Star Wars in North-East Italy

Of all Italian fortified towns Palmanova is, literally the country’s star attraction. Not only is it one of the world’s most perfect examples of a city’s defence system, it is actually built as a nine-pointed star as this aerial plan reveals.

Lucca has some fine walls but they were built to enclose an already existing city. In the case of Palmanova, however, which is in the north-east Italian region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, the city was built as a new fortified location at the end of the sixteenth century on plans by the great architect Scamozzi who was inspired by neo-humanist ideas of the ideal city and sketches by Leonardo da Vinci himself. The actual construction was supervised by Giulio Savorgnan who also built the walls still standing in Nicosia in Cyprus. (Anyone who has read Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ will know of the battles that island had to withstand against the Turk).

Palmanova itself was not only another defensive post against the Turk but also against the Hapsburgs who had captured the Venetian outpost of Gradisca some years earlier. ‘La Serenissima’, Venetian republic had to safeguard its unsafe eastern frontier against two enemies and Palmanova was never actually attacked by either Ottomans or Austrians. Indeed, the city was like a renaissance equivalent of the H-bomb: it served as a deterrent and was only captured through internal treachery by Napoleon’s troops in 1798 –an action which led to the infamous treaty of Campoformio and the death of one of the world’s most illustrious republics – something which still grieves every true Venetian to this day.

Palmanova is built on mathematical principles and, in particular, on the number three. There are three concentric walls and within these walls there are three radial streets. There are three entrance gates:  (Porta Udine, Porta Cividale, and Porta Aquileia).

Each of the three roads leads to a central monumental six-sided square which has to be one of Italy’s most spectacular piazzas ever. Just to stand in the centre of this stupefying square was one of the greatest sensations I’ve ever had in any of Italy’s extraordinary cities.

Each of the three outer walls contains nine bulwarks and various state-of-the art fortifications which are ample proof of the increasing efficacy of fire-power throughout the seventeenth century. For example, there are ravelins – triangular free standing platforms – standing against the walls, a system of ditches and hidden forts and, above all, a high-standing steep-sided brick and earth rampart which actually hides the city from public view. Indeed, even the main square’s cathedral campanile is specially shortened so that it doesn’t stand out to view by any potential enemy. If you don’t look out for the signs leading into Palmanova chances are you’re likely to miss it!

I’d pored over maps of Palmanova years before I actually reached it last month during our peregrinations in Friuli and was quite stunned by this mixture of a starred fortified town combined with the ideals of a symmetrical renaissance Albertian city.

The cathedral is the most notable building in the main hexagonal ‘square’. Designed by Scamozzi it contains the body of Santa Giustinia, a beautiful maiden who is the town’s patron saint.

It seems so ironical that this astounding city of Palmanova was built in the spirit of military enterprise. How could such a beautiful place be combined with all the engines of war in those ages? One has just to look at the present examples of nuclear missile bunkers and radar installations to realise that Palmanova, despite all its beauty, is on the same trail that has led to the terrible lottery of defensive mechanisms that the world now has. But, at least Palmanova is lovely whereas a nuclear bunker is not!

As we exited the triple arches of the porta Aquileja I could not help being reminded of those lines recited by the Moor of Venice:

O farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife;
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’ immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit,
Farewell!

Trassilico’s Sweet Little Castagnata

Not all Castagnate have to be big affairs. There was a little confusion this weekend about which Castagnate should be where.

Trassilico is one of the most loveable villages in the Gallicano area and I was able to attend a miniscule but very friendly castagnata (chestnut festa) there.

I particularly enjoyed talking to the maker of the model of this metato (chestnut drying hut). He has built many such models including a mill.

There was also a very friendly cat called Ruffo:

I had a chat with one particularly knowledgeable local about the history of Trassilico. It used to be a truly important Estensi centre (i.e. under the rule of the Estensi family from Ferrara) and to this day does not enjoy being under the yoke of Lucca. It even was its own comune until 1947 and the recent merger of Vergemoli comune not with it but with Fabbriche di Vallico made my narrators’ blood boil. History in these parts of Italy isn’t something one just reads about in books. It is felt upon the pulse and there is real resentment against Luccan domination to this day!

I’ve already written about transcendental Trassilico. (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/trassilican-transcendence/ )

There is however, always more to discover. The walks from Trassilico are some of the best in the Apuan Alps and I took one to the church of San Ansano, a little way outside town. Can you see the Monte Forato (the mountain with the huge natural arch) in the distance?

On the way I passed an old version of a fridge – a stone hut called a ‘casalino’ built into the side of a rocky outcrop to keep items like milk and cheese fresh.

