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  • Writer's pictureMary Gray

A Brief History of Forte di Belvedere in Florence

What is Forte di Belvedere?

Forte di Belvedere is a military fortress designed by Bernardo Buontalenti that’s now a contemporary art centre with a wonderful view over Florence.

Forte di Belvedere

Forte di Belvedere History

Known colloquially as i Forte by Florentines, as Forte di San Giorgio in more rarefied circles, and as Forte di Belvedere by the general public, this hulking, mysterious fortress was built in the late 16th century by Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici. Together with the Fortezza da Basso, the Forte di Belvedere was constructed to defend the city from external attacks and internal riots, and arguably still retains an eerie atmosphere, the sense of a dark presence lurking in the shadows, even when visited at the height of summer. The original structure had an area accessed only by the Medici family that they could easily reach from the Palazzo Pitti – where their private residences were located – by walking through a series of trails and gates in the Boboli Gardens. Today, the route can still be followed: walk through the first half of the gardens until you see an obelisk, then turn left and head towards the green Rococo Kaffeehaus until you see the gates of the fortress ahead of you.

Bernardo Buontalenti’s fort is polygonal and follows the usual conventions of military architecture: thick, high walls built at angles permitting the widest possible view of the land below. At its centre is the opulent Palazzina di Belvedere, designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati in the 1570s. If to you it looks a little luxurious for purely defensive purposes, then you’re right on the money: the palace housed the Medici family in times of unrest or pandemic, and they expected to live as comfortably here as in their principal residences. Finely decorated with frescoes, precious furniture, sculptures and paintings, it even contained secret rooms protected by elaborate traps where the family’s treasure could be safely stored.

Although created for a defensive purpose, the Forte di Belvedere has never undergone a siege or had to defend itself from attacks. For years, in fact, the daily firing of a cannon served only to announce the arrival of noon, resulting in Florentines jokingly referring to it as the ‘pasta cannon’. After many years of neglect – and a few unsolved mysteries taking place on the premises, including some unexplained fatal falls – the fort reopened with a bang. It’s now known primarily as a summertime venue for contemporary art exhibitions, such as Antony Gormley’s ‘Human’, Henry Moore’s ‘The Sculptor’s Drawing’ and Jan Fabre’s ‘Spiritual Guards’. (It also made waves in the international media, and sparked some local ire, when it hosted Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s over-the-top 2014 wedding.)

Despite these associations it’s the venue itself, its terraces and their enticing views over Florence, that are the most compelling reasons to visit. If you stand with the Belvedere Palace behind you, you can look down towards the picturesque San Niccolò neighbourhood, the River Arno, and the historic Ponte Vecchio.

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