Friday, 2 July 2010



In 1693, on the advice of General Nicolas

Catinat, Louis XIV of France (the "Sun

King") ordered that a fortress be built where

the upper Chisone valley narrows, just below

the village of Fenestrelle. The Pragelato

Valley, as it was then called, was French

territory. For centuries it been literally a thorn

in the flesh of Piedmont. Shaped like a crow's

beak and thrust into the Savoyan lands which

surrounded it on three sides, it had gained the

epithet "le Bec Dauphin", from the period

when this territory was the southernmost

extension of the Dauphinate, long before it

was ceded to France in 1349 by the last of the

Dauphins of Vienne. A curiously shaped

rocky promontory near Meano delimited the

border, a rock which is still today called the

"Bec Dauphin".

While it was clear that the main purpose of

this new fort was to thwart the expansionist

ideas of the Savoy Dukes, Louis XIV

declared that its objective was to keep the

"mutinous bearded heretics" (i.e. the Valdese

protestants) under control. Its original name

"Fort du Fenestrelle" soon gave way to the

more colourful "Fort Mutin", the Mutineers


The site chosen by its architect, De

Richerand, was just across the valley from the

present day Fortress, but despite its imposing

size, it was heavily criticised by the great

Sébastien Le Prêtre, Lord of Vauban, the

French King's First Engineer, when he came

to inspect it in the year 1700. His expert eye

immediately identified its principal weakness

- its vulnerability to attack from the

surrounding heights, since although it was a

well-structured pentagon, the form best-suited

to defence, it lay in a gently-sloping hollow.

While this might have been acceptable in a

lowland site, it was courting disaster in a

mountainous area. Vauban scathingly

commented that if this fortress had not

already cost a fortune to build, and that if the

need for one in the upper valley had not been

imperative, he would have ordered its

demolition there and then! He ordered the

reinforcement of the perimeter and the main

buildings and the construction of a series of

redoubts in strategic positions to forestall any

attack from the heights above, but left with

grave misgivings. Due to their cost, these

improvements were only partially carried out.

Vauban's criticism must have echoed in Louis'

ears some years later when the fort was

conquered by Savoyan forces under Vittorio

Amedeo II and General Rhebinder in August

1708. The Duke first retook Exilles then

crossed the Finestre Pass to beseige Fort

Mutin. A large French relief force under

Mareschal De Villars found its every move

thwarted by energetic Piedmontese countermanoeuvres,

relegating it to the role of an

impotent and reluctant spectator of the

systematic demolition of Mutin by Savoyan

seige cannons until finally the demoralized

defenders surrendered. Details of the siege

can be found in the chapter on Fort Mutin.

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 saw reciprocal

territorial exchanges between Piedmont and

France, establishing the border on the alpine

watershed at Montginèvre, with the High

Chisone Valley and Fort Mutin becoming part

of the newly-created "Kingdom of Sicily".

With Bourbon support, Vittorio Amedeo

gladly surrendered his ducal coronet for a

King's crown.

In the 1720's, having already "traded" Sicily

for Sardinia, Vittorio Amedeo began to

consolidate his kingdom. Worried by the

inadequate defensive system represented by

the patched-up Fort Mutin, he challenged

Ignazio Bertola, his First Engineer, to design

an impregnable fortification at Fenestrelle.

The result became the largest single military

construction in the world after the Great Wall

of China. It also fulfilled its primary objective

- it was never taken in battle.


In giving his assent to this pharaonic project,

something which cost the kingdom almost

one third of its income for the next 50 years,

Vittorio Amedeo had much more than just

than its obvious military function in mind -

first it had to be an expression of the new

King's statement to the world - the need to

demonstrate the vigour and potential of his

fledgling kingdom by means of an imposing

construction (a feature common to many

nations, even today); the second is more

prosaic but probably of greater fundamental

importance - to provide work, and thus

engender loyalty among those of the valley

who for 600 years had considered themselves

French. Bringing work to a depressed area is,

of course, still one of today's ploys to

stimulate loyalty, albeit merely political rather

than anything more substantial.

The new fortified complex, conceived as a

barrier across the Chisone valley, was situated

on its left flank, and originally comprised

three forts, (the San Carlo, Tre Denti and

Delle Valli), two Redoubts (Santa Barbara

and Delle Porte) and five Batteries (San

Carlo, Beato Amedeo, Sant'Ignazio, Dello

Scoglio and Ospedale). The Delle Valli Fort

was in turn composed of three independent

Redoubts - Belvedere, Sant'Antonio and


The Fortress of Fenestrelle

The Carlo Alberto Redoubt was a much later

construction, not part of the original design.

Communication between Fort San Carlo and

everything above it was by means of a

prodigious covered stairway nearly two and a

half kilometres in length, its staggering 3996

steps taking it through approximately 580

metres of vertical height. This was essentially

the main artery of the fortress, linking all its

elements together, allowing the movement of

men and materiel between the Forts, the

Batteries and the Redoubts in any weather and

in complete security from enemy fire thanks

to its cannon-ball proof construction.

Illuminated and ventilated by tall narrow slots

every few metres on the "safe", inner side, the

thousands of tiny stalactites caused by the

seepage of rainwater through its calcareous

superstructure, add a mysterious fascination

to an already dramatic and almost

unbelievably vast feat of engineering (by

comparison, the Empire State Building is less

than two-thirds as high, at 335 metres, while

the Eiffel Tower is a “mere” 300 metres in

height - to the very top!

The first "Instructions for the work required to

build the fortifications of Fenestrelle" are

dated the 8th of October 1727, signed by

Ignazio Bertola, and list under 96 separate

headings all the various aspects involved and

how each task should be performed. They

specify in enormous detail not merely the

duties of the workmen and the types and

quantities of their tasks but also the quality

and the origin of the material to be employed.

A series of such instructions were emanated at

various times during the construction of the


Work began in 1728, starting from the

summit of Mount Pinaia (an extension of

Mount Orsiera) with the construction of the

three upper Redoubts (Sant'Elmo,

Sant'Antonio and Belvedere) which together

make up the Delle Valli.Fort Descending

towards the valley as work progressed, the old

"Trois Dents" redoubt built by Catinat was the

first to be integrated into the new structure,

and was given the name of Fort Tre Denti.

Vittorio Amedeo II, the instigator of the work,

saw only a small part completed. He


abdicated in 1730 in favour of his son, Carlo

Emanuele III.

The year 1731 saw the beginning of the

"lower fort" (Fort San Carlo), the largest of all

and most important of the entire complex.


Fort San Carlo was designed to impress

visitors. It was meant to convey the

impression of strength, power, determination,

and fortitude, everything that the new

Kingdom was trying to display to the world.

