Star Fort Megapost

Thursday, 1st May 2008 by

A star fort or trace italienne is a type of military fortification first introduced in Italy around the mid-fifteenth century. Traditional medieval castles, towers and ring forts had proved extremely vulnerable to increasingly mobile cannons, and star forts were introduced specifically to better defend against them.

The tiny Italian town of Palmanova was founded in 1593, and using all the military innovations of the 16th century was built in the shape of nine-pointed star. You can still see quite clearly how the shape of the ramparts allows the points of the star to defend each other. Originally a moat surrounded the town (which partially remains today), and three heavily guarded gates (1, 2, 3) were the only way in.

Palmanova, Italy (Wikipedia)

Cannons were most effective when they were fired perpendicular to the walls of the building under attack, and the star shaped design meant that to best position their weapons, attacking forces would have enter the space between the points of the star - where they would be fired on from both sides!

The judicious use of moats could further thwart the attacking forces, as demonstrated superbly here at Naarden, Netherlands.

Naarden, Netherlands (Wikipedia)

By the late seventeenth-century star forts reached the pinnacle of their development, as shown by this complicated example in Bourtange, Netherlands, which has been fully restored to how it would have been in 1742. Here we can see that the design provides defence in depth, with tiers of ramparts that an attacker would have had to overcome to be in with a chance of taking the fort.

Bourtange, Netherlands (Wikipedia)

This ingenious design quickly became the gold standard for defensive forts, and went on to spread across Europe and the Americas:

Fort Manoel, Malta (Wikipedia)

Fort McHenry, Maryland (Wikipedia)

Fort Jay (Wikipedia) and Fort Ticonderoga (Wikipedia), New York

Castillo de San Marcos, Florida (Wikipedia)

The design even reached South Africa, where today the Castle of Good Hope can be seen right in the middle of the city! It used to be on the coast, but land reclamation allowed the city to expand around it.

Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa (Wikipedia)

In the nineteenth century the development of the exploding shell changed the nature of defensive fortifications forever, and the star fort soon became utterly obsolete. Which is why several are today used for completely different purposes - like this example in Slovakia where they now spend their time trying to keep people inside rather than out.

Leopoldov Prison, Slovakia (Wikipedia)

And finally, what is probably the world's most famous star fort isn't actually known for being a star fort at all - as Fort Wood is today the distinctive star-shaped pedestal underneath New York's Statue of Liberty.

Fort Wood, New York (Wikipedia)

We've previously featured just one star fort several star forts, including Kastellet in Copenhagen, Citadel Hill in Canada, and the aforementioned Fort McHenry in Maryland. If that's not enough, there's a whole page about them at Wikipedia too.

Thanks to Dan W, Manuel Hewitt, RB, tom schuring, Stefano Bertolo and Federico Cretti.