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The Venetian Works of defence between 15th and 17th centuries

Date de soumission : 09/10/2013
Critères: (ii)(iii)(iv)
Catégorie : Culturel
Soumis par :
Permanent Delegation of Italy to UNESCO
Ref.: 5844
Autres États parties participants

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The system composed by the Venetian Works of defence between 15th and 17th centuries is the proposed nomination of a serial transnational site to the World Heritage List; it is representative of the more complex defensive system, designed and built by the Serenissima Republic of Venice in order to control its territories and the commercial routes leading to the East.

The site extends for more than 1.000 km from the Pre Alps of Lombardy to the Eastern coast of the Adriatic, in the area between the western outpost (Bergamo, Italy) and the Bay of Kotor (Montenegro). Between the Stato di Terra (State of Land: Lombard-Venetian) and the Stato di Mare (State of Sea: Croatia, Montenegro), this unique and ancient enclave bears nowadays significant examples of the Venetian fortifications, important testimony of the interaction among peoples and, more in general, of the culture expressed by Venice in the world. 

The components of the nominated property summarize the most representative expression of the defensive system –still evident at present- conceived as a real network, where any fortified element played a precise role within a wide and unitary project. The Serenissima Republic of Venice, in fact, tests and completes in a vast territory a new defensive system – technically recognized as “alla moderna” (“modern style”)- characterizing the period of time between XV and XVII century.

During the first phase, that can be considered as “transitional”, Venice undertakes a series of interventions and experiments, revealing the evolution from the medieval warfare techniques to the new and modern defensive systems (end of XV century). But it is in XVI century that the most advanced Venetian military structures see their maximum diffusion as they were to resist the newly invented firearms. Finally the XVII century is characterized by the completion of the previously started works and by the improvement of the defensive techniques, which represent as a whole outstanding examples of the new military architecture.

The site is composed by a series of complex fortified systems (Bergamo), forts (Fort of Sant’Andrea in Venice), and fortified cities designed ex novo (Palmanova), or based on the reconstruction of existing structures (Peschiera del Garda). These structures are still highly connoting the urban and geo-morphological context they are in.

This extraordinary operation conducted by Venice at a such vast territorial scale was carried out thanks to an impressive circulation of professionals, the fortifications’ architects themselves and of a consistent heritage of treaties; at the same time, regulations, social models and new type of governance led Venetian culture to merge with the cultures from the Eastern Adriatic sea and from here, by land, to the East: all territories where numerous and various material and immaterial evidences of the Venetian centuries-old presence remain.

Because of this variety of aspects, the nomination proposal is representative of a system formed by a series of components which are interdependent from one another and, at the same time, constitute systems with their own precise and recognizable connotation.

Nom(s) de l’élément/des éléments constitutif(s)

1.c Name(s) of the national component part(s)

1.d State, Province or Region

1.e Coordinates

Fortified city of Bergamo

Italy, Bergamo



Defensive system of Peschiera del Garda

Italy, Peschiera del Garda



City fortress of Palmanova

Italy, Palmanova



Defensive system of the Venetian Lagoon: Arsenal,

Fort of Sant’Andrea, Fortified Octagons, Fort of San Felice


Italy, Venice and Chioggia




Description de l’élément/des éléments constitutif(s)

Italy: Fortified city of Bergamo, Defensive system of Peschiera del Garda, City fortress of Palmanova, Defensive system of the Venetian Lagoon. 

In order to achieve the most complete representativeness of the site, the selection of the Italian components with Bergamo, Peschiera del Garda and Palmanova, is representative of the most significant fortifications in the State of Land, while the lagoon defensive system (Venezia-Chioggia) represents the connection between the mainland and the State of Sea, here represented by the components of Croatia and Montenegro. 

Fortified city of Bergamo

Under the Venetian rule since 1428, Bergamo represented the more western urban outpost of the inland domain; therefore Venice decided to strengthen the existing fortifications in order to defend the commercial routes along the trans-alpines commercial routes leading to the centre of Europe and to preserve the arms and artifacts trafficking between the iron mines of Bergamo and the Arsenal of Venice.