This was an expensive fortress to build,

typified by graceful buildings. The Governor's

Palace, despite its massiveness, is a tasteful

edifice which a nobleman could have

admired. The Officers' Pavilion, built into an

incredible slope, displays five of its six stories

to the rear but only three to the front. All its

44 rooms have fireplaces. The great bulwarks

stretching up the hillside are all semiindependent

little forts which once housed the

great cannon that would keep French armies

out of Piedmont until Napoleon's time. The

genteel clock tower, the seemingly endless

covered stairway and the triple set of barracks

for the troops, all visible at once from the

parade square must have produced the desired

effect, as would the appearance of the

intermediate fort, the Tre Denti, some 200

metres higher up the hill..

Fort San Carlo from the South-East

The fort is completed by the battlements, the

powder magazine of Sant'Ignazio, the Main or

Royal Gate and a host of other buildings used

as deposits for munitions and artillery pieces,

munitions loading houses, workshops for the

maintenance crews, guards quarters, the

infirmary, storehouses for hay, straw,

firewood, rations for the troops etc.


This edifice is rectangular in plan, stands

three stories high with one underground floor

and has a porticoed entrance overstood by a

loggia; its severe frontage is graced by two

magnificent doorways, splendid cornices and

finely carved decorations in grey stone.

The Governor's Palace

Structurally massive, it boasts double loadbearing

walls more than two and a half metres

thick, bomb-proof barrel and pavilion vaults

with robust iron grilles some 4 cm thick at the

ground floor windows. Inside there are many

fine rooms - all with stone fireplaces -

amongst which two stand out for importance,

both located on the "noble floor" (the 1st

upper floor): the first is the "Quadrato

Militare", that is the office of the Governor

(originally with the rank of General, and

successively with the rank of Colonel) who

was in command of the entire fortress. It was

from here that he issued the orders which

were communicated to all parts of the fortress

by means of optical semaphores or by carrier

pigeon. The other important room is his

personal dining room, with fireplace, washing

facilities, a small kitchen, an adjacent storeroom

for food and provisions, and once upon

a time, with the utensils necessary for the

preparation and consumption of the meals for

the Governor and a few other high-ranking


The uppermost, mansarded floor was reserved

as living quarters for the Governor and his

family. The Governor was the only officer


accorded this possibly doubtful privilege. His

wife and daughters (if any) were normally the

only females in the fort.

Today, this beautiful building has been

extensively restored, and is being readied for

use as a hostel for young visitors.


Constructed between 1780 and 1789, to the

design of Count Lorenzo Bernardino Pinto,

and on the instructions of Vittorio Amedeo

III, with the function of state prison and

military confinement for officers in mind, this

is historically the most significant building

within the fortress.

A truly robust edifice, with stone walls from

two to three metres thick and vaulted brick

ceilings, it is beautified on the Parade Ground

side by a splendid stone doorway. To the

front it stands three stories high, while to the

rear, due to the steep slope upon which it is

built, 5 stories are visible above ground. In

addition it has an artfully illuminated

underground floor in which an immense

double cistern supplies water through a brickbuilt


The Officers' Pavilion

Its 44 rooms on the three upper floors all have

fireplaces, although only a small number of

them were used on a regular basis as quarters

for the garrison officers. The others mainly

"hosted" important prisoners and military

officers under arrest. The below-ground floors

were given over to the kitchens and the storerooms

for Fort San Carlo. Every fort, in fact,

had its own independent kitchen and storerooms,

and was able to support itself

autonomously in the event of seige. Two large

reflecting ovens for bread making can still be

found, both of which are in good state of

conservation (and perfectly functional!), as

well as two built-in cauldrons for the

preparation of rations. It is, however doubtful

that they were in fact ever used while the

fortress was operational. Supplies were

normally brought from the nearby villages.

In the cellar, a fine brick well with a stone

cap-ring served to draw water from the

underground cistern below. The cistern

consists of two large communicating

chambers, waterproofed with the finest lime,

which fills with pure water right to the

vaulted ceiling where the overflow outlet is

located. This large reserve of water, estimated

as being more than 100,000 litres, was only

for Fort San Carlo, each of the other forts

having their own water supply.

The well in the cellar of the Officers'


Recently, the cistern was cleaned out,

removing all the material (stones, bricks,

wood, rubbish etc.) that had found its way in

during the years of abandonment, and to our

great surprise the huge stone cap-ring that

crowned the upper part of the well was found.

This has now been restored to its original


It is sad to say that the role of state prison

characterized the Fenestrellian fortress for

many years. The Officers' Pavilion in

particular and Fort San Carlo in general had

the function of State Prison and Military

Correction Institute (as can still be seen today

on the walls of the entrance hall) for officers


under arrest up just after the First World War.

Both Napoleon and the Savoyans made ample

use of its facilites as a "maximum security"

prison, and the fortress was held in extreme

dread, not merely for the imprisonment itself,

but the harsh conditions which accompanied


Personal liberties were non-existent. A series

of hard governors took pleasure in extracting

the maximum suffering from their charges,

while remaining within the confines of the

rules. These rules were strictly obeyed to the

letter, mercilessly, without regard for any

sentiment or sympathy for the innocent

motivation for the request. A best-selling

book of the period ("Picciola") recounts the

tale of a prisoner who cared for a small plant

growing in a crack and the furore caused by

his request for more space for its roots as it


To use the words of the writer Edmondo De

Amicis, "soldiers and Officers of all ages and

Regiments were frequently sent on vacation

to Fenestrelle to meditate on the rules of


Various illustrious historic and cultural

personages were imprisoned in the cells of

this building. François de Maistre wrote his

masterpiece "Un Voyage Autour de ma

Chambre" (A Jouney around my Room) at

Fenestrelle; another writer, Jean Xavier

Saintine, located the events of his novel in the

fortress; Stendhal in "The Certosa of Parma"

cites the fortress as one of the most feared of

all the Savoyan prisons.

The room in which Cardinal Pacca was

imprisoned for nearly four years

From 1809 to 1813, the most illustrious of its

"guests", Cardinal Bartolomeo Pacca,

Secretary to Pope Pio VII, was imprisoned

there, together with other eminent prelates.

His cell is the only one which today has

frescoed walls, however those are Sabaudian

works from the post-Napoleonic period.

The fresco of the Savoyan eagle on the


Underlining the sentiments of the post-

Napoleonic period, the eagle is portrayed

actively shredding the fronds of France and

ripping up "le tricoleur". As a final insult, its

tail end points North - directly towards France


Pacca's memoirs, written in 1830, describe

how tragic and full of suffering confinement

in Fenestrelle really was, even for those of

rank, whose treatment was immeasurable

better than that accorded to the common


During the Restoration, and in fact throughout

the 1800's, many other significant personages

were housed in these cells, although in some

cases, fortunately for them, only for brief

periods: Prince Carlo Emanuele Dal Pozzo

della Cisterna, Giuseppe Bersani (who some

historians indicate as the illegitimate son of

Carlo Felice), various liberals of the "Giovine

Italia" movement, Mons. Luigi Franzoni,

Archbishop of Torino, following the

promulgation by the Subalpine parliament of

the Siccardi laws regarding the ecclesiastical

reforms to which he was opposed; six of

Garibaldi's officers after the Battle of

Aspromonte and some Papal soldiers

following the capture of the Porta Pia in

Rome. Gioberti was also held here before he


was able to have his punishment commuted to



With its 3996 steps, this incredible cyclopean

staircase is one of the most unusual features

of the fortress. It is not the only one of this

type which exists, the Fortress of Bard having

a much shorter version (530 steps), but this

one was constructed from the outset as the

main logistic communications way for the

entire fortress. For many years it was the only

means of moving men and materiel between

the various sectors of the fortress. Amongst

other things, it also served to hide the

movements of the garrison and their supplies

from enemy view.

