In Venetian architecture, Venetian history

Military fortifications in Venice are quite fascinating constructions which you can spot while navigating in the Venetian lagoon. In fact, mapping all of them helps see an incredibly impressive system spread all over that gradually grew, year after year. Most of them are in need of maintenance and their future looks quite uncertain in terms of their fruition. But what brought Venice to design these forts and when?

Protection of the lagoon system as a defensive system

In the early stage, at least till the 1500s, there was little need to design military posts protecting the city of Venice. The lagoon would reveal itself as a natural defensive system. Considering tidal exchange, shallow water, canals’ narrowness and meandering paths in the open lagoon, navigation would result very difficult for any enemy fleet. The risk to run aground and the impossibility to move freely in the lagoon waters discouraged external enemies. No need for military fortifications then.

The northern lagoon of Venice viewed from the bell tower of Torcello, highlighting the network of meandering canals

A special institution to defend the lagoon —and to defend Venice

As early as 1282 the Pioveghi Judiciary council started managing the lagoon’s hydro-geological balance. In 1501 the Magistrato alle Acque Water Authority replaced it to take constant care of the lagoon, whether it was to prevent the lagoon to silt up or to prevent it to become part of the open sea. The lagoon made it unnecessary to build those high walls with crenellations that are so typical of castles in medieval Europe.

New military fortifications in the early 1500s in the Venetian lagoon

From the point of view of military architecture, however, at the beginning of the 1500s, the lagoon proved to be deficient. Increasing offensive actions taken against Venice carried by the league of Cambrai in 1509 and the augmented artillery fire capacity brought the Doge’s Republic to a change. It was necessary to develop special military fortifications to defend itself strategically at the inlets of the lagoon by San Nicolò at the Lido or near Chioggia as well as on the western side, in Mestre. Even arming two islands near the mainland, as the Dominican convent of San Secondo and the monastery on San Giorgio in Alga could help defend Venice.

The Fort of Sant’Andrea by Michele Sanmicheli (1545-1550)

Michele Sanmicheli from Verona was chosen as the military engineer to be entrusted with a magnificent military fortification to be placed opposite the Lido island by San Nicolò. His work replaced previously existing defensive constructions, but the aesthetics of his Fort of Sant’Andrea is as important as his military efficacy. While the military heart of Venice, the Arsenale, would be kept secret and camouflaged, Sanmicheli’s construction would be the first monument you encountered upon entering the Venetian lagoon, clearly visible.

The Fortress of Sant’Andrea as it looks when you enter the lagoon of Venice from the Adriatic Sea

It has been noted that the fortress presents one military front only. Its rear part does not show any fortified architecture: “the Serenissima (…) was not to make available any apparatus that could be used for the possible emergence of a tyranny” Mauro Marzo wrote in his Fortified Places in 2012. Which means, a fortress in the lagoon was going to defend Venice from external attacks, never used against internal ones. 

Renaissance front of the Fort of Sant’Andrea, 1545, Venice

Inscription on the central tower of the Fort of Sant’Andrea in Venice

Facing the inlet of the lagoon, it presented forty cannon turrets placed at water level, above which more 40 batteries were laid. The Istrian limestone arcade and the shape of a “narrow and elongated irregular isosceles trapezium” must have been a real novelty for the Venetian landscape.

Limestone walls surrounding the eastern side of Sant’Andrea fortress by the Lido inlet of the Venetian lagoon

As a matter of fact, it was used twice, the first for the test, the second upon General Bonaparte’s arrival, bringing the Serenissima to its end.

Military fortifications after the end of the Doge’s Republic in 1797

The end of the Doge’s Republic in 1797 and the consequent loss of independence brought to a skyrocketing growth of military posts of the city and its lagoon.

Many of the convents and monasteries that were secularised were turned into military barracks, from San Giorgio Maggiore to the Frari, or the San Francesco della Vigna, to San Zaccaria to mention just some, all located in different areas of Venice. The octagons that had been built on islands at the inlets of the lagoon were reinforced, too.

Octagon used in the past as military post in the southern lagoon of Venice

Forte Marghera on the mainland overlooking the lagoon

However, when it comes to new military fortifications erected in those years, Forte Marghera is the one to observe. Started in 1807 and completed in 1814, it lies by the border of the lagoon, close to where the Ponte della Libertà connects the mainland to Venice. It is indeed the most significant military architecture of the French foreign domination still to be admired. Over 50 hectars, star-shaped, with 60 cannons for over 2000 soldiers, all surrounded by moats.

Approaching Fort Marghera by the Venetian lagoon border near Mestre

After the French left, it was handed over to the Habsburg empire.

Crest missing at the entrance of Fort Marghera in Venice, displaying military insignia

During the Venice Revolution in 1848 it became the courageous Venetian post that resisted the Habsburg massive bombing to reconquer Venice. Currently the place hosts art events and it’s a park where also bikers enjoy their time, thanks to over 22 million euro investments since 2015. Recently over 5 millions have been found to restore more units in need of care and re-use. Hard to imagine what it must have been when it was attacked for more than 40 hours of uninterrupted artillery, starting on May 4th in 1849…

Luigi Querena, A mine exploding on the island of San Giuliano during the Revolution in 1849, Correr Museum, Venice

The “Torre Massimiliana” on the island of Sant’Erasmo

Is there anything more striking than a military fortification in the middle of orchards, fruit trees and vineyards? If you visit the island of Sant’Erasmo, that’s what you will find. Not just, as around the corner you can enjoy a nice beach, too.

Sant’Erasmo was all over fortified starting in the early 1800s for its position facing the lagoon inlet. At that time the lagoon in that area was very different from nowadays. Punta Sabbioni did not exist yet and the island faced the Adriatic Sea, just like the Lido.

Water ditch surrounding the Maximilian Tower on the island of Sant’Erasmo in the northern lagoon of Venice

It was the Archduke Maximilian Joseph of Austria-Este that chose the island as the seat of one of his most innovative military fortifications like the one you find in the Austrian city of Linz. Starting in 1831, the so-called Maximilian Tower is characterized by a circular groundplan, inside which there’s a second circular tower. All around there’s a ditch. On the central platform above, a cannon could rotate 360 degrees. The diameter of 27 meters is larger than the building’s height and the wall towards the sea is two meters thick. Nowadays, you can visit it for arts events… well, if they repair the bridge that was recently vandalized.

The Maximilian Tower on the island of Sant’Erasmo in the northern lagoon of Venice

Internal view of the Maximilian Tower on Sant’Erasmo island during the exhibition LACUNA/AE. Identity and modern architecture in Venice designed by Eleonora Milner with the assistance of Elena Caslini, May 2016

Modern fortifications today in Venice

Do we still need “fortifications” in Venice today? Military metaphors are still used when it comes to protecting the city and its lagoon. Whether we talk about the controversial construction of the gigantic MOSE gates to lock the lagoon or about banning cruise ships from St Mark’s basin (but not from the lagoon), or turnstiles and entrance fees to govern the mass of tourists, it feels there’s need for more far-sighted visions, implying less walls and less contradictions.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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  • Kathleen Gonzalez

    Thank you for sharing these images and this history. I have seen a few of these sites and wondered about their history and usage. An interesting side not: Giacomo Casanova was briefly imprisoned in the Fort on Sant’Andrea.

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