Europe’s Star Cities, marvels of Renaissance engineering
(CNN) – They are scattered across Europe, but their perfect geometric beauty can only be fully admired when viewed from above.
Like snowflakes viewed through a magnifying glass, the neat, intricate way they were laid out has an iridescent fractal quality – only we’re not talking about natural wonders here.
The “star cities” of the 16th and 17th centuries, an entirely new, rational way of designing fortified settlements, were a jewel of the early modern era and were developed by some of the most brilliant minds of their time.
The science of building star-shaped bastions arose in Italy during the Renaissance, when gunpowder and cannons made old medieval walls obsolete.
Tall, vertical walls gave way to low-lying city walls that were less targeted, while wide moats, sloping earthworks, and complex networks of protruding bastions would clear blind spots and prevent besieging armies from approaching the city walls.
This style of military architecture had its golden era in the 1500s, and particularly the 1600s, a time when many parts of Europe saw almost non-stop war.
It is no accident that some of his best and greatest examples are clustered in places like the Netherlands and the Rhine Valley, fault lines between warring empires.
Military engineers like the French Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban and his Dutch rival Menno van Coehoorn have elevated the fortification of cities almost to the category of art.
Successive changes in military technology made many of their “star cities” obsolete, but since many of them had by then become civilian settlements, this eye-catching approach to urban planning was not lost.
What follows is a selection of some of the most beautiful star cities in Europe. While the list of star-shaped fortresses in Europe is much longer, we deliberately focused on those that were inhabited by living communities, while maintaining the original geometric arrangement.
The Netherlands is a prime destination for those interested in “Star City” architecture. The Dutch uprising (1566-1648) is the name for the long war years following the Dutch uprising against Spanish rule and has shaped the urban landscape of a country in which there are no other natural fortifications.
Perhaps the most impressive of the Dutch star cities is Naarden, about 20 kilometers east of Amsterdam. Entirely surrounded by two lines of fortifications and two rings of water, Naarden is possibly the perfect star-shaped city. The location of the Dutch Fortress Museum is also very fitting.
Brielle is a seaport that was once occupied by the Watergeuzen (or “Sea Beggars”).
The town of Brielle has had a place of honor in Dutch history since 1572 when its conquest by the Sea Beggars, a nationalist maritime militia, marked a major turning point in the Dutch War of Independence.
Although it is now dwarfed by the docks of neighboring Rotterdam Europoort, Europe’s largest trading port, its neatly landscaped bastions and moat are easy to spot from the sky.
Heusden was completed in 1597 and today, thanks to an award-winning 40 year long reconstruction project, it can boast of its impressive, well-arranged bastions.
By the 19th century, the city’s original fortifications in North Brabant had all but collapsed. From the 1960s, however, the residents carried out a successful campaign to restore Heusden to its former glory. A 300 year old map was used as a blueprint to transform the place into a beautiful city that attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors every year before the pandemic.
This small town is also another prime example of a Dutch star city in the North Brabant region.
It is said that each of its seven bastions represents one of the seven provinces that came together in the 16th century to liberate the Netherlands from Spanish rule and form an independent Dutch state.
In the northeast of the Netherlands, just a few meters from the German border, Fort Bourtange was built in 1593 and used until 1851.
The fortress was then turned into a village, maintaining its perfectly pentagonal shape and geometric street pattern, but never really thrived as a civilian settlement. Today the entire architectural ensemble is open to visitors as a museum.
Palmanova was founded in 1593.
Palmanova (not to be confused with the Mallorcan resort of the same name) is very close to today’s border between Italy and Slovenia and is the quintessential geometric city as well as one of the largest and best preserved. The Venetians built it in the late 16th century to defend the northeastern border of their most peaceful republic.
Its radial arrangement extends from a central hexagonal square (the “Piazza del Duomo”) in concentric nine-sided rings crisscrossed by straight avenues that lead to each of its angles. The entire ensemble is surrounded by an outer double perimeter of star-shaped fortifications.
Palmanova has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (along with other Venetian fortifications from the same period).
Peschiera del Garda
If Palmanova protected the eastern approaches to Venice, its western ones were under the supervision of Peschiera del Garda, which is also a World Heritage Site. In keeping with a place that was ruled by the Venetians for a long time, the fortified city is not so much on the shores of Lake Garda, but inside, surrounded by water on all sides, through which a canal runs.
Almeida is now a small town with around 1,300 inhabitants.
In northern Portugal, very close to the Spanish border, this city fits perfectly into its imposing star-shaped ramparts.
During the Peninsular War (1804-17) it was captured by Napoleonic forces under French military commander Michel Ney (who himself was born in another star city, Saarlouis, Germany) after a gunpowder magazine exploded, killing hundreds of his British and Portuguese defenders .
Elvas is around 200 kilometers from Lisbon and is a stronghold with seven bastions and two fortresses that for centuries guarded the eastern border of Portugal from Spanish raids.
Although the urban grid lacks the cold, geometric lines of other star cities, the whitewashed houses and hilltop location make Elva a picturesque sight.
Here is another star city that is part of the fortress network of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the greatest military engineer of Louis XIV. It was built from scratch on the French side of the Rhine after France lost the town of Breisach on the opposite bank of the river, hence the prefix “Neuf” (new).
It was designed from the start for mixed civil-military use and follows today’s ideas of what an “ideal city” should look like, with an octagonal design and streets arranged in a square grid.
This military fortress was a prison and a concentration camp.
Milan Vachal / CTK / AP
Theresienstadt was built as a garrison town at the end of the 18th century by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, who named it after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, and has seen little in fighting at the front.
During the First World War, the fortress was used as a political prison camp. Gavrilo Princip, who started the war with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, died here of tuberculosis in 1918.
After the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, the Gestapo used part of its facilities as a prison, and the whole city was later converted into a concentration camp and ghetto. Jewish prisoners from all over Europe were crammed between the walls, many of whom were later shipped to extermination camps. It is estimated that of the nearly 150,000 people who crossed the so-called “Ghetto Theresienstadt” during the war, only 23,000 survived. Today the Theresienstadt Ghetto Museum is located here.
The old town of Zamosc is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has retained most of its original layout from the 16th century.
Much of its uniqueness stems from the fact that it blends architectural influences from different parts of Europe, as Zamosc was an outpost for trade that attracted traders from both east and west. The plan of the city was also designed by an Italian architect from Padua who incorporated architectural elements from his homeland.
This hexagonal star city was built by the Habsburgs as a bastion in 1579 to protect their land from the Ottomans. In the following century he besieged up to seven times, each of them unsuccessfully.
Although modern suburbs have developed around the old town of Karlovac, the core of the harmonious architectural ensemble has been well preserved.