Part of the Covered Staircase

Approximately 2.10 meters wide and 2.35

meters high with walls of over 2 meters thick,

illuminated by narrow slits which also serve

for ventilation, it climbs 580 metres in nearly

3 kilometres within an artificial barrel-vaulted

tunnel. Covered with a double layer of stone

roofing slabs, it connects one fort with

another and all the sections between each

other. It was a strategic means of

communication, particularly in times of

inclement weather or enemy attack, since

despite the steepness of some of the slopes, it

could be traversed by mules as well as by

large loads which were either towed up or

restrained on the way down by ropes through

large rings fixed to the walls.

Five double drawbridges (called

“trabocchetti”) could cut off further access

and isolate each single tract. When necessary,

either of the two mobile parts, hinged to their

fixed center part, could be raised vertically by

means of chains running through pulleys in

the roof, revealing a water-filled ditch, some 5

to 6 metres deep.

From below the Tre Denti fort, a second

stairway of nearly 300 steps runs parallel to

the Covered Staircase, forming an alternative

to the external route to the fort. It is

illuminated only by small openings high in

the walls. The main staircase provides access

to a terrace a short distance above the Devil’s

Garret, where the "Royal" or Open Stairway

begins. This is a wonderful panoramic route

of “only” 2500 steps, running essentially

parallel to the Covered Staircase up the slopes

of Mount Pinaia, linking the remaining

Batteries and their Redoubts with the Delle

Valli fort. It is said that King Carlo Emanuele

preferred the external stairway to the internal

one, hence the name attributed to it.

Ascending the Royal Stairway

Volunteers have cleared away the thick

vegetation accumulated over the last 50 years,

which had rendered it otherwise unuseable.

Regular "corvées" of work still continue, to

remove undergrowth, tree roots etc, generally

improving it from a safety aspect.


The church is the only "genteel" building in

the fortress: its decoration is however,

restrained, without excessive ornamentation,

blending in well with the general austerity of


the other architecture. Unfortunately, at

present, little is known about the church. We

have very limited information, none of which

can be considered precise nor reliable about

who designed it, the date or the length of time

of the construction, not even its exact usage

through the centuries.

The Church

It was most likely built in the last quarter of

the 1800's, although has also been attributed

to the military architect Carlo Andrea Rana by

some scholars (for example Brayda and

Contino), who state that they see the same

architectural elements and a similar style in

the facade of this church to those of his other

works in Piedmont. (In 1773 Rana had drawn

up an ambitious plan for reinforcements,

works which were never carried out, to be

built on the mountainside between the Santa

Barbara and Delle Porte Redoubts.)

By the Second World War, it had become a

storehouse and magazine for bombs,

munitions, grenades and detonators, as

testified by inscriptions on the internal walls.

Documents dated 1917 show that by then the

church had already been deconsecrated.

The facade of the church is characterized by a

central corpus, slightly protruding with

respect to the lateral elements, a stone

pediment on which rest six pilasters (four in

the corpus - in pairs on each side of the main

entrance - and two, one on each side, in the

lateral extremities of the facade), and by a

horizontal moulding between the upper and

lower windows and between the circular rose

window and the entrance. Unfortunately, due

to either having collapsed or been stolen, the

carved stone arch originally over the entrance

is now missing. The trabeation is simple, and

in the centre is surmounted by a triangular

timpanum which houses a semicircular


Internally, it has three naves, the lateral ones

are vaulted, while this was never completed

over the central nave. Of its former

furnishings only two carved wooden shelves

which once supported the pulpit of the organ


A false ceiling in wood, at the same height as

the lateral vaulting divides this central space

into two floors. The upper floor could be

reached by a wooden stairway from the old

sacristry alongside the presbytery. Above the

apse, the lovely brick-built dome with its

stone arches still exists today.

The roofing of stone slabs was refurbished

about ten years ago, and from then on, the

interior is no longer exposed to the elements.

Recently, consolidation of the structure of the

walls and the creation of suitable new flooring

has been undertaken: these works, amongst

other things necessary for the conservation of

the building, now finally allow its use as a

prestigious site for cultural events such as

exhibitions, concerts, theatrical presentations,

conferences etc.

During the 20th Century, the underground

floor was divided up into tiny prison cells. To

one side of this still exists a small courtyard,

the airing yard, surrounded by high walls and

furnished with stone benches where prisoners

were taken to enjoy their daily "hour of air".

Running along one of the external support

walls of the church there is a stone-built

tunnel, 25 meters long which leads to the

morgue, a windowless underground chamber

where the corpses of dead defenders were

thrown during a seige to prevent outbreaks of

disease until there would be time to decently

bury them.


These are three long buildings, each 11

metres wide and three floors high, in parallel

one behind the other on a steep slope, their

facades each distinguished by a gracious

balcony in grey stone.


The Military Barracks

Originally built to house the garrison soldiers,

the ground floors became prison cells for

deserters and criminals, becoming known as

"les Forçats", from the 12 hours a day of

forced labour, mainly stone breaking, which

was their lot.

The internal layout was typical of an army

barracks, with wide symmetrical dormitories

reached by flights of steps at each end. The

ground floor was particularly inhospitable,

being damp and unhealthy due to being

completely interred in the mountainside at the

rear. The upper floorings (in some places

completely stolen after the war) consisted of

wooden planks covered with stone flags, the

whole supported by squared-off larch beams.

The ceiling was barrel-vaulted brickwork,

above which were directly cemented two

layers of "lose" or stone roofing slabs. The

floors were sustained by great larch beams

with a similar double layer of stone and

wooden planking. This can be clearly seen

inside the second Barracks, where damage to

the ceiling of the ground floor has exposed

this stratification. Each upper floor had, on its

eastern side, some "very useful" latrines on

the southern side. Curiously, exactly like

those in the Officers Pavilion, these were

open, and set side by side in pairs about one

metre apart. The two drain pipes, refurbished

during the 1920's, serving the latrines in the

second barracks can be easily seen.

The ground floor of each of the barracks

consisted of two large cells for common

prisoners, up to around 400 of them in each

cell. Conditions were unimaginable. The

stone floors were covered with straw and

manure as a concession to warmth. The uphill

wall, set against the mountain, was

perpetually wet with humidity. Drainage

holes at the base of the wall produced small

rivers when it rained. Toilet facilities within

were non-existent. Medical treatment was

sporadic. The ball and chain was standard. At

night, the prisoners were attached to a

common chain set into a large stone block.

