Palmanova, history of the city with a star-shaped plan that is impossible to conquer

The fortress city of Palmanova is an Italian municipality of almost 5,500 inhabitants located in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a few kilometers from Udine.
It was founded by Republic of Venice in 1593 with a single purpose: to create the most impregnable stronghold in the world. To succeed in this undertaking the Venetians made use of the best military engineers of the time, who designed a plan for Palmanova nine-pointed star. Precisely because of this peculiarity, today it is also known as the “Starry City”. But what is the function of this particular shape? And what made her practically unconquerable?

The star-shaped plant of Palmanova

Contrary to what one might think, the geometric shape of the “Starry City” is not an embellishment as an end in itself. In this fortress-city, in fact, every single detail has a very specific war purpose.
Do you think that even the approx 400 m long on each side were decided based on the range of the cannons, so that their shots could defend the entire perimeter of the city.
Likewise, the buildings inside were built lower than the walls, so that the key points of the stronghold remained invisible to enemy cannons. Even the bell tower of the cathedral has a reduced height which makes it disproportionate compared to the rest of the structure.
And the famous nine points that led people to call it the “Starry City”? Those also had a defensive role.

On the right a bastion, on the left a ravelin

To be precise, these are called “star tips”. bulwarks and they are embankments surrounded by stone walls. The bulwarks, thanks to their shape, were able to deflect cannonballs, thus decreasing the power of the shots and limiting the damage.
These bulwarks, however, alone were not enough to defend Palmanova. For this reason they were connected to each other by curtains, that is, nine long and straight walls, protected in turn by falsebraghe: another nine rows of lower and thinner embankments.
As if that wasn’t enough, cannons were positioned on top of each bastion and stone structures had also been built, the lodgeswho protected the soldiers on duty.
Secret tunnels then started from the lodges: the transit tunnels, which connected the bulwarks to the moat 4 km long exterior, which still surrounds the fortress today. These tunnels were large enough to allow the transit of soldiers on horseback, who could therefore move easily and secretly along the entire perimeter of the fortress. Outside the first circle of protection, just beyond the moat, there were the ravelins: 9 arrowhead-shaped earthworks, similar to bulwarks, but smaller.
Even the ravelins, in addition to being surrounded by dry ditches, hid galleries. In this case, however, it was countermine galleries: long, narrow tunnels that could, if necessary, be filled with gunpowder and blown up right under the enemy cannons!

Countermine gallery

It is clear at this point that entering by breaching the walls was practically impossible; Maybe it was better to change tactics and go straight in through the door?
In reality this solution was also quite complicated to put into practice. To enter the city you had to go through a complicated system of doors and counter-doors all positioned around the ravelins.
Once passed, you arrived at one of the three entrances to the city, positioned in correspondence with three of the nine curtains, which however were equipped with a drawbridge.


Why did Palmanova have to be defended at all costs?

At this point the question arises spontaneously: what treasures or secrets did Palmanova hide to be so fortified? In reality nothing, inside there were no particular riches to plunder or important personalities to protect.
The true wealth of Palmanova lay in its strategic position and above all in what it represented: the power of the Republic of Venice.
But was it really necessary to build such a fortress? To answer, let’s think about the historical context.

The historical context

We are at the end of the 1500s and the Republic of Venice is one of the main powers in the Mediterranean, extending across a good part of today’s north-eastern Italy.
Despite this, however, he slowly begins to worry about the advance of the Austrians to the north and gods Turks East. So he decided to build in a strategic position near the borders, what would be the most impregnable fort in the world, which would show the military and economic superiority of Venice. Palmanova took years to complete, but the efforts were worth the result. Finally Venice could remain calm, hopeful that no one would challenge it again. It is no coincidence that the ancient coat of arms of Palmanova depicts a palm tree in whose shade a lion rests. An allegory which means that under the protection of Palma (this was the original name of the city), the lion (symbol of Venice) could sleep peacefully.


The conquest of Palma

Indeed, the lion remained quiet for a long time, until 1797, when the Habsburgs, more than 200 years after the city was founded, conquered it. But how? And all the defense mechanisms and structures? Well, in reality the Austrians took Palma without firing a single cannon shot.
The story unfolded more or less like this: two Habsburg officers knocked on the city doors saying they had an appointment with the city superintendent. The guardian on duty let them in, but as soon as they set foot inside the citadel, the two drew their swords and ordered them to open the doors. And so the drawbridge rose and over a thousand Austrian soldiers entered who had hidden along the road, right behind all those embankments which in theory should have protected Palma and which instead, ironically, contributed to his defeat. Here, congratulations also to the sentries and lookouts.

Napoleonic period

Since then Palma has gone through various historical phases, including French domination, during which Napoleon had a third defensive ring built, making the city plan as we see it today. He added nine more earthworks (le Napoleonic lunettes) on which he built some casematte defenses and new secret tunnels. It was precisely under his domination that “nova” was added to the original name, which meant that a “new” era was about to begin for Palma.

The Palmanova moat

Palmanova today

Today Palmanova is part of the heritage of humanity sponsored byUNESCO and was inserted into the Most beautiful villages in Italyso our advice is to absolutely go and visit it, especially on the occasion of one of the many historical re-enactments of which it becomes the theater every year.

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