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Building a Utopia: Palmanova, Italy

    Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich – for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?

    Thomas More, Utopia 

    Palmanova is a small town located in the northeast of Italy, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. It lies around 70 miles east of Venice, and around halfway between Udine and Trieste. Simply by looking at the layout of the town, you can tell that the city was designed with a specific purpose in mind, inspired by a mix of utopian ideals and military planning. Italian architect Vincenzo Scamozzi designed the town to mimic Thomas More’s ideas of Utopia, as published in his book of that name in 1516. The town itself has recently received World Heritage Status due to its outstanding architecture; however, it is often seen as an example of a failed utopia. 

    Founded on October 7th 1593, it was intended to be a part of the Venetian Republic’s defences against the Ottoman Empire. It was built to commemorate a victory over the Ottoman Turks, whilst maintaining defences against their still-threatening forces. Scamozzi designed a fortressa, a space intended to impose fear into approaching enemies’ hearts. This can be seen as an example of ‘negative peace’, or peace via violence. It solidifies peace by encouraging attackers to view their possible military failures.

    Fortresses put forward images of security and immobility, often separating military and civilian life. However, in Scamozzi’s town, residents were to be included within the fortress, combining military and civilian life into one. The construction was intended to promote social harmony, whilst simultaneously warding off enemies. Architecturally, it was to be a nine-pointed star citadel, with a moat, in order to protect the town. The ramparts were built to look like a forest, so the town’s inhabitants could conceal themselves in the Italian countryside. While the nine-pointed star citadel was imposing, there were also aesthetic reasons for its construction. Everything was built to be divisible by three: a nine-pointed star, three gates in and out, six main roads, and eighteen radial roads. This symmetry could have helped to visualise a sense of completion and perfection, furthering the utopian experience.

    Each part of the design had a specific purpose, a concept nowadays called Feng Shui. The Utopian concept, according to Thomas More, consists of geometrical harmony in public spaces (More, 1965). He supposes that if a space was protected from foes, and was aesthetically pleasing, then the citizens would be at peace. The streets and houses were all equally distributed throughout the interior, called Sforzinda, to ensure that no one had more than any one person. Sforzinda is a concept presented by architect Antonio di Pietro Averlino (Milligan, 2022), whereby each inhabitant would have their own responsibility in the town and their own plot of land, meaning that the citizens would contribute to the harmony.  

    Image of plans for Palmanova
    The nine-pointed star citadel plan of Palmanova designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi, 1598
    (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana di Venezia).

    All in all, the town was to be a utopia, where citizens lived equally without fear. This was not the case in practice. The issue that the town of Palmanova ran into was that no one wanted to live there. People could not be convinced to abandon their lives in Venice to move to the middle of the countryside to live inside a walled fortress. There was a lack of freedom of movement, and there was a constant risk of war and devastation due to the Ottoman Empire, despite the preparedness of the town. Eventually, the Venetians resorted to pardoning petty criminals and giving them free building lots and financial incentives to populate the town. Despite being called ‘One of the most successful Renaissance-planned towns’, there were no citizens (Finzi, 2019). Several visitors in the 18th and 19th centuries noted that it was ‘beautifully laid out, but not quite finished’ and ‘[a] strong fortress, but a miserable little town.’ Additionally, no foes attempted to attack the fortress, so it is unclear as to whether their defences would have held. This could have been due to the reputation of the fortification or the fact that the location was so inopportune that no one wanted to waste resources on it. Despite the attempts to create this utopian settlement, the lack of early residents made it a questionable development.  

    Currently, Palmanova has a population of 5400. Tourist websites advertise the Grand Piazza, historical museums, and the town itself as reasons why people should visit this supposedly utopian town. Palmanova represents one of the best-preserved military towns from the 16th century, making it more attractive today to military historians than to visitors interested in attempts to build peace. The utopian ideals that the city was built on are long gone, although the town has been used as a military base several times. It is worth reflecting on how embedded military power and defence is into the concept of this utopia, with militaristic ideals providing security. Despite the attempts of the architects, and the influence of More’s ideas, Palmanova has now transitioned into a regular, very well-defended, Italian town.  

    What do you think?

    • Do you think that Palmanova could have been successful? Was it built on the correct foundation, with the right intentions? What might have helped it to succeed? What caused it to fail as a utopian ideal?
    • Would you define it as a ‘peace project’ or a ‘defensive town’?
    • Why do peace-oriented architectural designs not receive more widespread popularity or implementation?  
    • What can we learn from Palmanova, as we look to build peace into our landscapes in the future?  
    • Is it possible to create a successful Utopian town? How would you do so? 

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You may also enjoy ‘Acrosanti‘, ‘The 15-Minute City‘, and ‘Experimental Peace‘.

    Jadzia Allright, 2023


    • Finzi, Jerry. ‘Palmanova, the Renaissance Fortress Town That Took 200 Years to Build’. Italian Sons and Daughters of America, 2019, 
    • Milligan, Mark. ‘The Palmanova Star Fort’. HeritageDaily – Archaeology News, 28 Mar. 2022, 
    • More, Thomas. Utopia. 1965. Penguin Books, 2003. 

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