Barred loopholes at the entrance allowed the

guards to keep an eye on their charges.

Sentences were strange (and often incredibly

long) in today’s terms - 3 years for stealing a

pair of shoes, 20 years for insulting the King,

15 years for desertion, 5 years for uxoricide

and for vagabondage, 10 years for

insubordination, and only the exceptionally

strong managed to survive to be released.

Being sent to Fenestrelle was akin to being

condemned to death. The survival rate was

modest when the sentence exceeded 5 years.

Detailed records of just how many prisoners

never left Fenestrelle do not exist. Some

historians suggest that about 600 men died

here. Others place the figure much higher, at

more than 10,000, alleging that thousands of

deported Bourbon soldiers from Sicily were

never seen again following the Piedmontese

invasion of the South under Garibaldi which

led to the unification of Italy in 1861. Each

year even today, Neapolitan and Sicilian

organizations place remembrance wreathes in

“Les Forçats” to commemorate their dead.

Further research is needed to uncover the

truth of what really took place during that

A burial scene at Fenestrelle


period. A drawing of the period portrays what

appears to be a burial, apparently just outside

the walls, near the service entrance.

Some of the prisoners also left drawings on

the walls of their cell. These have

unfortunately disappeared due to the humidity

which has crumbled the plaster, although

luckily, photographic evidence remains.

Drawing on a cell wall (now lost)



Situated above the Barracks, the Powderhouse

of Sant'Ignazio - named in honour of Bertola,

the architect of the fortress - is the most

important of the whole complex. Square in

plan, it has triple perimeter walls several

metres thick to protect both the powder

magazines from enemy shells and the nearby

buildings in the event of an explosion within.

The central nucleus is surrounded by

humidity-proofing walls giving air circulation

to ensure that the powder, stored in large

barrels, remained dry and serviceable.

The Powderhouse of Sant'Ignazio with the

lightning conductor tower in the foreground

Internally, the nucleus is just over 10 metres

per side and once consisted of two floors; as

can be seen by the holes which housed the

trusses for the wooden beams of the upper


Since everything, including the very air itself,

would be saturated with gunpowder, all metal

fittings, including door hinges and locks,

rings, chains, even the floor nails, were of

copper, brass or bronze to avoid the creation

of dangerous sparks. Everybody who entered

had to wear wooded clogs and a type of apron

to cover any exposed metal parts which might

cause sparks.

Two special windows provided illumination

inside the powder magazine, illustrating how

much care was taken to ensure safety within.

Internally, a thick sheet of glass was “glued

into” a tight fitting frame with molten

sulphur, while from the outside, a lockable

metal door gave access to a ventilated shelf

which held an oil lamp. The key was held by

the Officer of the Watch to avoid sabotage.

Despite the anti-humidity measures, the

transportation of gunpowder between the mill

and the fortress was a routine and frequent

operation due to the hygroscopic effect of

potassium nitrate or "salt-petre", the major

component of gunpowder. The gunpowder

was ground and mixed in the Armoury of

Pinerolo, brought in barrels to Fenestrelle in

special transport carts then carried the last

part of the way by mules. Gunpowder is

relatively unstable, thus prisoners (being

“expendable”) were often assigned to this

final dangerous and delicate operation.. The

mules were unshod and climbed the

mountainside in single file before entering the

fortress one by one through a "secret"

entrance known as the "Postierla" or back

door. A corps of guards was stationed at this

gate for security reasons. Once within the

fortress, each mule with its dangerous cargo

had only to complete a short, straight and

level path, some 60 meters in length to reach

the unloading courtyard of the powderhouse.

The path was wide for most of its length, then

narrowed at the junction with another path

which descended from behind the

powderhouse. Once its load had been

removed, each mule continued anti-clockwise


round the powderhouse, climbed a short ramp

to circumnavigate the powderhouse then

descended back onto the wide part of the path,

allowing it to exit the fortress by the same

gate it had entered. The “convoy” was kept to

a length which ensured that the unloaded

mules never had to pass loaded mules for

safety reasons.

After 1865, the powderhouse was modified

and provided with a new shellproof and

fireproof roof: this consisted of a robust barrel

vault, well waterproofed with bitumen and

overlaid by a layer of earth some two meters

thick. The building was also furnished with a

system of lightning conductors. Four iron rods

about five or six meters long terminating in

gilded stars were planted in the earth-covered

roof, interconnected by a copper strip. This

ran into a curious little tower, shaped like a

truncated cone, alongside the powderhouse, in

a small depression to keep the base damp. The

end of the copper strip was fixed in turn to a

copper ball to which were attached a series of

sinusoidal-shaped rods. The ball was

submerged in damp sand at the base of the

tower to ensure that any lightning, attracted

by the iron bars on the roof and conducted

along the copper strip into the tower

dissipated itself completely to earth. This

system of lightning protection was substituted

in 1930 by a metallic screen: the entire

building was enclosed along the perimeter

walls and roof by a gridwork of iron strips,

forming a Faraday cage, which like its

ancestor, was earthed via the little tower.

A further curiosity is the low ogival archway

in the base of the tower. At fist sight this

seems like a little oven, but its true function

is even more practical. It is a discharge well.

The powderhouse was under armed guard day

and night. Muzzle-loading weapons cannot be

readily unloaded, so when the watch was

changed, the off-duty guards discharged their

weapons into the damp sand to recover the

lead ball. This feature was common to the

various other powder houses of the complex.

It is said that the nearby villagers could tell

the time when they heard the crackle of the

guns being discharged each time the relieved

guard finished their watch.


Today's visitors enter through the "service

entrance", which was, naturally enough, on

the side nearest the enemy, with the scope of

allowing patrols or troops to regain the safety

of the fort across the drawbridge, which could

then be quickly raised.

The Service Entrance

The main entrance to the fort was on the

Piedmontese side. This juxtaposition of

entrances was common to most military

fortifications, and indeed, in the event of

being captured by the "enemy", the two

entrances had their roles reversed! The Main

or Royal Gate to Fort San Carlo was reserved

for the nobility of the King's court,

Ambassadors and other visiting VIPs. It was

reached by means of a carriage road full of

hairpin bends which joins the present main

road to Pinerolo just below the 13th Century

Chateau Arnaud.

The Main or Royal Gate


The Gatehouse itself is an imposing threestorey

building, originally furnished with a

drawbridge and had a large hallway at ground

level where the visitor's coach and horses

could be housed. The spacious rooms of the

upper storeys were given over to apartments

for guests, dormitories for body guards and

store-rooms. It later became the apartments of

the military engineers.

The external facade is graced by finely carved

portals, large windows and decorations in

stone, all elegantly finished. Unfortunately,

removal of the protective stones from the roof

and damage to the original larch beams by

predators has caused the collapse of most of

the roof and the internal flooring, leaving only

the external shell. One of the projects begun

in the summer of 2004 is to re-roof this once

magnificent building.