After rejecting some projects because considered too expensive, Venice decided in 1561 to fortify the high part of the city, partly reshaping the existing walls following the project by General Sforza Pallavicino. The works proved to be complex and caused the demolition of most of the Villages outside to the walls and of the most beloved religious monuments.

After 30 years of intense work the walls were completed and extended for more than 5000 meters, encircling most of the high city following a north-west south-east sloping (from 438 to 250 meters) and accessible through four urban doors. Its shape, adapted to the hills, is significantly different from other wall curtains inspired by theoretical ideal forms (Palmanova first, Peschiera del Garda).

In fact the wall curtain is continuous but composed by lines all converging to 11 bulwarks and 5 platforms in a series of spallarms, curtains, tenailles, all different.

Two external structures are connected to the walls: the existing fort linked to the north-west bulwarks by a covered passage and the Fort of San Domenico on the opposite side.

Summarizing, it is an articulated and complex defensive structure that demonstrates Venetian engineers will to adopt solutions not always compatible with the coeval treaties, but inspired by the peculiarities of the places, which suggest planning solutions.

Defensive system of Peschiera del Garda

Peschiera represents a unique example of adaptation of geometrical military schemes to an outstanding geomorphological context, characterized by the presence of the river and the lake. Its position –at the entrance of the river Mincio, on the south shore of the Garda lake- was strategic for the defense of the Venetian territories on the Garda at risk of attack by the Empire; it also played an important role as a link to other Venetian cities such as Bergamo, Brescia and Orzinuovi.

Conquered by the Venetians in 1441, Peschiera was redesigned following the ambitious project of the complete substitution of the preexisting medieval walls. The project, proposed by the Governor Guidobaldo II della Rovere, was approved by the Senate in 1549 thanks to the known military skills of the Superintendent Giulio Savorgnan. The project encircles the existing city and the portion of river in it, within a set of almost pentagonal walls, considered ideal for a fortress. The curtain of walls has five bulwarks, three on the south-western side and two on the opposite side.

These two entities of the city were connected on the south side by a masonry bridge sustained by 5 sets of arches (“voltoni”) across the Mincio. On the opposite side, open to the lake, the curtain is interrupted in order to let the ships enter. The medieval walls were destroyed and replaced by the internal beltway; the fortress was conserved and included in the new walls made of stone. The part of lake between the fortress and the settlement was used as port and then covered only at the beginning of XVII century, creating the square of the castle.

The old hamlet became a real city and strengthened its urban identity in the western insula, where the noblest fortifications are, such as Palazzo dei Provveditori (Palace of the Superintendents) in a little square by the internal part of the river Mincio, Piazza San Marco, which faced directly the sea, as the capital city’s.

City fortress of Palmanova

Palmanova represents an outstanding example of the bond between the most advanced military techniques and the new planning concept developed in the Renaissance by architects fond of the “humanistic” component.

The idea of building ex-novo a city fortress to close the eastern defensive line of the State of Land, started to take off around the first half of XVI century, thanks to the important technical opinion of two influent personalities of the Serenissima: Duke of Urbino Captain Francesco Maria della Rovere, and the General Superintendent of the Fortresses Giulio Savorgnan, In 1593 a selected team of experts chose the area where the new fortified centre had to be built: a virgin land in a strategic position between Udine and the sea.

The fortress' shape is a star of nine spears (nine bulwarks), deriving from the one designed by Savorgnan himself for Nicosia (Cyprus).

According to the most advanced ideas of the Renaissance, the construction followed a unitary project with specific operative solutions, such as the expropriation of areas and the planning regulation. This absolutely innovative result testifies the clients’ effort in order to create not only a fortress but a real city; in this sense the three main urban elements (the doors, the radial streets and the square) were connected to each other are despite the opinion given by the military engineers.

Following this project the three doors were opened right in the middle of the walls between two bulwarks –the weakest point- and directly connected to the radial streets toward the central square. It was possible then, as the Segretary of Superintendent Barbaro wrote to the Senate on 18th February 1594, to appreciate «la bellezza della dirittura delle strade, che risponde da ogni porta alla Piazza Grande, ed anco sino all’altro capo della città, che farà meravigliosa vista a chi vi entrerà» («the beauty of the straight roads, all leading form each door to the Main Square and to the other side of the city, which will be beautiful to watch for everyone who will be entering it»).

