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:
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,