Immediately on leaving the Gatehouse, the

visitor found himself in a funnel-shaped

courtyard, surrounded by high walls, which

could be manned by musketeers able to bring

the courtyard under crossfire if necessary. A

steep slope led up past the artillery workshop

and round the side of the Officer's Pavilion to

the Parade Square. It is presumed that the

VIPs rode up on horseback, as it is too steep

and tortuous for a coach to pass.

As our VIP rode up the slope, he would pass

by a long two-storey building - the armourers'

and carpenters' workshop.

The Armourers' Workshops

Here the weapons used by the fortress were

maintained, repaired and tested.

This building, with seven arches and

magnificent vaulted ceilings, still conserves

the chimneys of the two forges used for


The first four archways to the left were used

as store-rooms, while the other three were

workshops for the maintenance and repair of

the weaponry. One workshop has a peculiar,

round aperture in its high ceiling. Its purpose

will become apparent as you read on.

The original bronze cannons of the fortress

were, naturally enough, smooth bore, and

fired a cannon ball of slightly smaller

diameter than the bore itself, sometimes

wrapped in leather. On firing, the ball was

propelled up the barrel more or less in a

straight line, richocheting against the bore

along the way, and causing some damage to

the bore itself. This plus the imperfection of

the projectile itself made the trajectory and

impact point a matter of guesswork at

anything over two hundred metres or so,

although master gunners with practical

experience of individual cannons knew how

to use each one to best effect. Artillery was

generally a fairly short range weapon unless

the target was of such size that precision was

not important. Periodically, however, bronze

cannons needed reaming-out to keep them

operative, removing any damage caused by

the cannonball or by excessive quantities of


In this workshop, the cannon barrel was

hoisted vertically by a system of pulleys

operating through the hole in the ceiling, from

where it was gradually lowered onto a

manually-turned boring tool which cleaned up

the bore to a uniform dimension. Part of the

stairway to the upper floor still exists.

Following this reaming, the cannon was tested

by firng a wadded (blank) round. The cannon

mouth and the touch hole were then quickly

sealed. If no smoke appeared through cracks,

the first part of this empirical test was

considered successful. With the touch hole

sealed with wax, the cannon was then filled

with water and allowed to stand for some


If no leaks were found and no traces of

humidity were seen, the final stage of the test

took place. An appropriately sized jagged and

hooked instrument was slid down the bore. If

this got caught up anywhere, the cannon was


reamed again. Irrecoverable cannon were sent

to the Royal Arsenal in Turin to be melted

down and recast. Every piece was worked

individually, frequently becoming a genuine

work of art, thanks to its markings, its

decoration and the mottoes or other

inscriptions which distinguished it. Many

were known by name: "Leggero",

"Adaloaldo", "Juno" and "Balista", to name

but a few, are currently in the care of the

National Museum of Artillery in Turin.


The ramparts are those giant "buttresses"

positioned on the "enemy" side (i.e. the one

that faces France), strategically visible from a

great distance, forming "a titanic flight of

steps, like an enormous cascade of overlaid

walls, mounting tortuously one on top of the

other, giving the effect that they were

climbing the mountain each on the shoulders

of another" (De Amicis, Alle porte d'Italia).

The Ramparts

There were 28 Ramparts in all, each about 20

meters wide and are internally interconnected

by various ramps and stairways. They are

numbered progressively from the lowest to

the highest and sinuously wind one after

another along the steep flank of the mountain

right up to the defences of Fort Tre Denti,

forming three bastions: - the San Carlo, the

Beato Amedeo and the Sant'Ignazio. The

height difference from one to the next varies

from between 3 to 13 meters. They begin at

the lowest tenaille (the Sant'Ignazio), the

lowest structure positioned to the South-West

which delimits and protects Fort San Carlo

and the Royal Gate itself. Close by, a small

powder magazine was built towards the end

of the 19th Century. It has no name, but is

identified by a Roman number, LXX (70).

Each building and construction was numbered

to enable the soldiers and officers to properly

orient themselves within the fortress). From

the tenaille up to the XVIth rampart the

bastioned wall is further protected by a wide,

deep ditch which runs like a ravine down to

the Carlo Alberto redoubt below.

The majority (22) of the ramparts are open

squares surrounded by high curtain walls

pierced by cannon outlets and loopholes for

the riflemen; during the 1800's the remaining

six were provided with casemates, i.e.

artillery positions closed by a shellproof

vaulted roof, open at the rear to facilitate the

evacuation of the gas produced at each firing.

One of these great Ramparts, the 12th, has the

most magnificent and unusual "cockerel-tail"

brickwork vaulting supporting the enormous

weight above it. This great quadruple arch is

the only one of its type in the fortress and is a

masterpiece of elegance and functionality.

The cockerel-tail arch in the 12th Rampart

The upper blockhouses still conserve the two

half-moon shaped tracks built into the stone

flooring which allowed the guns to traverse

laterally, and in a niche, in the curtain wall

below the cannon port, the cast iron hook

which was used to anchor the tail of the

chassis can still be seen.

Each casemate has a small store-room for the

tools required for the functioning and

maintenance of the artillery pieces, and a

small stock of spare parts. This store-room

also held the munitions and powder needed to

sustain at least three days of firing. The floors


of these rooms were formed of interlocking

wooden beams, cunningly raised clear of the

ground on stone pillars.


In 1836, the Military Engineering Council

decided to completely dismantle the ancient

French fortress, Fort Mutin.

Considered obsolete and dangerous after

nearly one and a half centuries of service, it

was substituted by a new structure, which

completed the barrier across the valley, even

at its lowest point.

The Carlo Alberto Redoubt, named after the

King who financed its construction, originally

consisted of two squat buildings joined

together, located on the left bank of the

Chisone, strategically stradling the Royal

Road, today’s road leading to Sestriere.

The building, most of which still exists today,

stands on the bank of the Chisone, and is of

square plan-form, shaped like a truncated

pyramid (due to the sloping thick defensive

walls). It is five storeys high, of which two

are below road level, with each room vaulted

to be shell proof. It was furnished with

numerous cannon ports, 11 on each side of the

road, perhaps of lesser calibre than those at

Fort San Carlo since the casemates had

neither directional tracks nor anchor hooks.

The missing western part was demolished by

mines in July 1944 by the partisans of the

Serafino Division in an attempt to impede the

rounding up of the population and the march

of the Germans towards the Upper Valley.

The Carlo Alberto Redoubt today

This part of the building, consisted of four

storeys of rectangular form, directly

controlled the important road running down

the valley by means of a drawbridge and an

iron portcullis on each side, completely

blocking the passageway.

The Carlo Alberto Redoubt also had loading

rooms and a powder room of 24 square

metres called “della Tagliata”, located a short

distance from the moat of the same name

which proceeds upwards right to the eastern

tennaile of Sant'Ignazio.

A deep trench, or cutting, protected by a still

existing curtain wall pierced with loopholes,

connected the Redoubt with the “Colombaia”

(Dovecote): this was an annex of the former

Chateau Arnaud, the 16th Century seat of the

Chatelain who administered justice in the

Pragelato Valley. This edifice had since

become the redoubt of Fort Mutin, and had

been used to house and raise carrier pigeons.

