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14 April 2021

Venetian Nicosia, the ideal Renaissance city

Nicosia's old town is a sad sight today.

Boutiques here are next to the shanties, many houses are abandoned, some buildings collapse under the pressure of winter showers. Historical sights and monuments of different eras are placed next to the new modern buildings and places such as the Freedom square. To all this screaming dissonance you can add the fact that Nicosia is divided in two cities, and there is the Green Line which runs right through the heart of the city.

The wealth and poverty of Nicosia

Now the crossing points to the other side are closed, and this does not allow us to feel the real capital of Cyprus as it was built several hundreds years ago. However, this place is the true face of Nicosia, the ideal city of the Renaissance. The city was created by the genius Giulio Savorgnan on the basis of the works of the great theoretician and architectural practitioner Antonio di Pietro Averlino, who went down in history under his nickname Filarete (life years 1400-1469).


When describing the Venetian Nicosia, we must start from a distance. In the 50s of the 15th century, the ruler of Milan, the famous Duke Francesco Sforza, invited the architect Filarete, who then managed to work on the ancient Basilica of St. Peter in Rome and who was to go down in the history of Milan as the author of the Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico and the central tower of the Sforza castle.

By the way, Filarete's colleague was the architect Aristotele Fioravanti, the author of the Assumption Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. Together they were in the service of the Duke of Milan in the late 50s and early 60s of the 15th century.

The central tower of the Sforza Castle strikingly resembles the towers of the Moscow Kremlin

In Milan, at the beginning of the 1460s, Filarete wrote a book on architecture called 'Treatise on architecture', where he outlined his principles for organizing an ideal urban space, thus becoming one of the forefathers of urbanism.

Filarete strongly opposed the architectural and planning chaos that reigned in medieval cities. In his opinion, the ideal city, which he named in his treatise in honor of his benefactor Sforzinda, should have a precise layout. The reason was not only comfort, but also the belief that only correct geometric shapes correspond to the concepts of ideal beauty and heavenly harmony (this belief dates back to Pythagoras and Plato).

The ideal city of Filarete is built in the form of an eight-pointed star, created by superimposing two squares on top of each other so that all corners are equidistant. This shape is inscribed in a round ditch. The protruding corners of the eight-pointed city wall have towers, while the inner ones have gates.

Avenues go from these gates to the central square with the main cathedral. Regular circles intersect them (avenues become the diameters of these circles), which form a grid of streets. Every second street has a canal dug along it, through which goods are delivered to the city. There should be three squares in Sforzinda: with a temple, a palace and a market. Although Sforzinda was never built, it is difficult to overestimate the impact that her plan had on contemporaries and subsequent generations.

Sforzinda (reconstruction of the plan by Rainer Zenz)

Second half of the 16th century: historical context

Before describing what the plan of Venetian Nicosia was and what has changed in it compared to the ideal city of the architect Filarete, let's dive into the historical context of the second half of the 16th century. What forced the Venetians to completely redo the old fortifications of Nicosia?

The 16th century was a time of continued struggle between the Ottoman Turks and the European powers for dominance in the Mediterranean. In 1522, the troops of Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent captured Rhodes, expelling the Knights Hospitaller from the island (by the way, they found refuge in Cyprus and Malta), and in 1531 they conquered Tripoli. In 1538, the Ottomans inflicted a crushing defeat on the European powers in the naval battle of Preveza, in 1565 they attacked Malta, but their attack was repulsed by these Knights Hospitaller. Turkish intentions to continue their expansion were obvious.

After the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Venice carried out large fortification works throughout the Christian Mediterranean to strengthen the most important colonies of the Most Serene Republic: Cyprus, Candia (as Crete and its main city were then called) and Corfu. In order to improve the fortifications of the island, the military architect Giulio Savorgnan arrived in Cyprus.

Giulio Savorgnan

Giulio Savorgnan or Savorgnano was born in 1510 and came from a noble Venetian family.

By the 1560s, he had earned the fame of a talented military architect, he also made an administrative career. Before arriving in Cyprus, he served as the governor and garrison commander of the city of Zara in Dalmatia (present-day Zadar in Croatia). In 1566, it was he who was instructed to improve the fortress of Candia, the main city of Crete (modern Heraklion).

Fortifications of Candia (modern Heraklion)

He decided to expand the fortress walls and lower their height, place cannons on the sites, widen the ditch and strengthen the embankments. He will do almost the same thing later in Nicosia. Savorgnan arrived in Cyprus in 1567, immediately after finishing work in Crete, although he already had a theoretical plan for rebuilding Nicosia in 1565. Now this document, with handwritten notes by the master, is kept in the Paris Library.

