One of the biggest charms of Italy is its fantasia. You see it in fantastical villages like Spello, with flowers dripping over every railing, balcony and ancient stone step. In the multi-colored houses along the coast. In the homemade cures for strange maladies and the incredible views found at every corner.
So far, I’ve seen no better example of Italy’s mix of creativity, ingenuity and fantasy than in Palmanova, a star-shaped town in Friuli Venezia Giulia.
Palmanova was originally built by the Venetians in the 17th century as a fortress to protect against invasions from the east. Friuli Venezia Giulia, with its strategic location, fertile lands, and sea port, has a long history of being fought over. It’s been controlled by the Lombards, by the Romans, by the Austrians under the Hapsburg Empire and the independent Republic of Venice. Later it was briefly occupied by the French under Napoleon, by the Austrians again and the Kingdom of Italy after that. It only officially gained the border it has today, including Trieste, in 1954. Thus, forts were necessary to protect the area. Palmanova is one of those forts.
The star shape, while beautiful, was chosen for more practical reasons: Each side of the star’s points are measured for the distance a canon can fire, meaning that no area of attack is left unguarded. Apparently the star shape was all the rage in the 1500s, as it was seen as quite a strategic architecture militarily speaking.
However Palmanova was envisioned as a real working city, not just a military fortress, and the Renaissance architect from Milan used the commission to design his version of the ultimate city. He wanted to create an orderly city, one free from the confusion of other cities of the time. His answer was a strict geometrical shape, in which all of the public buildings and offices necessary to the citizens – the police station, cathedral, post office, markets and so on – were located right in the center.
The architect found that it’s quite difficult to create such a dogmatic organization, especially without a central road. Nevertheless the geometric shape remains: the city within the walls forms a perfect nonagon. The star shape is made from the trenches dug outside of the walls, which form a sort of extra barrier of earth.
Surrounded by these man-made trenches, it seems the entire town is now used as an outdoor gym. We watched dozens of people running, walking and biking the dirt path that circles the points of the town, just 1 km in all. Inside the walls, the town is shaped like a hexagon, all the way down to it’s main Piazza, Piazza Grande. Once filled with weapons and used as a gathering place for military exercises, perhaps it’s nickname Piazza d’Armi (Square of Weapons) is more appropriate. The piazza, however, is truly grande, and the only piazza I’ve ever seen paved with gravel, rather than expensive stone or at least rocks. It’s a remnant from the village’s time as a military base.
There in the piazza is the town’s Duomo, because even a fortress needs a cathedral in Italy. Begun in 1603, construction was halted because of a lack of funds. They tried again in 1615, only to have the façade cave inwards. The lean of the façade is still visible today, but I happen to think it’s just another quirk of this implausible town.
I wouldn’t necessarily suggest making a specific visit to Palmanova, the town is a bit too small to drive all that way, but I would suggest stopping if you’re already in the area. There are few examples of Italy’s military background and the consequences of its porous borders better than Palmanova, but even more attractive is the still-present proof of Italy’s ingenuity, of it’s fantasia.