Today it is private property.

An unmade military road still connects the

Carlo Alberto Redoubt and the Colombaia,

then joins the road which leads to the Royal

Gate of Fort San Carlo at the end of a tunnel

more than 80 metres long carved out of the

solid rock, locally referred to as the "Rocca

Furà", (perforated rock). This was excavated

in only four days during the 1708 seige of

Fort Mutin in order to bring a battery of great

seige cannons up to a position corresponding

to the Parade Square of Fort San Carlo.


This fort is located at the top of a steep rocky

ridge some 1400 metres above sea level.

In the late1600’s this site was fortified with

the construction of a French redoubt in

accordance with the instructions of Marshall

The Tre Denti Fort


Nicola Catinat, as an integral part of the

defensive system of Fort Mutin.

For this reason, we find the Main Entrance on

the French side and the service entrance on

the Piedmontese side.

Following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the

first Savoyan military engineer responsible

for the Tre Denti fort was Major Giulio

Cesare Bessone who in accordance with his

orders dated 13th June 1720, intervened to

amplify the defences beyond those

constructed by the French, and amongst other

things built the “Devil’s Garret”, a splendidly

panoramic observation point high up on the

side of a precipice with a 20 meter drop

below, overlooking the Tre Denti fort -

reachable only by means of a steep and

narrow 6-flight stairway.

The Devil's Garret

Its name is said to come from events during

its constructions, when having completed a

certain part of the work by day, unseen hands

threw down the work by night, leading to the

superstition of "devilish work". However,

considering that its construction was only a

few years after the Treaty that had transferred

sovreignty of the valley from France to

Savoy, it seems much more probable that the

unseen hands were those of French

sympathisers in the valley - or maybe it was

just a very unpleasant place to spend the night

on watch, with the wind howling eerily about

the ears of the sentries . . .

These works of fortification, which for the

most part consisted of repairs and

modifications to the former structure, with

barricades made up of larch trunks, continued

up until 1730 when the Tre Denti was

integrated into Bertola’s ambitious military

barrier across the valley.

By that time it had been furnished with

artillery batteries but had few buildings, most

of which were built into the solid rock, but

which were sufficient for its needs: it had a

two storey barracks for the troops and the

officers with an attic which doubled as a

storehouse (now missing the wooden flooring

and the roof, which was capable of being

dismantled in time of war to avoid being

damaged, a square-shaped, stone-roofed

powder house, built some way away from the

other buildings and also provided with a

curious truncated cone-shaped lightning

conductor tower, a low building of which

only a few ruins remain today, perhaps used

later as a mule stable, a water cistern and a

new underground aqueduct.

The entrance to the aqueduct at Tre Denti

This aqueduct is a minor masterpiece of

hydraulic engineering: below the Tre Denti

fort, a 424 meter-long artificial conduit some

130 cm high and 80cm wide was driven deep

into the mountain to reach water in an

underground spring active all the year round.

An overflow from the main stream feeds the

small drinking fountain in the foreground of

the photo above. The main stream runs down

alongside the Covered Staircase, within its

own little tunnel to feed both Fort Tre Denti

and Fort San Carlo.

From there, running in another tunnel beneath

the parade square, it reached the “emergency


exit”. There, a drawbridge, of which only a

few of the support beams remain, gave onto

the Piedmontese side, in the Mentoulles

woods. This secondary gate, a feature of all

these old forts, was protected on one side by a

Corps of Guards, whose post was dug into the

naked rock and furnished with firing



In the area between the Delle Valli and the

Tre Denti Forts, inside the enormous walls

(likened by De Amicis to being “a part of the

Great Wall of China”) containing the Covered

Staircase, acting as both a unifying element

and a defensive barrier, other military works

aiming to augment the fortress’s defensive

capability were built: the Scoglio and

Ospedale Batteries and the Santa Barbara and

Delle Porte Redoubts.

These were intermediate positions, of modest

dimensions as their names suggest, but no less

strategic and deadly when the occasion

demanded, and important in the general

scheme of the defences.

Starting from the lowest point, just beyond

the Tre Denti Fort, the Scoglio Battery is

reached first. This is characterised by the

presence of three emplacements one above

the other along the slope, on which were

positioned cannon or mortars, and by a single

low and modest building: this acted partly as

a storehouse for projectiles and munitions for

the cannon and mortars and partly as a

signalling post. On the western wall, the wellout-

of-plumb framework of a window can

still be seen. Originally, a signalling light

from within the building would shine

perpendicularly and distortion-free through

this window to be seen from a similar optical

position in the military battery of Monte Gran

Costa, some ten kilometers away in the

direction of France. The exchange of such

signals allowed communication at any hour of

the day or night.

Following this we come to the Santa Barbara

Redoubt at 1550 meters above sea level. This

is a stone edifice in the form of a truncated

pyramid, with steeply inclined walls up to 6

meters thick, with two sides buried in the

mountain. Only the south face has window

openings, protected by robust iron grillwork.

The building has two storeys: the upper floor

was the dormitory for the garrison, while the

single large ground floor room, with its stonebuilt

fireplace, was used both as the refectory

and store-room. A well gave access to an

underground cistern (which even today is full

of water), something which also here made

the Redoubt self-sufficient in the event of an

invasion. The projectiles reached the roof

directly from the arming rooms below by

means of a hand-operated lift located in a

purpose built tower erected on the eastern side

of the building.

The Santa Barbara Redoubt

Accessible from the external stairway, a

tunnel in the cellar also leads onto the

Covered Staircase. The Redoubt is also

externally connected by a drawbridge which

gives onto a junction of the Cannon Roadway.

The Drawbridge at Santa Barbara


The gently sloping roadway, once used by the

muletrains which dragged the cannons to their

various positions runs through a pine wood of

considerable natural beauty on the Fenestrelle

side. It is characterized by 26 hairpin bends,

each identified by a stone marker with its

number (they are numbered from the bottom

to the top).

The existing drawbridge mechanism for the

Santa Barbara Redoubt was made in 1884 by

the G. Maggi company, as can be read on the

iron parallelogram counterweight mounted on

two high pillars, its chains still in place.

It is important to recall that in 1882, Italy

became part of the so-called Triple Alliance

with Germany and Austria. A number of

military works were built or reorganized close

to the French border (one example is the

fortress built on the top of Mount Chaberton

at over 3000 meters above sea level).

The fortress of Fenestrelle was also involved

in this reinforcement work in many places,

and had two new outposts added: Fort Serre

Marie and the Falouel Guard (popularly

known as “the Dice” due to its being shaped

like a cube. At the same time, the Santa

Barbara Redoubt and its twin Delle Porte

were armed with greater calibre pieces,

located in emplacements at the top of the

building, in specially built seats.

The foundation stones for the rails which

allowed the guns to be traversed can still be

seen although the rails themselves have long

since been removed.

