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Fortresses and historical military structures




In Piedmont, the idea of creating a defensive system was first launched in the 16th century by Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, and turned into practice by Victor Amadeus II, the first Savoy king, who envisaged a combination of fortified towns (Turin, Alessandria and Gavi) and fortresses strategically placed along the borders. After 1796, Napoleon ordered that all these structures be demolished, but the Congress of Vienna of 1815 granted Piedmont reparations amounting to ten million francs, which were used to rebuild the fortress of Exilles and other structures.
The development of modern artillery made traditional fortifications obsolete and called for innovations, like Fort Bramafam. The region's fortifications were hardly used during the two world wars, and their history ended in 1947, when peace treaties imposed dismantling and demolition.


Turin's Citadel

The Keep stands between present-day Via Cernaia and Corso Galileo Ferraris, not far from Porta Susa station, and houses the National Artillery Museum. 
Until the 15th century, Turin's fortifications remained more or less those left by the Romans. In 1536, the town was invaded by the French, whose occupation lasted for about 30 years forcing Duke Charles I into exile. His son, Emmanuel Philibert, won the duchy back and strengthened its defences which revolved around the capital, Turin. 
The south-east end of the old town walls was provided with a citadel designed by Francesco Paciotto (who later re-used the same design at Antwerp) and built between 1564-70. The layout was pentagonal and included a massive keep. Additional structures were built in 1640 and 1704. 
In 1706, the citadel withstood the French siege (thanks to Pietro Micca's heroism). In 1799 the citadel was taken by General Suvarov's Austrian-Russian troops. 
In 1856, the city council ordered the demolition of the citadel, except the keep. Urban development has erased all traces of the citadel.


The Fortress of Exilles

The fortress guards Valle Dora Riparia, an ancient communication route between Italy and France. The earliest defensive works might date from Roman times, when a tower protected the village of Excingomagus. 12th-century records mention a castle disputed between the French and the Savoys. 
One of the many clashes, the siege and plunder of 1453, is the background of a legend revolving around a stolen pyx. Carried to Turin with the rest of the loot, the pyx suddenly burst open letting out the Host, which hovered in the air for some time. A church (Chiesa del Corpus Domini) was later built where the miracle had taken place. 
In the early 17th century, architect Jean de Beins turned the castle into a fortress with bunkers and ramparts, and later in the century Exilles became a French state prison. 
One of the inmates (possibly between 1681-87) was the so-called "Iron Mask", a mysterious figure constantly wearing a black velvet mask, whose identity has been the subject of innumerable theories, the most famous of which identifies him with King Louis XIV's real father or twin brother. 
On Aug. 12, 1708, during the Spanish War of Succession, the fort capitulated to the Savoys' army, and was definitely annexed to their territories in 1713. They turned it into an impregnable stronghold: Antonio Bertola's suggestion to create a replica of Fenestrelle was turned down as too exensive, whereas De Willencourt's plans were accepted and later carried out by Ignazio Bertola. 
The new complex withstood the French-Spanish siege of 1745 (Austrian War of Succession). After 1750, the fortress was restored under the supervision of architect Bernardino Pinto di Barri who envisaged a series of fortified buildings surrounding a Piazza or drill-ground, commanding several satellite forts. Dismantled and demolished in 1796, the fortress was rebuilt after the Congress of Vienna. In 1818, Giovanni Antonio Rana was put in charge of the works, and was replaced byFrancesco Antonio Olivero in 1824. They basically rebuilt the 18th-century structure with few changes, e.g. the replacement of the moat with an Avanforte and the edification of a Blockhaus. 
During WW1, Exilles was disarmed (its artillery was transferred to the Austrian front) and turned into a POW camp. Later, and through WW2, it housed the "Battaglione Alpino Exilles". Deserted in 1943, it suffered a long period of neglect before being appropriated by the Regional Authority. Years of work have returned it to Piedmont's heritage. 
Inaugurated on July 9, 2000, it now houses a permanent exhibition of army uniforms and is a museum on the history of Alpine fortifications. 


Col Assietta separates Valle Dora and Val Chisone, respectively protected by the fortresses of Exilles and Fenestrelle. On these heights the French army was disastrously defeated by the Savoys' troops on July 19, 1747.



Fenestrelle: The Great Wall of Piedmont

The grandest fortified building in Europe, it runs for three kilometres on the south-western slope of Mount Orsiera, covers an area of 1,350,000 square metres and reaches Pra Catinat, for an overall altitude height difference of 650 metres.
Designed by Ignazio Bertola, its construction began in 1727 following Vauban's instructions and adapting to the nature of the terrain. Building materials were partly taken locally and partly imported. 
Construction began with Forte delle Valli and proceeded downwards. It lasted over 100 years, till 1837, and resulted in a string of connected buildings which could be turned into independent structures in case of war. 
Altogether, the complex includes three forts (San Carlo, Tre Denti, and Valli), four Redoubts (Belvedere, Sant'Antonio, Elmo, and Carlo Alberto), and three Batteries (Santa Barbara, Porte andOspedale). 
Ridotta Carlo Alberto was built between 1836-37 to bar entry from France. Forte San Carlo (1215-1287 metres a.s.l.) consists of a series of buildings surrounding a drill-ground. Such buildings include the commandant's quarters, the officers' prison, a chapel, barracks and privates' prison, and the famous covered stairway, Fenestrelle's distinguishing feature, whose 4,000 steps link all sections of the fortress. Partly cut into the rock, partly built, the stairway winds up in a roofed gallery whose thick (2 metres) walls have loopholes for air and light. It can also be used by animals and towed loads, and is flanked by an ordinary path, the Strada Reale. 
Forte Tre Denti (1396 metres a.s.l.). It is a long three-storey barrack building leaning against the mountain side. Nearby Garitta del Diavolo (the Devil's watchtower) overlooks the village of Fenestrelle and part of Val Chisone. 