Trassilico, in fact has four churches and finally I was able to find out why the finest is some way down the hill, It’s because in the fourteenth century there was a massive earthquake in the area and people decided to rebuilt their village further up on the ridge, leaving the magnificent church in isolation and only reachable by footpath!

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The little church of San Rocco in the village’s main square is also worth a look (if it is open as on this rare occasion).

Trassilico can never fail to please and the view of the Estensi fortress from the other side of the settlement set against the startling backcloth of the Apuans is almost Himalayan in its feel.

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Sarzana’s Stupendous Fortresses

Sarzana is sited in a very strategic position between three regions of Italy: Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna. Just look at the map.

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The town controls the route across to Parma; it’s a gateway to the Ligurian Sea and is also at the entrance of a pass leading to the Lombardy plain. It’s not surprising then that Sarzana has been fought over by several powers in its one thousand year history.

It was, therefore, with the greatest interest that I decided yesterday to take a train there and visit the town and its fortifications.

Sarzana is an absolute delight. Whether you’re into Medicean fortifications, speciality shopping, gourmet restaurants, or architecture from Romanesque through baroque to art nouveau Sarzana has all these and more to show.

A few facts: Sarzana is a comune in the province of La Spezia, Liguria, and is easily reached from Bagni di Lucca by rail on one of two routes:

Bagni di Lucca-Aulla (change)- Sarzana. This journey has lovely views of the Serchio valley:

Bagni di Lucca – Pisa (change) – Sarzana (Nice views of the Apuans and the coastine)

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Sarzana is first mentioned in 983 but the growth of the town stems from 1202 when the administration moved from Luni (the fabulous abandoned Roman town – have you visited this wonder – a Tuscan Pompeii, almost?) to a new site near the river Magra.

At first part of the Pisan republic, Sarzana was conquered by the Florentines before being annexed by Genoa in 1572.

All these political machinations have resulted in the building of two of the finest fortresses in the area. Note that it’s a fortress, not a castle. What’s the difference? A fortress tends to develop from the sixteenth century onwards, thus rather later than a genuine castle. A fortress is aware of the rise of fire power and, thus, has lower, more slanted, walls. It also has Vauban-style bulwarks, big storage areas for gunpowder, platforms for cannons and complex defence systems for the principal entrance.

Our Lucca is, in a sense, a fully-fledged fortress town while Pisa’s walls still reflect the pre-firepower era with its high walls which were built to withstand nothing more menacing than siege ladders and arrows.

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Sarzana is, indeed, a true fortress town with the actual fortresses only a part of the total fortifications scheme. However, in the nineteenth century the worthy Sarzanesi decided to demolish most of their walls leaving only the turrets at each corner of the town which were then sold to privates to build their own dwellings on. Here are some examples of what they came up with:

Sarzana has, in fact, two fortresses: one in town called ‘Firmafede’ (firm faith) and one on a nearby hill with an extraordinary triangular shape called ‘Sarzanello’. I had only time to visit the town fortress thus giving me a good reason for returning to this delightful town!

The town fortress whose plan is this:

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is particularly interesting for its main features, best described by my photos, which include:

Two large courtyards including a parade ground

Eight turrets including the central one enclosed within one of the courtyards

Complex entrance defences including two barbicans.

Underground passages beneath the towers.

Huge areas for soldiers’ quarters

A (now dry) moat.

(Please note, if you want to see rusty suits of armour or cannons etc. you’ll be disappointed. Firmafede fortress hasn’t got much else to offer except its marvellous architecure and stupendous views).

The fortress was given in 1814 to the kingdom of Sardinia which later that century was the propulsive force behind Italian unification.

Interestingly, for Bonaparte devotees, a branch of the Cardolingi di Borgo Nuovo family acquired the name of Bonaparte and settled in Sarzana in the thirteenth century. In 1512 one of their members moved across to Ajaccio Corsica and…the rest is history.

Indeed, Napoleon had a particular love of Sarzana and stayed there during his Italian campaigns as this plaque on one of Sarzana’s high street palaces proudly proclaims:

Napoleon also made it the capital of one of his Italian cantons. Sarzana continued its defensive importance during WWII when it was the centre of strong anti-fascist partisan activity. Fortunately, it wasn’t devastated like some other towns (e.g. Aulla) and so luckily we have an almost perfectly preserved fortress town for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.

There’s a lot more to Sarzana than its two fortresses of course. But you’ll have to wait for my next posts to discover what they are!

In the meanwhile here’s the Sarzanello fortress I’ll be visting next time I’m in the area:

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