legend of Saint Valentine is rather complicated, with as many as three men competing for the historical title. But many hagiographers agree that the “real” Saint Valentine was the one who was born in Terni (Interamna) in the late 2nd century and was martyred in Rome in the 3rd century. Valentine was Terni’s first bishop, an early Christian who followed the religion when it was still a cult in the Roman Empire.

There are a few legends as to why Saint Valentine became associated with love. Some stories relate that Valentine married couples, particularly Roman soldiers, at a time when Emperor Claudius II banned his soldiers from getting married so as to keep them fierce and free of familial obligations. Another (rather saccharine) story (that I don’t buy) has Valentino offering a rose to a fighting couple and telling them to love one each other as if they had only one heart.

Still another story has Valentino falling in love with the daughter of the prison guard when he was imprisoned in Rome. This legend has Valentino leaving the woman a note inscribed with “Your Valentine” right before his death. It seems implausible to me that a prisoner in 3rd century Rome would have had access to papyrus, lambskin scrolls, or a writing instrument. But it’s a fun legend to tell if you’re trying to pull on some gullible person’s heart strings.

San Valentino in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome
San Valentino in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome copy; Melanie Renzulli

If you’re telling stories about Valentine, then you might as well inform your listeners that the day that we celebrate the saint – February 14 – is the day on which he was martyred. Sentenced to death for proselytizing, San Valentino was beheaded somewhere near the Via Flaminia on February 14, 273. The Basilica and Catacombs of San Valentino (sadly, closed to the public) are said to have housed the body of the saint for a short time before his most ardent followers took his body to be buried in Terni.

But tell that to the congregation of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. This church in central Rome, famous for its Mouth of Truth, houses the relic of the head of Saint Valentine. My Ternana friend was aghast at the suggestion that anything but the complete bodily remains were in the basilica in Terni.

And that’s exactly how legends work. Like love and faith, legends require a suspension of reason and a bit of magic to endure.

This post is my contribution to our Italy Roundtable on “Myths and Legends.” Please read the fantastic contributions from the rest of the group:

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