Nicosia before restructuring

As a result of intrigue, murder and abdication of the last queen of the Lusignan dynasty, Catherine Cornaro, Venice took possession of Cyprus in 1489.

Nicosia was the main city of the Kingdom of Cyprus of the Frankish rulers. The palace of the Lusignans and the royal tomb were located here. Even during the time of King Peter II (1357-1382), the city was surrounded by a wall, to which many buildings adjoined from the outside. These were mainly temples and monasteries.

Savorgnan made a radical decision to completely raze all the old walls and build new ones from scratch. All the buildings adjacent to the walls were destroyed, for example, several Catholic monasteries, including the monastery of St. Dominic (in the area of ​​the modern Paphos gate), the tomb of the kings from the Lusignan dynasty. An entire urban area in the south was completely demolished because it did not fit into the new plan. The demolition of old buildings gave the architect building material for new walls and cleared the horizon for defense.

Reading about the initiatives of Savorgnan, we are amazed at his determination and complete disregard for the historical heritage, just like some of today's mayors. On the one hand, this was a forced decision, since new advances in the field of weapons required new techniques, and the old walls could not resist cannon shots. On the other hand, Savorniano, in his radical restructuring of Nicosia, was guided not only by the desire to increase the defenses. In the end, there were many ways to accomplish this. Savorgnan realized the concept of an ideal city. Fortunately, this most ideal city, as the architect believed, fully met practical military tasks. However, history has shown that the pursuit of the ideal form played a cruel joke with the Venetians.

Nicosia after the completion of the walls

Nicosia plan

Almost all the elements described by Filarete in the 'Treatise on architecture' we find on the map of Venice Nicosia, which, however, was not built strictly according to the project of the great Milanese master, but rather represents his further reinterpretation.

It has the shape of an ideal figure, a circle. This circle is surrounded by a moat 80 meters wide. To create the moat, Savorgnan specifically changed the course of the Pedieos River, which used to flow just next to the aforementioned monastery of St. Dominic. This part of the city was even called Giardini (gardens in Italian) because of the abundance of vegetation here. Savorgnan made Pedieos river fill the moat around the capital of Cyprus.

Together with residential buildings, huts and churches that you had to raze to the ground, you tamed the waters of Pedieos and uprooted trees and gardens in the east of Nicosia, - describes the architect's tireless efforts to fortify the city, Cypriot intellectual and contemporary of the events described, Ioann Podokataro in his rhetorical word extolling Savorniano's building achievements.

Walls of Nicosia (photo from the website of the Nicosia municipality)

The defensive walls of Nicosia are 4.8 km long and have 11 pentagonal bastions (instead of eight at Filarete) with rounded orillons.

Each bastion has its own name (the bastions are listed clockwise): d'Avilla (the municipality of Nicosia is located here today), Tripoli, Roccas, Mula, Quirini, Barbaro, Loredano, Flatro, Caraffa, Podocataro, Constanza. Five of them (from the Karaffa bastion in the east to the Tripoli bastion in the west) are located on the territory of the Republic of Cyprus. The Flatro Bastion is located in the buffer zone, and all the others are in the occupied territory. The bastions of Mula, Quirini, Barbaro and Loredano are named after city officials, the other seven after the Venetian families who donated money for the construction of the fortifications. Thanks to the bastions, Nicosia still resembles a wonderful flower from a bird's eye view.

There are three gates in the Venetian walls: the Paphos Gate or Porta San Domenico (just after the name of the monastery located here), the Kyrenia Gate or Porta del Proveditore and the Famagusta Gate or Porta Giuliana (named after Savorgnan). The first two gates served for civilians, while the Famagusta one was for the entry of troops into the city.

Famagusta Gate (photo by A. Savin)

Therefore, three passages were made in the gates of Famagusta, the central of which, the highest one, served to enter the city for military equipment, and the Paphos and Kyrenian gates were low tunnels, so it was easier to protect them.

Kyrenian gate

The center of the ideal city was the Hagia Sophia (the modern Selimiye mosque in the occupied half of the capital) and the square in front of it.

The former cathedral of St. Sofia in the heart of Nicosia (flickr photo)

Fortification features of the Venetian walls

The curtains made by Savorgnan (the walls between the bastions) were not very high.