Clear fortification objectives and, at the same time, the geometrical perfection of the streets layout, the obvious stage and perspective effects of the city structure reveal the will to follow the Renaissance urban utopic precepts.

Defensive system of the Venetian Lagoon, Venice and Chioggia

Venice was the capital, the management and logistic centre of the whole system and presented a particular defensive situation, since it was sufficiently protected by its own lagoon; therefore the military interventions were concentrated on strengthening the more vulnerable parts, that are not in the city but at the openings separating the lagoon from the sea.

Within this complex defensive system, the most representative and best conserved elements are: the fort toward the entrance of the Lido, once called Castelnuovo (Fort of Sant’ Andrea) defending the northern side, the fortified Octagons located near the focal point of the lagoon and toward south the Fort of San Felice (now in the Municipality of Chioggia).

The project for the Fort of Sant’ Andrea by the architect Michele Sanmicheli (started in 1543) reshapes part of the preexisting castle as the core of the new radical intervention. From this building on, 40 embrasures (cannoniere) follow one another in a span of 300 meters on the water. The architectural effect is astonishing and oversteps the mere military function (that is to be able to hit moving targets, such as an enemy ship approaching the port), it is in fact at the same time a real monumental entrance to the city. Moreover this important fort was helped by the overlooking Fort of San Nicolò –which hosted the troops, stables and powder kegs and had other military related functions- whose traces have been canceled by the radical transformation happened over time.

As protection to the entrance to the lagoon in proximity of Chioggia, the modern fort of San Felice replaced the preexisting XIV century tower (Torre della Lupa, Wolf Tower), while the definitive arrangement of the entire lagoon complex was defined in XVII century with the realization of the two forts –Malamocco and San Pietro in Volta- almost disappeared today and the so called “Octagons”, a series of minor fortifications still located along the lagoon canal toward Venice.

Justification de la Valeur Universelle Exceptionelle

The Venetian works of defence between 15th and 17th centuries represent an exceptional and unique example of defensive and unitary project (at a transnational scale today) realized and managed in a period of time and in a geographical area, the Republic of Venice’s territories, highly characterized by a certain lively way of think and action, that was able to elaborate and spread its culture with its own personal language.

The site shows, through its fortifications, designed and built by the most famous architects and military engineers of the time, the exceptional and enormous economic and design effort of the Venetian Republic, giving the vastness of the territory and the different morphological and functional conditions of each domain. These aspects made necessary to develop many typological solutions –whose most representative examples form the serial site- which constitute the diversified scenery of isolated forts, defensive systems and fortified cities, by the sea and on land.

These material evidences are closely connected to commerce, wars, strategic politic alliances and, above all, to the high management skill that allowed the Serenissima to assert itself as a big power in the Mediterranean for a long time (XI-XVIII centuries) and to have a leading power in the geo-political scenery between the West and the East.

During the first half of 1400, Venice was a great power with important terrestrial and maritime domains: it controlled the maritime and terrestrial routes that linked the Adriatic to the core of Europe, it dominated a big part of the Mediterranean, creating one of the widest Italian State, in which ancient Rome’s, Greek and Byzantine cultural models were taken as inspiration. Venice in fact, asserted itself as “the new and true Rome” and “the alternative to Byzantium”. Also arts and literature helped to support the myth and the image of Venice as an essential authority, recognized by the western and the eastern world.

As the conflicts encouraged by the emerging European powers and the Ottoman Empire increased, the sites vital to preserve and control the commerce on land and the maritime routes and to assure the wellbeing of the Republic, became vulnerable.

For all these reasons a big project on vast scale was put in place in order to assure the growth and the socio-cultural development of the Venetian settlements and it took the Republic all the following century to complete it. Therefore it was very important to guarantee the safety of the territories: the first experiments by architects and engineers designated by the Serenissima to create a “new art of fortifications”, involving both the military architecture and the very own structure of the cities themselves, which remoulded urban layouts and existing buildings.

The application of these new methodologies and techniques made Venice a dominant figure in the cultural debate concerning “modern style” fortifications, theoretically discussed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini in his famous Renaissance treaties and by Leonardo da Vinci: their relationship with Venice is well documented by many historical sources.

