What makes Star Forts Castles so different from other fortresses and castles is their distinctive shape – they are constructed in the shape of a star with pointed bastions protruding from each corner. But did you know that the first Star Forts Castle was not built as a military stronghold but as a sports stadium? The Fortezza da Basso in Florence, Italy, was initially built in the shape of a star for jousting tournaments, but it was later converted into a fortress by the Medici family.
History of Star Forts
In the early 16th century, an Italian architect, Giuliano da Sangallo, and his brother Antonio da Sangallo revolutionised the concept of fortifications. Seeking to protect the city of Nettuno from possible attacks by sea, they devised the ingenious design of Star Forts and constructed the magnificent Forte Sangallo in 1501.
These star-shaped fortresses boasted a distinct star shape with protruding bastions, providing defenders with a panoramic view and eliminating blind spots. But Star Forts were not just military strongholds; some of them doubled as thriving towns, complete with markets, houses, and even churches. These multifunctional fortifications embodied both practicality and architectural splendour, leaving an enduring legacy in the annals of history.
The Architecture of Star Forts
Besides their distinctive star-shaped layout, the architecture of Star Forts had several other significant components, such as:
- Bastions: Bastions were the angular projections extending from the corners of a Star Fort. They served as defensive structures that allowed defenders to cover multiple angles and effectively engage attackers. Additionally, the sloping surfaces of the bastions deflected or absorbed incoming cannon fire, enhancing the fort’s resilience.
- Crownworks: Crownworks, also known as demi-bastions, were smaller bastions located between the main bastions. They reinforced the fort’s defensive capabilities by covering vulnerable sections of the walls that were not adequately protected by the main bastions.
- Ravelins: Ravelins were triangular or polygonal structures located in front of the main walls of a Star Fort. These exterior defensive works served as a first line of defense, providing additional protection to the fort’s entrances. Ravelins acted as barriers that hindered the attackers’ advance, forcing them to navigate a complex path under the defensive fire of the fort’s cannons.
- Hornworks: Hornworks were small defensive structures outside a Star Fort’s main walls. These were situated at the corners or along the curtain walls, extending outward like triangular or trapezoidal protrusions. Hornworks served as additional layers of defence, providing overlapping fields of fire and creating additional obstacles for attackers.
- Counterguards: Counterguards, also known as Tenailles, were low defensive walls or embankments that were positioned in front of the main walls of a Star Fort. They acted as supplementary barriers and further protected the fort’s entrances.
The Rise and Fall of Star Forts
Star Forts first emerged in the 16th century, showcasing a revolutionary fortification approach. Their star-shaped layout, featuring projecting bastions, revolutionised the art of defence.
Cities like Palmanova in Italy and Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille, France, proudly displayed the magnificence of Star Forts. The intricate network of bastions provided an unobstructed line of fire, enabling defenders to rain down destruction upon any would-be invaders. The sloping walls effectively absorbed cannon fire, enhancing their resilience.
However, as time marched forward, so did military technology. The rise of rifled artillery and explosive shells posed a new challenge for the solid walls of Star Forts. Their vulnerability to sustained bombardment and the growing popularity of more flexible and cost-effective fortification systems led to their decline.
By the late 19th century, Star Forts had lost their shine, overshadowed by the rise of modern fortifications. Coastal forts like Fort Sumter in the United States and Fort Noordwijk in the Netherlands were adapted or abandoned as new strategies focused on concrete and steel defences.
Famous Star Forts across Europe
Here are some of the most famous Star Forts across Europe:
Forte di Belvedere – Nestled in the heart of Florence, Italy, Forte di Belvedere reigns as a true gem. Constructed in 1590, this Star Fort offers formidable defences and breathtaking panoramic views of the picturesque Tuscan landscape. Once a guardian of the city, it later transformed into a luxurious retreat for the influential Medici family, hosting extravagant festivities that echoed through history. Today, it is a cultural landmark, hosting art exhibitions and events that continue to captivate visitors worldwide. (1)
Fort Saint-Jean – Located at the entrance of Marseille’s Old Port in France, Fort Saint-Jean stands as a sentinel of maritime defence. With its origins tracing back to 1660, this Star Fort is strategically safeguarding the city against seaborne threats. Its commanding presence and rich history serve as a testament to Marseille’s maritime heritage. Fort Saint-Jean stands as a symbol of Marseille’s resilience and cultural significance, from its role in protecting the city to becoming a part of the renowned Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM). (2)
Castillo de San Marcos – Overlooking the sparkling waters of Matanzas Bay in St. Augustine, Florida, the Castillo de San Marcos transports visitors to a time of Spanish colonial dominance. Constructed between 1672 and 1695, this Star Fort was a stronghold against rival European powers and pirate raids. Its unique coquina stone construction, designed to absorb cannon fire, proved its strength repeatedly. Today, visitors can explore its sturdy walls and gain insights into the region’s tumultuous history. (3)
With their distinctive star-shaped design, Star Forts Castles emerged as revolutionary fortifications in the 16th century. Throughout the 16th to 18th centuries, these multifunctional fortifications offered unparalleled defensive capabilities and even doubled as thriving towns in some cases. However, the rise of modern military technology rendered them vulnerable to sustained bombardment, leading to their decline by the late 19th century. Despite their fall from prominence, Star Forts such as Forte di Belvedere in Florence, Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille, and Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine continue to enchant visitors with their historical significance and architectural splendour.