The Delle Porte Redoubt (at 1680 m) is

slightly larger, but very similar to the Santa

Barbara, in terms of the internal arrangement,

external shape and typical features, including

the presence of two artillery positions on the

roof and the lift for munitions.

The Redoubt is preceded by a powder

magazine of 36 square meters with its own

entrance from the Covered Staircase, built

towards the East on the slope protected by the


The Delle Porte Redoubt

Finally, a short distance away, the Ospedale

battery can be found: this position only holds

two gun emplacements and a small reserve of

munitions inserted in the tunnel leading to the

Covered Staircase.

In the 20th Century, the emplacements of

these batteries were modified to allow the

installation of twin-barrelled 11mm Gardner

machine guns whose task was to protect the

underlying trench by crossfire along the line

of the walls.

There was no permanent barracks for the

garrison, as this post was not far from the

Delle Valli Fort or from the Delle Porte

Redoubt. The Ospedale Battery presumably

gets its name from the nearby barracks

utilized as a “hospital”, but erected, due to

lack of space, outside the curtain wall.


As previously mentioned, the building of the

Savoyan military complex began at the

summit of Mount Pinaia (1780 m), from the

Delle Valli Fortress and from the Elmo and

Sant'Antonio Redoubts. At the beginning

there is no mention of the Belvedere Redoubt,

which is cited with the name of "forte delle

valli": The three redoubts only began to be

known as the Delle Valli Fortress from the


Initially, the preliminary works were

contracted out. This involved construction of

the lodgings for the workforce, the supply of

sand, lime and wood, provisions and the

construction of a wooden aqueduct of

“bornelli” (hollowed out trunks of seasoned


larch) to bring water to the construction sites

“from Pinaia as far as Chateau Arnaud for the

"Fortifications that His Majesty odered to be

erected in these places".

Following that, the so-called "travagli di

rocco" (stone working) began: "uncovering,

excavation, levelling etc” - an enormous

amount of work necessary to obtain the

principal construction material (grey

serpentine rock) and to construct the

foundations upon which were erected the

great walls and buildings.

The Main Entrance to the Belvedere

Redoubt of the Delle Valli Fort

The entire fortress is surrounded by deep

trenches, protected by walls pierced by

defensive loopholes, massive traverses and

tennaile bastions which eliminated any “dead

ground” and rendered this bulwark practically


Here, the buildings, for a question of space,

are more grouped and clustered together: this

fact, coupled with the distance from the town

of Fenestrelle and its attractions, almost

certainly reduced the formal rapport between

the officers and the common soldiers.

Incision at the Belvedere Redoubt

Many stones and even the walls still carry the

incisions made by the soldiers, whiling away

the time, probably during their watch periods,

something which was evidently tolerated by

the officers.

During the 1820’s, as indicated in a report by

Major Perventi, each garrison was in service

at the fort for three (long) years before being

transferred. He recommended that this period

should be reduced since it had negative

repercussions on both morale and discipline.

The Belvedere Redoubt is the most extensive

and complete of the three, and is connected to

both the Covered and the Royal Stairways.

From the latter, access could be gained to the

Royal Gate by crossing a drawbridge (the

Royal Bridge, without a doubt), consisting of

three parts, one (that nearest the entrance)

which could be raised and two fixed parts

consisting of larchwood footpaths standing on

two high pylon walls which thrust upwards

for almost 10 metres from the trench below.

The heavy counterweight of wooden beams

which operated the drawbridge can still be

seen within the building.

This construction is also called “the Temple”

due to the presence of “classic-style”

decorative elements on the facade (pillasters,

cornice and a triangular timpanum), giving an

aspect typical of religious buildings. Above

the ogival arched entrance, an inscription

within a frame reads "Forte Valli, quota 1727

m" (Fort Valli, 1727 m above sea level)

Not far from the Royal Gate are the powder

magazines (identified in a map of the late

1800’s as the “San Carlo at the Valli

Powderhouse”) and a 3-storey guardhouse.

The organization within the powderhouse is


identical to that of the Sant’Ignazio

powderhouse. There was also a lightning

tower, but only the foundations remain in the

southern trench.

The stone roof slabs have been partially

removed, allowing us to see the great beams

of larch, each some 40 by 40 centimetres in


Behind the powderhouse stand the three


The Barracks at the Belvedere Redoubt

Each of the barracks, similar to the barracks at

Fort San Carlo, consists of three storeys

above ground with a semi-interred floor. The

upper floors held the dormitories for the

garrison. The officers slept in the 3rd

Barracks, which had a series of smaller rooms

and whose facade was enriched by three

stupendous stone balconies. In the lower

floors, apart from the numerous storerooms

for hay, straw, wood and foodstuffs there

were the kitchens (with two brick ovens and

two cauldrons, the refectories and two water

cisterns. These are independent and

exceptionally large: one measures 5.65 x 5.3 x

4.3 metres and has a capacity of more than

100000 litres of water, the other measures

12.3 x 5.3 x 4.3 metres and can hold more

than 280000 litres.

Winter at the Belvedere Redoubt

The barracks were the nucleus of the fort. It

was here during the winter months - when the

snow blocked the roads and the danger of

aggression was unlikely - that the garrison

“hibernated” in what was the warmest part of

the fort.

The chapel at the head of the 3rd Barracks is

particularly beautiful. The baroque facade is

ornamented with pillasters and decorations in

yellow granite: internally, despite being

somewhat cramped for space, it surprisingly

soars upwards about 10 metres. A small bell

tower stands above the roof.

The Delle Valli Chapel

The Belvedere Redoubt was defended by

more than 20 artillery pieces, of which 7 were

in casemates on the southern and southwestern

fronts while the others were in open

positions distributed round the perimeter.

There were also various storerooms for


munitions and spare parts alongside the

casemates for the loading and maintenance of

the cannon.

The Belvedere Redoubt was in

communication with the next, intermediate

one - the Sant’Antonio Redoubt - by means of

a fixed central bridge (removed) and a pair of

lifting drawbridges with parapets and

loopholes for riflemen; in turn, this Redoubt

was in communication with the highest one -

the Sant'Elmo Redoubt - by means of three

similar bridges. For some years now, two of

the four drawbridges have had their wooden

walkway renewed, allowing guided visits to

the highest part of the whole complex.

To complete the description of the Belvedere

Redoubt, it is worth remembering the

existence of a long, steep flight of about 50

steps, known as the Stairway of the Three

Traverses, or the Savoyard Steps, which run

from the eastern trench to the path leading to

the the connecting bridges to the

Sant’Antonio Redoubt. Its name comes from

the three high walls or traverses which

protected the path in the event of it coming

under fire. Their remarkable size and

thickness was to ensure total protection for

users of this stairway, even under severe

enemy fire.

The Savoyard Steps

The Sant’Antonio Redoubt is of modest

dimensions and comprises only one building,

half buried in the solid rock, consisting of a

two-storey powderhouse on the eastern side

and eight small rooms for the tiny garrison on

the southern side.