The skills and the building techniques were exported from the mainland territories to the maritime domains. Designers, materials and professionals, moved from the Republic of Venice and went working in the Venetian properties in the Adriatic.

The new unified vision of the defensive system based on the modernization of the fortification techniques, had Venice as its “heart and soul”, the domains on the inland as its ramparts and the coastal cities as the nodal points of a communication network to sustain the territorial and commercial policies of the Republic.

Criterion (ii): the complex of the venetian defensive works is an outstanding example of the interchange of influences and values between Venice and the diverse civilizations located along the Adriatic sea from the Middle Age and more intensively between XVI and XVII century. The exceptional administrative and managerial skills of the Republic of Venice allowed to spread the most advanced knowledge about fortifications, arts and, more in general, social models. This was channeled by a number of workers, operative tools, construction materials and arts in general and it is finds its more tangible and more complete testimony in the proposed defensive works

Criterion (iii): the site is representative of a varied heritage that testifies the Venetian cultural tradition and had its core in the Adriatic “Gulf”, mainly between XV and XVII century. The defensive structures and the landscape around them -carefully designed by the architects of the Serenissima- have kept their integrity or are still legible in their layouts, characterizing the facies of the proposed sites. Moreover the uniqueness and the outstanding value of the Venetian culture is testified by the rich publishing production with its worldwide known treaties, the presence in this area of cultural heritage objects referring to the city Capital and the numerous letters bearing witness of the communication between Venice and its faraway domains. All these written documents, conserved in many archives and collections, allow to retrace in details the fortunes of Venice. Beyond all the architectural and archive heritage, an endless and peculiar documental heritage, still perfectly conserved, contribute to assert the outstanding nature of the Venetian defensive system.

Criterion (iv): the site is an outstanding example of defensive system generated by a unitary project and conceived to guarantee the safety of the maritime commerce and to protect the domains from invasions. Since the Venetian sites were particularly desirable, a branched communication network had to be established over a wide transnational territory. The generating element of the whole project was the use of the new fortification techniques experimented by the Venetian professionals after the widespread introduction of gunpowder and firearms: these advanced results became outstanding examples of "modern style" (“alla moderna”) fortifications, as exemplar models for next realizations.

Déclarations d’authenticité et/ou d’intégrité

The authenticity of the serial system is guaranteed as every element has conserved visible, in different shapes resulting from different typologies, the architectural, planning and landscape choices connected to the defense project wanted by the Serenissima. The structural features of the architectures have maintained their integrity, in the shapes and in the materials, although with a different function. Moreover one of the widest archive heritage in Europe testifies these extraordinary realizations.

In fact the documental sources, both written and cartography, perfectly match with the real places and significantly validate the influence of the Republic of Venice in the culture of the Adriatic sea between XV and XVII century.

The ensemble of the defensive works is a system, which includes the most significant examples of the different defensive typology connected by terrestrial and maritime routes along which commerce flourished, in a unitary territory comprising the State of Land and the State of Sea of the Republic of Venice.

Justification de la sélection de l’élément/des éléments constitutif(s) en relation avec la future proposition d’inscription dans son ensemble

Fortified city of Bergamo: it represents the most western point of the whole system, that is the defensive outpost designed to protect the Venetian “Stato di Terra” (State of Land) from the attacks coming from north-west Europe. The typology is an exceptional example of fortified system, articulated and very complex, perfectly adapted to the hilly morphology of the site.

defensive system of Peschiera del Garda: it was a strategic site to control the Garda lake basin, longed for by Charles V and foothold for other Venetian forts located beyond the Mincio river. It represents a unique example for the adaptation of the site to the most advanced design criteria of the time (pentagonal shape) and for the exceptional lacustrian-fluvial geomorphological context.

city fortress of Palmanova: within the Venetian defensive project it represents a strategic point to neutralize the Ottoman attacks coming from the Balkans. Typologically it is the most significant and mature example of ideal fortified city of the entire system; in fact the newly founded city was built based on a unitary design by the Venetian technicians after the experimentations implemented in Greece and Cyprus.

defensive system of the Venetian Lagoon, Venice and Chioggia: it was the core of the idea, the management and development of the entire cultural phenomenon. The lagoon represented the ‘natural’ defence of Venice against the attacks from the sea; that’s why the defensive system was so “light” and located along openings on the shores that separate the lagoon from the sea.

