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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Fortezza da Basso in Florence

What is Fortezza da Basso?

Fortezza da Basso is a large medieval fortress that’s now used for exhibitions and conferences.

Fortezza da Basso

sailko, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fortezza da Basso History

This imposing fortress in the centre of Florence was created at a time of great political turmoil. In 1534, construction of this masterpiece of Renaissance architecture began in response to the terrible siege of the city five years before, which had resulted in the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians alike.

The stand-off took place from October 1529 to August 1530 after Pope Clement VII and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V agreed to restore the powerful Medici dynasty to Florence. A formidable army of Imperial and Spanish troops surrounded and eventually captured the city, overthrowing the Republic of Florence and installing Alessandro de’ Medici as ruler. The Medici decided that building the fortress would strengthen their hold on the city. It would simultaneously furnish a secure refuge for the rulers in the event of revolt, provide accommodation for troops loyal to them, and intimidate the Florentine citizens, quashing any idea of a republic taking hold again.

The fortress was designed by celebrated military architects Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Pier Francesco da Viterbo. Construction was rapid, with the majority of the work completed in just five months. Located by the 14th-century walls of the city, its official name is the Fortezza di San Giovanni Battista (or Fortress of Saint John the Baptist), in tribute to the patron saint of Florence. However, its common name, Fortezza da Basso (or Low Fortress), serves to distinguish it from the Forte di Belvedere in the hills.

It was built in a pentagonal shape in order to fit along the existing city walls, with an armoury, a keep, and a long corridor with embrasures at varying angles – openings in the walls flaring outwards from which cannons could be fired. The fortress also extended underground, with defensive subterranean structures designed to repel enemies who had succeeded in entering the structure. Many of the historic parts of the building can be visited, and there’s an underground route that can be viewed on organised guided tours. The ancient course of the Mugnone, the stream that flowed into the Grotte de Buontalenti moats, can still be seen.

The fortress today is used for concerts, conferences, exhibitions and trade fairs, and has some modern pavilions. Because of its size and ideal location in the centre of the city, near Santa Maria Novella railway station, it’s one of the most important conference and exhibition centres in central Italy.

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