Palmanova: Italy's Star City

Towns are founded to succeed. Some do and grow out of all recognition. Some fail and disappear into the ground. Some few fall into a vegetative state and keep going without growing. They are the ones to visit like Palmanova in Italy. Like a time capsule, the town remains almost unchanged since the time of Napoleon. It was founded by the Republic of Venice as the ideal Renaissance town.

On 7 October 1593, the grandees of Venice decided in a vote to build a new town from scratch planned to incorporate the newest defense installations military science could devise. The date of the vote was chosen with care: On that day in 1571, the Ottomans had been defeated by a European alliance in the sea-battle of Lepanto. The Catholic church calendar shows this date as Saint Justin’s Day. He was made patron saint of the new town to be called Palma. The town was intended to keep Ottomans and Austrians out of the Venetian Friuli.

Palma was designed in the form of a nine-pointed star with broad roads running from a central plaza straight to the battlements. This allowed for fast troop movement to any required point in case of an attack. The design reflected the realization that the square defending walls of existing towns were too weak for modern bombardment with cannons. 

Palma was intended to house 20,000 inhabitants but never even reached 6,000. Its sterile layout and uniform buildings made it highly unpopular for Venetians to move there. The Doge had to recruit criminals; not even freedom was enough to move them there and he had to add further inducements to get them out of prison. For members of the Venetian army, being sent to Palma meant that your career had just ended. Either you had antagonized your superior or botched your job prior to your move.

Ironically, Palma never saw a single siege or war in any form. The only time it was directly involved in a war was when the formal surrender of the Republic of Venice was signed there in 1797. Napoleon ceded Palma to the Austrians almost immediately. He took it back later and integrated it in the new Italian Kingdom of 1805. The town became his war headquarters and was renamed Palmanova. He added modern military buildings and a further star formed wall even further out from town to keep bombardments of modern artillery out of the town center. He also tore down and completely leveled three villages situated in the surrounding plain to prevent sneak attacks.

After the dissolution of the (French) Italian Kingdom, the town fell back to the Austrian Empire until it was annexed by the modern Kingdom of Italy in 1866. After Napoleon, the town lost all strategic importance and went back to sleep. It became a major staging area for the Italian army during the Great War. As no investments in its infrastructure were made in 1914, it remained a time capsule. Palmanova was designated a historic site of major importance by the Italian government in 1960.

Palmanova is situated only 20 kilometers (13 miles) from Udine near the Italian border with Slovenia. The town is worth a visit to get a feeling for what life was like in the past centuries. Besides its overall completeness, it has several beautiful buildings like the cathedral of Saint Justin with its enormous colored glass window showing the lion of Saint Mark (as a political statement, not a sign of piety). The cathedral has an extremely low tower, a further sign of the military character of the town. The design was chosen so as not to give away the town center to the enemy. There are several Venetian style palaces from the time of its founding in 1593, too.