The hill of Boboli is the only high ground encompassed (or partly encompassed, at least) within the late 13th
century city walls, with the Gate of San Giorgio set in them at their highest point. The hills across the Arno were always considered one of the weak spots in the city's defences, a sensation that only increased with the invention of artillery in the early modern era.
The Fortezza di San Giovanni Battista (later known as the Fortezza da Basso) commissioned by Giulio de' Medici – Pope Clement VII - from Antonio da Sangallo the Younger between 1534 and 1537, was certainly intended to play a defensive role in the level area around the city, but its chief purpose was to safeguard the ducal family and court from turmoil inside the city. They could reach the fort from the nearby Palazzo Medici in Via Larga extremely rapidly.
Alessandro's successor, Cosimo I, was to have the hill of San Miniato fortified and its defensive walls erected towards the middle of the 16th century, creating a bastioned curtain wall inside the 14th century walls stretching from San Frediano to Boboli.
The grand ducal court's final move from Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti under Ferdinando I must have influenced the decision to build the new fort right up against the walls surrounding the Boboli Gardens adjacent to Palazzo Pitti. This would allow the prince and the court to rapidly and safely reach a fortified place of shelter overlooking the city in the event of a threat coming from inside the city itself.
Florentine diarist Agostino Lapi wrote in his diary on 28 October 1590: "The first foundation stone in the new wall and marvellous fort set above the Gate of San Giorgio has been laid... in the Garden of Pitti the chief designers and architects were Lord Giovanni, Grand Duke Cosimo's son, and Messer Bernardo Buontalenti, a man of very lofty talent".
So to build this formidable fort "guarding the city and the palazzo", Grand Duke Ferdinando availed himself of the services of two experts in the art of fortification: Bernardo Buontalenti and Don Giovanni de' Medici, his own half-brother.
We know from a drawing of the period that the fort was originally intended to be even more complex, with a series of bastions and tenailles incorporating the old walls and the more recent defence works in order to boost its capacity for defence against an external foe.
The characteristic star-shaped plan recommended in treatises for forts situated on very uneven, hilly ground, is based here on five bastions, two of which (romantically named Boboli and Le Monache) face the city, with a triangular buttress known as La Diamantina in the centre, while the other three (known as La Pace, Casin Interno and San Giorgio) are arranged in defence of Florence, facing the hills of San Miniato and Arcetri.
It is worth highlighting the fact that the Palazzina, or "keep", possibly designed by Ammanati, was there before the Fort encompassing it was built, and that it played the role of a fully-fledged "belvedere", or panoramic terrace, for the grand ducal court.
The Palazzina became the fort's command centre, and an authentic "strongroom" was built in its basement to house the state treasure in perfect safety thanks to a series of cunning devices and booby traps. The Forte di Belvedere maintained its military role for centuries, although it never once came under attack from either outside or inside the city.
Despite losing its strategic defence function, it continued to be military property until 1954, when it was transferred to the state. A huge renovation project was then undertaken by Director General of Fine Arts Nello Bemporad. Taking his cue from the panoramic terrace concept, Bemporad showed no hesitation in intervening radically on the structure in order – very successfully, as it turned out – to create an area of incomparable charm offering a unique and absolutely spectacular view of Florence and its surrounding hills.
Today the Forte di Belvedere constitutes a monumental, historic, artistic and enviromental focal point of the highest order, and it continues to pursue its calling as an exhibition centre, dating back to the middle of the last century, by hosting top-quality events and exhibitions.
Among the numerous exhibitions dear to the memory of Florentines and visitors alike, an exhibition of Henry Moore's work in 1972 was particularly memorable. In a letter to the then mayor, Moore had this to say about the Forte: "There is indeed nowhere better in the world
to display sculpture in the open air in relation to architecture and a city than the Forte di Belvedere, with its imposing surroundings and marvellous views of Florence".
Its suitability as an exhibition centre has been confirmed over the years by a series of truly memorable events including, most importantly:
- Dani Karavan; 1978
- Umberto Mastroianni;1981
- Mario Ceroli;1983
- Michelangelo Pistoletto;1984
- Arnaldo Pomodoro;1986
- L’Idea Ferrari; 1990
- Fernando Botero; 1991
- Mimmo Paladino; 1993
- Belvedere dell’arte “Orizzonti”2003
- Jean-Michel Folon; 2005
After being closed for years for restoration and to improve its safety features following the tragic events of 2006 and 2008, the Forte di Belvedere reopened on the feast of St. John, the city's patron saint, in 2013 with a major exhibition devoted to the work of Zhang Huan, a Chinese artist and one of the leading lights on the international art scene today.