Comparaison avec d’autres biens similaires

In order to underline the outstanding values expressed by The Venetian Forts of Defence between 15th and 17th centuries in the Eastern Mediterranean a comparative analysis with other sites already inscribed on the World Heritage List and similar in theme and characteristics was carried out.

The main features of the nomination proposal were taken as criteria for comparison, classified in a hierarchic order (as shown below by Figure 1.) which allowed to progressively restrict the selection and highlight the uniqueness of the Venetian works of defence.

As further verification, the previous results were confronted with the selection of sites obtained from a criteria comparison. Finally, among the sites already on the WHL for the criteria (ii) (iii) (iv), the serial ones concerning defensive works were chosen.

The comparison showed three sites that could be confronted with the Venetian works of defence: Kunta Kinteh Island and Related Sites (Gambia), Forts and Castles, Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions (Ghana), Fortifications of Vauban (France).

Theme and seriality: each case has a variety of fortified structures, realized to guarantee the defense of the territories of particular economic interests. The Venetian works are the most significant and numerous “modern style” fortifications, spread all over the Mediterranean basin.

System and/or route: the African sites are representative of a route along which the cultural interchange among different geographical realities developed. Except the Fortifications of Vauban (which are not located along a waterway)- Ghana, Gambia and Venice exploited a waterway –river or lake- as a generator element of each route (the river Gambia, the Gulf of Guinea, the Mediterranean).

Unlike the others, the Serenissima Republic of Venice built its cultural, economic and territorial primacy on the sea, controlling for centuries the Mediterranean basin.

Unitary project: the sites of Ghana and Gambia give a partial vision of the more spread phenomenon of the slavery, which involved more civilizations (Portuguese, English, Dutch, …), more Countries at an international level and many other navigation routes.

In fact the Gambia nomination presents an inhomogeneous design, testified by military and civil architectures, converted in time; the Ghana site shows a higher level of typological uniformity of the fortifications, which are however all located along the Guinea Gulf. As for the French site, it can be stated that the fortification of Vauban are not located along an itinerary, as for the previous cases. Whereas the completeness in the representation of the series and so in the unitary project which generated it, can be underlined in the proposed Venetian defensive works.

The wide and articulated route in which the Venetian works have been selected, even in the complexity of the historical events, is highly representative of the Venetian culture and the defensive project of the Serenissima only.

In conclusion, the nomination proposal for The Venetian works of Defence between 15th and 17th centuries is very dissimilar from the abovementioned sites, because it is representative of the domination of a single civilization, the Venetian, spread in a multitude of Countries, all represented here, where its exceptional design and constructive knowledge was declined following the local language and habits and developed along a single route.

The uniqueness of the Venetian system is also shown by the typological variety of the military architecture; in fact the selection of sites means to underline the excellencies of the “modern style”, that are all those artifacts built between XV and XVII century by the main experts of the time. Each work (fortifications, walls, fortified city, …) played a precise role within the overall system, with a typology that followed the morphologic context. All these aspects concur to create a rich palimpsest of typological solutions, not found in other sites.

The state of conservation of the Venetian site still guarantees the legibility of the system at a macro and micro scale, not so visible in the Gambia and Ghana sites. In this sense represent an exception the fortification of Vauban, which are perfectly conserved and with a high typological and settlement variety.

The architectural typology conceived by Vauban represents a fundamental moment in the European military engineering, already experimented by the technicians of the Serenissima in the Mediterranean basin, where the Venetian culture’s spread involved not only the defensive apparatus, but more in general the socio-economic and settlement development.

To synthesize, from the comparison with the other sites on the WHL, emerges the outstanding values born by the Venetian defensive works, given their international scope, their seriality and the unitary project, which is deeply represented by the site.

From the comparison with the other sites on the World Heritage List, emerges the outstanding character of the Venetian defensive works, given the international scale, the seriality and a unitary planning completely represented by the site.