Star Fortress

For centuries, the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Turks were at war. Italy’s present-day Fruili region — in the country’s northeast — was a particular hotspot, often finding itself the theater of battles between these two nation-states.  In the late 1500s, the Venetians came up with a new form of defense: a star-shaped fortress, one with significant advantages over its square-shaped predecessors.

Named Palmanova (pictured from above, at the top), the town/fortress has the standard accouterments of the era: a moat, reinforced defensive walls, towers, etc.  But it has two significant innovations which were unique at the time.  First, Palmanova was built with nine ramparts protruding outward in such a way that each of the nine were able to assist its two neighbors in case of attack.  Meanwhile, central roadways allowed for troops to easily and quickly reach any of the three gates needing reinforcement.  (A 17th century map of Palmanova can be found here.)

The only problem?  No troops came to live there.  In fact, no one did.

Palmanova opened in 1593, with high expecations from its Venitian builders and strategists.  But its location — removed from the rest of the population of the Republic while incredibly close to the nation’s enemies — and the fact that construction was ongoing made for too large a hurdle for the expected migratory masses.  In 1622, the fortress was almost entirely empty, so the Republic took action, offering prisoners their release in exchange for their promise to inhabit and if need, be, defend the town.

But these townsfolks-slash-troops were never needed for defense. Palmanova never saw battle, perhaps a testament to its reputation as the fort which could not be taken. It did, however, change hands once — in 1797, when the Republic of Venice crumbled, the Treaty of Campo Formio gave Napolean control over Palmanova.  In jest, some note that Napolean took this military stalwart without so much as a fight.

Since then, Palmanova has been used as a military base twice — in both World Wars — and is now a national monument.

Bonus fact: In the They Might Be Giants song Istanbul, the band asks why the city once called Constantinople was renamed Istanbul.  (They conclude, tongue in cheek, “That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.”)  The most likely answer is that it happened slowly over time.  After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the late 15th century, the name “Constantinople” fell into disuse, with no obvious replacement.  But over the centuries in which Constantinople was the urban hub of the area (and, as you’ll see, even after its fall), people referred to it as “the city.”  The Greek phrase for “in the city” is pronounced “is tin Poli.”  Over time, this became  “Istanbul.”

From the Archives: Pellagra: A disease which struck Italy, spread to the Americas, and shows that early medical research was more art than science (to say the least).

RelatedTigris and Euphrates, a board game by master board game designer Reiner Knizia.  Not really related to the above, but it does involve fort-like warfare (kind of).  Regardless, it is one of the best board games ever made.

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