Forte delle Valli. The highest point of the complex. It consists of three redoubts - Belvedere, Sant'Antonio and Elmo- linked by bridges.

Fort Bramafam at Bardonecchia

This structure embodies a new idea of fortification, developed in the 19th century to accompany the evolution of artillery and the use of new building materials and techniques. The fort was replaced two batteries installed around 1874 and reached a final of 64,000 square metres. 
During WW1 it was dismantled and used as a POW camp. After 1930 it was thoroughly repaired and reinforced. Bombarded on June 21, 1940, after Sept. 8, 1943 it became a German outpost. 
The 1947 peace treaty imposed the demolition of all Italian fortifications near the French border: all artillery installations were removed, whereas the building was left standing because its demolition might have endangered the town of Bardonecchia. 
What was left suffered neglect and vandalism well into the 1980's and 90's. It is now being restored and turned into a museum of modern fortification.


The Fortress of Gavi

Province of Alessandria, 380 metres a.s.l.. Autostrada A21 (Torino-Piacenza), exit "Alessandria est", then follow the signs "Pozzolo-Novi Ligure-Serravalle Scrivia-Gavi". 
Closed on Mondays. On other days, guided tours every hour from 9:30 a.m till 5:30 p.m.
For further information: ++39.0143.642679

The Fortress stands on a hill overlooking the town of Gavi. 
The earliest records date from 972 A.D., but the place had been an outpost since Roman times. In the 12thcentury, a castle stood there, annexed to the Republic of Genoa in 1202. 
It was rebuilt between 1625 and 1631 and was long used as a prison. 


The Citadel stands on the right bank of the river Tanaro. The old town walls and bastions have left traces in the denomination of several streets. The Forts are not visitable. 
The earliest fortifications of any relevance were built in the 12th century, when the town, which belonged to the Duchy of Milan, consisted of two villages linked by a bridge: on the right bank of the river Tanaro stood the town proper, on the left a borough called Borgoglio. 
In the 15th century, a pentagonal boundary wall was built and provided with ramparts and a moat. In the first half of the 1800's, the most vulnerable sections of the walls and the gates were reinforced, a fortress was built and the moats were flooded. In 1706, Alessandria was annexed to the Duchy of Savoy and became its western bulwark. 
Duke Vittorio Amedeo II put Ignazio Giuseppe Bertola as in charge of building new fortifications. Construction began in 1728 and resulted in a hexagonal boundary wall and the transformation of Borgoglio into a military zone. 
Between 1855-1859, three forts were added: Forte d'Acqui, Forte della Ferrovia, and Forte Bormida. The hexagonal citadel is still standing, whereas the forts have collapsed and the city walls have completely disappeared. 


Alta Valle Stura di Demonte, 904 metres a.s.l. 
An important military outpost along the road to Col Maddalena, this fortress has replaced an older structure, Fortress Madonna della Consolata at Demonte, demolished in 1796. In 1832, the site of Demonte was discarded and Vinadio was chosen instead. Construction began in 1834. 
During WW1 it functioned as a POW camp, and later as barracks and ammunition depot. In 1927 the main bastion was demolished to enable the construction of a state road. On April 25, 1945, it was mined by the Germans but only the powder-room was actually exploded.

Minor structures

Minor in size, not importance. The area of Montcenis has several such structures, like Forte Brunetta, begun in 1708 and designed by Antonio Bertola and François de Willencourt. Demolished under Napoleon, it was rebuilt after 1877.
In the environs of Susa, one finds Forte Pampalù and Forte Combe, erected between 1890-1900.
Near Bardonecchia, Forte Foins (2186 metres a.s.l., built in 1897), Forte Jafferau (2775 metres a.s.l.) and Forte Pramand, (2162 metres a.s.l., inaugurated in 1905).
In the Cesana district, several structures were built since 1890, like Forte Champlas Seguin and Forte Chaberton (in French territory since 1947), 3130 metres a.s.l., the highest of Europe.
Val Sangone houses Forte San Moritio, commissione in 1682 by Carlo Emanuele.
In Val Germanasca one finds Sbarramento Perrero, in Val Pellice Forte Santa Maria (built in 1560), Sbarramento Villanova and Forte Mirabouc (now almost completely destroyed).
In upper Val Varaita, Sbarramento Sampeyre (1900-1905) and Sbarramento Casteldelfino (built in the 1930's).
To complement these Alpine structures, many cities were fortified with citadels: such is the case with Vercelli, Chivasso, Mondovì, Fossano, Savigliano, Alba, Bra, Cuneo, Casale Monferrato, Tortona, and all cities of any economic or geographic relevance.
Unfortunately, urban development and history have erased all traces of these structures.


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Fortresses and historical military structures

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