May 4, 2017
I had seen Palmanova a number of times in the approach to the Trieste airport. From the air you see this large green area in the shape of a star with a circular town in the centre. It had always intrigued me and so it was time to head out and explore Palmanova, an easy 45 minute train ride from Trieste.
The train pulled into Palmanova train station just after one in the afternoon. There we encountered a woman who asked where she could get a coffee! The bar-caffe outside the train station closed at 13:00 for the afternoon and reopened again at 16:30. We headed down the appropriately named Viale del Stazione lined with huge trees, a green canopy that obscures any view of Palmanova. We followed a person ahead of us as she cut across a field and there we had a first glimpse of the burns and moats surrounding the ramparts of Palmanova – Citta Fortezza. Not being able to see the fort from a distance was actually the first line of defence for Palmanova.
Palmanova has a very precise date of birth: 7th October 1593. This day was chosen by the superintendents of the Republic of Venice in keeping with the Renaissance idea of thoughtful and meaningful references. The date therefore references two important events of the history of the Republic. The first, a religious event, was the day in which St Justine, who would become the patron saint of the town, was commemorated; the second, a civic event, was the anniversary of a sea battle – the Victory of Lepanto by the Venetians over the Turks on the 7th of October 1571.
The Republic of Venice wanted to send a clear message about the function and importance of the new fortress – as a limit to Turkish invasions, not only as regards the Republic itself but for the whole of Christendom.
Palmanova is a masterpiece of Venetian military architecture, a Renaissance fortress town designed and built to defend the regional borders of Venice against foreign threats, particularly from the Austrians and Ottoman Turks. The town plan is based on a unique model. The town is a circular area with a circumference of 7 km. This circle is surrounded by a moat with nine arrow-shaped inter-connected ramparts that protrude out of the town and form a perfectly symmetrical nine-pointed star. This design allowed each of the points to defend each other.
At the centre of the town site is a large hexagonal piazza, with six streets radiating from it, three of them lead to the city’s doors (Porta). The other three were meant to allow soldiers to quickly reach the ramparts. The streets are connected with concentric streets forming successive hexagons.
Access to the town is via three huge gates, known as Porta Aquileia, Udine and Cividale or the direction is which these towns are located. From whichever direction you arrive, you reach the Piazza Grande. We entered through the thick walls of the Porta Udine. All three Porte convey a real sense of strength and protection.
Palmanova was intended to be a “utopia” inhabited by self-sustaining merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. The Venetian builders imposed geometrical harmony into its design believing that beauty reinforces the wellness of a society. Each road was carefully calibrated and each part of the town plan had a reason for being. Each person would have the same amount of responsibility and land, and each person had to serve a specific purpose. However, despite the pristine conditions and elegant layout of the new city, no one chose to move there. In desperation, the Venetian government pardoned a number of prisoners in 1622 and gave them property in Palmanova.
It is also ironic that this fascinating fortress never saw a battle. With the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, Palmanova came under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte who added more military buildings and added another perimeter wall again in the form of a star.
During the First World War Palmanova was the centre of hospitals, warehouses and an exercise field for drilling troops. With the rout of Caporetto the town sadly suffered major devastation.
But today the Piazza Grande, with these huge cumulus clouds swirling overhead, still looks impressive. The Piazza is lined with pastel coloured Renaissance buildings. The grey-white duomo built from stones quarried in Aurisina retains its Palladian beauty. And in the centre of the Piazza is an impressive Istrian stone flagstaff. Standing in the Piazza with its huge crushed stone parade ground I could easily imagine four centuries of soldiers marching past.
There are a number of wooden structures along one side of the Piazza that at first glance appeared to be instruments of torture. Plaques alongside each one reveal the use of each of these structures. One was used to haul up water, another to transport heavy weights such as stones and earth, and another to dig holes. Medieval fortifications that were built of stones were an easy target for cannons. That is why the fortezza walls were built of bricks, earth, and other materials which made the fort much stronger and less likely to be shattered by cannons. The wooden structures give some idea of the ingenious engineering techniques that were needed to build the town and the fortifications.
Today the large caserma that housed soldiers right into the 20th century and the end of the Cold War sits empty. We saw very few people out, maybe it was the menacing rain, maybe it was because all the businesses were closed for the afternoon but as we were crossing a street, a car pulled over and a man leaned out to give us a pamphlet with a map of Palmanova. He said he did not want us to miss seeing anything important!
Luckily the Bar Torinese on Piazza Grande was open. Their display of “dolci” was very tempting and the perfect complement to a great macchiato! An enjoyable ending for this very interesting outing to a historic Venetian fortress town.