The Sant'Antonio Redoubt

The upper part of the powderhouse is divided

from the main building by a splendid brick

barrel vault anchored with metal guy-rods to a

second extremely thick and cannon-ball-proof

vault, which covers the entire building. Two

mortars or small calibre pieces were sited on

this terraced roof, while there are two small

munitions stores located alongside the


The Sant'Elmo Redoubt has a similar facade

to that of the Sant’Antonio, with five

windows defended by stout iron bars and a

small ogival-arched doorway preceded by a

small access terrace. This is the only entrance

to the Redoubt.

The Sant'Elmo Redoubt

It is surmounted by seven casemates on the

western side, added around the middle of the

19th Century to protect the new, more

powerful (and costly) cannon which had

entered service. Six were aimed towards the


road crossing the Colle delle Finestre and one,

located in the highest part of the fortress, at a

height of 1783 metres above sea level, was

aimed at the plateau of Pra Catinat.

To the North and to the East, 10 open

emplacements housed an equal number of

light cannon pointed towards Pra Catinat and

the lower Val Chisone.

The Sant'Elmo Redoubt also posessed an

efficient optical semaphore system in

communication with the Mezzodì (Mid-day)

Point. A lily-like double tennaile terminates

the fortress at the mountain-top, completely

surrounded by a walkway with positions for


The Ponte Rosso (Red Bridge)

It gives access to the road for Pra Catinat by

way of a beautiful bridge (the Ponte Rosso, or

Red Bridge) with its four splendid ogival

arches spanning a deep man-made defensive

gorge, which was essentially the quarry from

which the stone to construct the fort itself was


This bridge was guarded by a drawbridge and

a massive iron gate between two high pillars,

on each of which was mounted a stone

cannonball. Being in full view, these were

intended to be a warning and deterrent to

possible attackers, symbolising the fearful

weaponry the fortress posessed.


The entire fortress of Fenestrelle is built on a

spur of uniform rock belonging to the family

of metabasitic basalt, a type of the so-called

green-stone calcium complex usually referred

to as "serpentine". With the few exceptions

where granite or brick are employed, the

entire structure is built of this green-hued


The preparatory work, at that time referred to

as “travagli di rocco” (stone working),

consisted of a series of successive operations,

reduction of the slope, uncovering,

excavation, tunnelling and levelling the rock -

an enormous amount of work necessary to

obtain the basic materials for construction and

to establish the foundations of the stoneworks

themselves. It has, however, been ascertained

that the greatest part of the material moved,

i.e. stones for construction, rubble, gravel and

infill was transported or heaped no more than

25 trabucchi (about 77 meters) from its place

of excavation to its final location. It has also

been established that large blocks of stone

were mined from the great trenches which

separate the Sant'Antonio Redoubt from both

the Elmo and the Belvedere Redoubts were

also used to build the Delle Porte and Santa

Barbara redoubts, being allowed to tumble

down the channel until they brought up

against a purpose-built massive dry-stone

wall. It was really an ingenious method to

transport the material and at the same time to

break the rock into pieces of more

manageable size. Lime was used as the binder

in all masonry-work. The limestone was

usually excavated from quarries in the

Fenestrelle area “in the Territory of

Mentoulles” (today Pra Catinat) and Roure, in

the region called La Comba, Boursetto, and

where convenient, from Colle della Rossa. In

certain instances, when it was necessary to

ensure the best results, as in the case of

rendering the water cisterns impermeable, the

lime was brought from Superga (the hill

overlooking Turin itself) being the best in the

whole kingdom. Where bricks were used they

were “all of true mezzanella” (i.e. of medium

dimensions), “well sounding and regular in all

their parts, of length six ounces” (here the

ounce was a linear measure of about 3 cm),

“width three ounces and height one and a half

ounces, made of good quality clay and

according to the best rules of the art” and

came from the furnaces of Pinerolo and

Meana. The roof beams and ceilings were

fabricated from “carefully seasoned wood of

red maleggine” (larch), felled as usual in the


forests of Fenestrelle and Pra Gelato, “during

a good (i.e. rising) moon”. The sand for the

cement was extracted from the Chisone

torrent, “in the direction of Mentoulles or

towards Pourrieres, in the places judged most

convenient by the Royal Service”. It had to be

“well granulated, passed through the grate”

(i.e. sieved), “washed in clean water and free

from any refuse material”.

The roofing-stones came from the quarries of

the valley, “all intact, sounded and regular, of

natural stone and each of about two feet in

length, one foot in width and between threequarters

to one ounce (i.e. about 2 to 3 cm) in

thickness.” These same quarries also

furnished the stone used to fabricate the arch

supports, door lintels, decorations and

mouldings of the most representative

buildings, as it was capable of being worked

with precision and geometric rigour. The

window grilles, the chains, the key-heads, the

“bolzoni” (heavy iron fittings) and the

“grappe” (U-shaped bars used to join

stoneworks) as necessary” in their turn had to

be “true iron of Aosta and not of any other

place, without blemishes, burn marks or other

defects which could prejudice their


During the course of the many tens of years of

the fort’s construction, thousands upon

thousands of people, indeed generation after

generation, took part in its building. Two

documents of 1732 and 1733 provide

interesting and important information

regarding the definition of the tasks of the

workers; the first is signed by the architect

Maller, and the other is signed by his

successor, De La Marche. The two reports

describe the “status of progress of work” and

indicate the numbers and the main tasks of the

workers. Some 4200 people (practically a

town in its own right) are identified,

subdivided as follows: 508 master masons

and master builders - those who materially

erect the stoneworks and the vaultings - of

proven capacity and expertise; 178 local

miners and 17 officials of the Company of

Miners - responsible for breaking up the rock,

using mines and gunpowder and preparing the

foundations of the constructions; 213 stone

workers - those who break up the large blocks

of stone, reducing their dimensions and

shaping them according to the requirements

of the masons; 35 carpenters or master

woodsmen - those who are specialised in the

placement of the wooden carpentry within the

buildings and the scaffolding thereof; 36

blacksmiths - those whose job it is to set in

place the window grilles, draw the roof

trusses and the working of iron in general; 71

“cabassins” i.e. porters who carry away the

excavated material (soil, stone chippings,

sand etc) in a wicker pannier (cabassa) on

their back; 1460 local workers - those

assigned to the heaviest and least specialized

work (moving and lifting the heavy stones

and generally helping the master masons; 116

assistants whose job is to check and verify

that the work is proceeding regularly; 1667

soldiers from the various companies: 325

soldiers of the Guards, 336 soldiers of Savoy,

648 soldiers from Monferrato, 348 soldiers

from Saluzzo. Of those, nothing lets us know

what task (if any) they had within the

workings. It would appear probable, however,

that they were not there merely to guard the

territory, but also to “collaborate” actively in

the construction work. Although no trace has

been found in the archives of forced labour

being employed, as fantasy might suggest, it

cannot be ruled out that forced labour was

used in limited periods (but in any case long

after the main construction phase in the

1700’s), when the fortress was “host” at

various times to convicts and soldiers under


Copyright 2004 Ashleigh Hogg