by Roderick Conway Morris

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Amusing Planet
Palmanova, Friuli

A Star of the Renaissance

By Roderick Conway Morris
PALMANOVA, Italy 21 August 1993


Ancient visionaries dreamed of constructing Ideal Cities on strict geometrical lines, but it was not until the Italian Renaissance that anyone actually set out to build one. The most complete example ever to be realized was the star-shaped fortress-city of Palmanova, the first stones of which were laid on the Friulian plain east of Venice on a gray rainy day 400 years ago this October.

Still in a remarkable state of preservation, Palmanova is marking its anniversary with two exhibitions (both open till 15 November), one in the town - which is in itself the prime exhibit - and another at the nearby Villa Manin, the grandiose country house of Venice's last doge.

Palmanova's principal architect was the native-born Friulian Giulio Savorgnan, who by this time was in his mid-seventies, having spent a lifetime soldiering and designing fortifications for Venetian colonies in Cyprus, Crete, Corfu and Dalmatia, and later on the Italian mainland at Bergamo and Brescia. Whereas Savorgnan's previous commissions had involved improving the defences of existing cities, the Palmanova brief was to build from scratch, on an empty stretch of plain, an entirely new, ultra-modern, fortress city.

Angled and star-shaped bastions had already been developed in Italy during the 16th century to counter the effects of increasingly powerful and accurate artillery, and remove blind-spots in defensive walls. But Palmanova presented a unique opportunity to harmonize the entire urban layout with its defensive perimeter. Thus the heart of the town took the form of a huge nine-sided piazza, with symmetrical streets radiating out to an exactly measured outer poligon, its nine sides linked by triangular bastions - creating a perfect star.

The first phase of this mammoth undertaking, which required hundreds of thousands of cartloads of stone and thousands of workmen, took thirty years to complete. Palmanova was supposedly a defence against the Turks, but in reality was more intended to deter the Austrian Habsburgs to the north (who vigorously protested, to no avail, against its construction).

However, as the Villa Manin exhibition suggestively demonstrates, the Palmanova project was guided nor solely by strategic considerations, but also strongly influenced by current urban utopianism (not to mention a fascination with the zodiacal and mystical associations of perfect geometrical forms) - the ultimate aim of the enterprise being to create a dazzlingly sophisticated showpiece to enhance the Venetian Republic's international fame and prestige. And, in this respect, it was a resounding success, being widely studied and admired (along with its other Italian prototypes), and inspiring star-shaped fortresses and city fortifications throughout Central Europe, Scandinavia and Russia for two centuries to come.

Among the sometimes very beautiful designs, drawings, perspective views and models of Palmanova and its successors on display is a colorful, neatly-executed star-fortress plan, signed and dated 1753 by the 12-year-old future Austrian Emperor Joseph II.

A triumph as a public relations exercise, Palmanova was scarcely less formidable as a fortress, detering anybody from laying siege to it for 200 years. The first time it was to see serious action was during the Napoleonic Wars, over a decade after the final fall of Venice in 1797 (the Republic's exit with wimper rather than a bang being brought about not so much by the state's lack of adequate defences, but a collective loss of nerve by Doge Manin and the governing Venetian aristocracy).

As a city, though, Palamanova suffered the same difficulties as other much later artificially-created 'new towns', with successive garrison commanders lamenting the failure of the civilian population to grow to its projected size and local industries to take root, and deploring the plethora of hostelries and allied services ever-ready to relieve soldiers of their pay. (The town is still a military HQ, with some charming traditional 'osterie' that serve Friuli's superb local wines, and just off the central square, an 'American Bar' with a large tank of disconcertingly well-fed looking piranhas).

Unlike other star-fortress towns, whose geometrical contours have long since been blurred and obliterated by highway schemes and urban sprawl, Palmanova remains contained within its original walls, making a wander along its now deserted, grass-covered ramparts, with their uninterrupted views over Friuli's rich agricultural flatlands, a rare and enjoyable experience.

It is encouraging, too, that a number of local and foreign architects (including a group at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture and Planning) have been sufficiently attracted by Palmanova's geometrical and historical mystique, and evident potential for imaginative development within its existing boundaries, to project plans to conserve and, at the same time, to renew and revitalize this now rather sleepy backwater - surely the only way that Palmanova's majestic, but now gently crumbling, stellar form can ultimately be saved for posterity.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023