When Walls Alone Aren’t Enough Anymore…

Front cover of Specklin’s Architectura Von Vestungen, 1608.

Daniel Specklin: Architectura Von Vestungen (= Architecture of Fortifications).

Printed 1608 in Strasbourg as a new extended edition of the 1589 original.

“Walls work.” That’s what a certain American president keeps on assuring us. Well, they worked back in the Middle Ages, at least. They protected cities and castles from hostile armies. But then along came gunpowder and, with it, cannons. The first cannons were imposing, but not very effective and certainly not the “miracle weapon” people had hoped for. But, over time, these weapons became more effective and easier to transport, and occasionally, they would actually hit what they were supposed to – namely the walls of cities and castles. These walls, which were no match for the cannons’ explosive firepower, came tumbling down. So no, walls did not work anymore.

 

As Jericho Fell to the Trumpets…

The crucial “aha” moment happened in Europe around 1450, when, all the way on the opposite side of the continent, it became clear just how effective cannons could be: in 1453, the ancient city of Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans. The city’s walls, which had not been breached for almost 1,000 years, could not withstand the bombardment from the Ottomans’ powerful cannons.

At around the same time in the North of France, the Hundred Years’ War between England and France was in its final stages. Within just one year, the French king was able to win back, with ease, 70 cities and castles that the English had spent decades fighting arduously to capture. His secret? The French armies had cannons. The mere sight of these weapons was enough to convince the residents of countless cities not to have their lovely homes blown to smithereens for the sake of a far-off English king. The French armies drove cities to surrender without even having to use the cannons.

Old Walls, New Tricks

Everybody across Europe was trying to work out how they could effectively protect their cities and strategic posts from cannon fire in future. Lots of great thinkers, including Leonardo himself and one Albrecht Dürer, thought long and hard about how to build the perfect fortress. It was Leon Battista Alberti’s book De Re Aedificatoria (= On the Art of Building), published in 1452, that outlined the essential features of a new kind of fortification system that would be adopted in every part of the world known at that time.

The concept was as follows: instead of tall and relatively thin walls, the new walls were shorter but thick, with earth compacted behind them to absorb the force of the cannonballs. The fortified walls were built in several large rings encircling the cities, in order to stop the hostile cannons from even getting in range. The pointed bastions removed any blind spots: approaching enemies could be attacked from multiple angles. Any weak spots between the bastions were covered by detached outworks, which attackers would have to capture separately. There was also enough space on top of the walls for several cannons.

Statue of Daniel Specklin on a building in Strasbourg. Image: Ji-Elle / CC BY-SA 3.0.

From above, these fortresses looked like stars. Pretty soon, anything that seemed worth protecting was surrounded by a fortress just like this. But building them was far from easy. Fortress construction became an art form, and anybody who had mastered the intricacies of it were in high demand. After all, good fortifications were the difference between survival and downfall. And anyone who wanted to know what good fortifications should look like could read books to find out.

An Unusual Career

Our book was written by a man who knew a lot about fortresses: Strasbourg-born Daniel Specklin (1536-1589). He was actually trained in silk embroidery. But it was on his travels (it was common, at that time, for young craftsmen to travel around) that he found his true calling: fortress construction. And of course, the best place to learn about fortress construction was wherever a fortress was being built. At the time, this was often in Hungary, where the Habsburgs were fortifying their property against the Ottomans. Specklin was there, just as he was in Vienna, where he helped to build the new defense works, which were constructed 30 years after the (first) siege by the Turks. Despite his youth, his abilities earned him the role of foreman, in which he was responsible for his own construction sites.

After that, Specklin went traveling around building fortresses wherever he could. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make a living from that, so he had to spend a great deal of his life working as a silk embroiderer in his home city of Strasbourg. He would occasionally get some extra work when a nearby fortress needed expanding and modernizing.

It’s no wonder that Specklin spent his free time dreaming about constructing fortresses and writing down everything he knew in a book about fortifications. It was published in 1589, shortly before his death. So, the author didn’t get to see just how successful his standard work would become. His Architectura von Vestungen was and still is considered the most important German book about fortress construction.

His Architectura is an instructional book on fortress construction, covering every area of the profession in detail. It describes the foundations required and explains how they should be used on different terrains. What is the best way to integrate hills and rivers into the defense system? What kind of measures should be taken to counter different siege tactics?

Specklin became famous for his further development of the ravelin. These were detached outworks which covered weak spots of fortresses. Over the following 150 years, his form of the ravelin became the standard.

The success and importance of his book is also reflected in the fact that it was reprinted again and again: a revised version was printed by his brother-in-law 10 years later, and the version we have here was printed 10 years after that (in 1608). There were even several new editions printed in the 18th century, as his book wasn’t any less relevant then. Not bad for a silk embroiderer with a knack for fortress construction!

 

You can have a look at the book here.

Here you can see Neuf-Brisach from the sky.