Zadar's system of walls, gates and bastions was Venice's answer to the rise of Ottoman Turkey. In the 16th century Zadar was a vital part of the Republic of Venice and subject to frequent attacks. To protect their possession Venetian engineers devised an innovative defense system that survives largely intact. Zadar's walls, the St Nikola fortress in Sibenik and other Venetian defensive systems have recently been inscribed on Unesco's list of World Heritage Sites.
It's hard to overstate the importance of Zadar to the Venetian empire. From its purchase in 1409 until the fall of Venice in 1797, Zadar was the most important administrative centre and naval base in the entire empire outside of Venice. With a prime position on the Adriatic, Zadar had become a vital centre of maritime trade and was integral to the military defense of the empire.
The Ottoman Turks also coveted Zadar and, by the beginning of the 16th century, it was clear that Zadar's defenses needed to be improved. The introduction of gunpowder and cannons made Zadar's medieval defenses vulnerable.
13th-century "Captain's Tower"
Although the military purpose of Zadar's walls is evident, decorative elements are delightfully abundant, particularly those that recall Venice. The winged lion of St Mark, Venice's symbol, crops up frequently on reliefs, often paired with Zadar's protector, St Chrysogonus. It's a remarkable ensemble that represents the very best of 16th-century military architecture as pioneered by Venetian builders.
Venice spared no expense in protecting its prized possession and recruited the best military engineers and architects in the Republic to devise defenses better suited to the new threat. The Venetian architects Malatesta Baglione and Michele Sanmicheli upended the city plan and constructed a new defense system that took advantage of Zadar's unique landscape. The nucleas of the town was a peninsula and the new plan was to protect it with low walls, moats and pentagonal bastions. Geometry replaced easily exploded tall towers. They erected the bastions Moro, St Roch, St Demetrius and St Chrysogonus on the port side and St Francis and St George bastions (now destroyed) on the side of the city facing the open sea.
The most striking remnant of Venetian construction on the seaward side is the Port Gate, built in 1573 to celebrate the victory over the Turks at Lepanto. The gate contains remnants of of an earlier Roman triumphal arch. Above the arch is a relief of St Chrysogonus.
The exterior of the Sea Gate is topped with a relief of the Venetian winged lion.
The most striking feature of the landward defense is the magnificent Land Gate, the masterpiece of Michele Sanmicheli. The gate is designed as a classical triumphal arch with three entrances. The pedestrian entrances are on either side of the carriage entrance. This harmonious and imposing structure displays the figure of St Chrysogonus on horseback, the coat-of-arms of Zadar and the winged lion of St Mark, Venice's mascot, on top. On either side of the winged lion are dedicatory inscriptions and the coats-of-arms of the town rector and captain at the time of construction.
Access was via a drawbridge above the moat (fossa). The moat is now a small-boat harbour known as fosa.
At the southwestern end of fosa is the Citadelle bastion.
Protecting the Land Gate is the imposing Ponton Bastion, still the largest bastion in Dalmatia stretching 240m long and 40m high. Built by Giangirolamo Sanmicheli (nephew of Michele), it was the largest bastion in the entire Venetian republic. It is also constructed entirely in brick, a curious choice as brick was not found in Dalmatia at the time.
East of the Land Gate, the Venetians demolished the suburb of St Martin and erected the massive Forte Fortress in 1567. Built by Sforza Pallavicino, the nine-metre high sloping walls formed an external structure to bolster the city's defenses. It was surrounded by a moat and built lower than the walls in order that artillery could defend it. Within its walls is a cistern to provide water to Venetian soldiers and a cavalry house built in 1689. The western gate contains the coat-of-arms of Pallavicino which is a six-headed dragon. The fortress is now Vladimir Nazor park, a tranquil oasis in busy Zadar.
Visiting Zadar's Walls
Stretching over 11.19 hectares and nearly surrounding Zadar's old town, Zadar's defense system is easily explored on foot.