This was a conscious decision. The high walls that surrounded the medieval cities could be easily destroyed under artillery fire, therefore, from the beginning of the 16th century, the Italians began to make the fortress walls low, but very wide. As already mentioned, the Venetians built 11 bastions, but for some reason did not make cavaliers on them (special fenced off elevations where the guns were placed), although historical sources describe how the defenders of Nicosia hastily began to build cavaliers on some of the bastions already during siege. It seems that the Venetians did not understand how many Turks they would have to defend against.

The facade of the walls was only half-faced with stone, which was probably due to the rush of the builders (however, it is believed that this was a deliberate decision of the architect in order to increase the strength of the walls). In Nicosia, external fortifications such as tenale were completely absent. Apparently, only the beginning of the siege of Nicosia prevented their construction. The walls of Nicosia were completed in an astonishingly fast time - in just three years, from 1567 to 1570. Giulio Savorgnan worked in Cyprus for eight months, then he returned to Dalmatia, and the entire project was completed by his assistant Leonardo Roncone (who would die in the capture of Nicosia).

The Turks are coming!

The Ottomans invaded Cyprus in July 1570, violating the 1567 peace treaty with Venice.

In order to justify the violation of the treaty and calm the sultan's conscience, the supreme Islamic theologian of the High Port, Hoca Çelebi, issued a special fatwa stating that the island was the "land of Islam" in the 7th century, therefore it is necessary to restore historical justice and retake it.

The landing of Turkish troops in Cyprus (miniature from the book Voyages et aventures de Ch. Magius, 1578). Nicosia is visible in the left half of the image, Famagusta is in the right.

The Turkish siege, which began on 22 July, focused on the southern side of the city.

The Turks settled on a hill directly opposite the walls. It is interesting that this hill was originally supposed to be included in the territory of the city inside the fortifications, but in order to preserve the ideal circular shape of the walls, this plan was abandoned. In this area, the firing points of the besiegers were almost on the same level with the bastions and could conduct aimed fire from close range. However, there never was shooting at the walls. The Turks managed to fill the moat by the beginning of September. With the help of the Greek and Karamanian corps, they were able to attack the Podokataro bastion just six weeks after the start of the siege.

By this time, the defenders of the city had already run out of ammunition. The Turks obviously had a clear numerical advantage, since the day before the assault on Nicosia, they launched an attack on four bastions (from d'Avilla to Caraffa). In the early morning of September 8, 1570, they managed to climb Podokataro, catch the defenders by surprise and, having captured this bastion, dispersed in order to flank the rest. Entering the city, the Turks encountered resistance in the Cathedral Square, in the Lusignan Palace and on the bastions of Barbaro and Caraffa. In the ensuing massacre, almost all the defenders of Nicosia, 20 thousand people, were killed. Nicosia fell on September 9.

Nicosia 2.0

Giulio Savorgnan, who left Cyprus already in 1568, distinguished himself by participating in another famous project - the construction of the Fortress Town of Palmanova.

Today it is a small town in northeastern Italy, 29 km south of Udine and 33 km west of the Italian-Slovenian border. The city was founded in 1593 in memory of the victory over the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, which was the response of the European powers to the capture of Cyprus.

Palmanova's plan

Savorgnan was invited as a consultant, the work was supervised by the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi.

The city is also surrounded by a moat, a wall with bastions (though there were not 11, but 9), has three gates, the main square with a temple is located in the center of the city, avenues that are crossed by streets at right angles go from it.

Due to the fact that the scheme of the Renaissance ideal city laid down in the plan of Palmanova has survived to this day virtually unchanged, we have the opportunity to see what Venetian Nicosia should have been like according to the idea of ​​the architect Giulio Savorgnan.

Palmanova (photo by UNESCO)

Capital of Cyprus today

The Renaissance look of Nicosia is buried deep under modern layers.

If during the years of Ottoman rule the Venetian walls simply slowly collapsed and fell into disrepair, then the British (with their pragmatism) caused irreparable damage to the walls. In the first half of the 20th century, the inner street along the walls was raised to the level of the wall platform (the height difference between the road along the wall and the rest of the streets of the center is very clearly visible today).

This decision leveled the height of the wall from the side of the city, burying the historical stairs that were designed for climbing the fortification (one staircase can still be seen at the Paphos gate), artillery ramps and bastion passages. In several places (again at the Paphos gate, on both sides of the Kerinian gate), part of the walls was destroyed in order to build a road there.

Paphos gate with preserved staircases on the wall

However, Nicosia is the only European capital whose historic center was conceived and built as an ideal Renaissance city, according to the schemes and principles of the great architects of Quattrocento.

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