Šibenik is one of the oldest Croatian indigenous cities, located in the natural harbour at the protected mouth of the river Krka. Besides being surrounded by two national parks and home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites, Šibenik is also known as the 'city of fortresses.' Once the defenders (guardians) of Šibenik, the fortresses have transformed from dormant beauties into vibrant locations in recent years. Thanks to revitalization projects, the fortresses have been equipped with a wide range of leisure and educational functions.
Today, three revitalized fortresses – St. Michael's, Barone, and St. John's – are managed by the Public Institution Fortress of Culture Šibenik. Founded in 2016, Fortress of Culture quickly became an example of excellence in cultural heritage management due to its innovative approach to cultural heritage preservation and event organization. Numerous concerts and events, exciting multimedia content such as VR, 3D mapping, AR, multimedia exhibitions and guides that are today implemented at the fortresses leave visitors with little to be desired. All these attractive features and programs have turned the fortresses into a Adriatic hot spot of history, culture, and music.
The institution also manages two more sites: House of Arts Arsen (renovated former cinema), a mixed-art venue hosting concerts and stage events, cinema screenings, plays, exhibitions, and the Croatian Coral Centre, museum located in a small island in Šibenik’s archipelago – Zlarin.
Museum is dedicated to corals and the centuries-old tradition of coral harvesting. Today, this almost forgotten story is presented in an innovative and interesting way through modern technology of VR, AR, interactive tools and interesting kinetic sculpture. The museum is also a centre of island’s cultural life as it is a venue for movie screenings, workshops, book promotions and more.
Furthermore, Fortress of Culture is now recognized as a model of successful cultural heritage management, contributing directly to the institution's affirmation on both national and European scales. Through various innovations and forward-looking investments, Fortress of Culture ranks among the best European practices in the field of sustainable development of historic fortress buildings.
With FORTE CULTURA discover the Guardians of Šibenik - St. Michael's, Barone, and St. John's Fortress, enjoy events in House of Arts Arsen and find out about centuries long tradition in Croatian Coral Centre Zlarin.
Monument and History
The city of Šibenik was mentioned for the first time in 1066 in a charter issued by Croatian king Petar Krešimir IV. It had developed on the coastline below the rocky hilltop which was a fortified observatory point since pre-Roman times, well-positioned to control the maritime approach towards the Šibenik bay and further along the Krka river towards the hinterland.
Šibenik frequently changed its nominal masters from 12th to 14th century (Hungarian-Croatian kings, Venice, Byzantine Empire). The loose central government enabled the development of an urban mercantile elite, and the establishment of a communal system not unlike the one prevalent in Italian cities of the same era. The citizens retained their autonomy and escaped the fate of being a feudal possession. Šibenik also became a separate bishopric in 1298. In 1412, after a 3-year siege, Šibenik signed a contract of “protection” and entered the Venetian Republic. The Venetian rectors will rule and oversee the city for the next four centuries.
The fortifications of Šibenik today include four fortresses and several remains which range from medieval period to 20th century. The oldest one, set atop the Old city, is St. Michael’s Fortress, named after the (earlier?) St. Michael’s church. The archangel was Šibenik’s patron from the medieval times, and this church was the oldest in the town, until it was demolished by Austrian army in early 19th century. From its beginnings as an Illyrian and early medieval outpost, the fortress developed as an irregular rectangle, its shape finalized in the first decades of Venetian rule. One of the most interesting features is a rare example of strada di soccorso, an escape route connecting the fortress to the coastline. It was built by the Venetians in 1420’s. The city walls, which in some shape or form existed in earlier centuries, were completed and perfected by the Venetians in mid-to-late 15th century.
Šibenik bay is connected to the open sea with a somewhat narrow (150-300m), 3km long St. Anthony’s Channel. The medieval maritime defence relied on two opposite forts constructed on the eastern side of the channel, one of which is still clearly visible. In mid-16th century, under pressure by the growing Ottoman naval power, Serenissima built a series of coastal fortresses. One of them – St. Nicholas Fortress – was constructed on a small island on the western entrance to the channel. Its unique layout and architectural details are among the reasons why it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2017, along with other Venetian fortresses.
In 16th and 17th century, the border with the Ottomans was just a couple of kilometres towards the hinterland. The medieval fortifications of Šibenik were not well adapted to the artillery warfare that developed in that period. With the outbreak of a new war in 1645, the city faced a great challenge. A large Ottoman army descended to Dalmatia and threatened its cities. The citizens of Šibenik took the initiative and started to build a new fortress on a nearby St. John’s hill above the old town. Venetian officials pitched in, and in just 58 days, a new defence was waiting the invaders. The siege in 1646 was repulsed, as was the one in summer of 1647, even though it was larger and better prepared. During the next 10-15 years, St. John’s Fortress – the focal point of new defence – was adapted and enlarged. Barone Fortress, 250m toward the southeast, guarded the eastern approach to the city. Several fortified trenches and redoubts were built around the suburbs. Two large bastions were added onto the city walls.
With the lapse of the Ottoman power in early 18th century, the fortresses became less important. Venetian Republic was terminated in 1797., and after the Napoleonic wars Dalmatia was incorporated into Austria. Barone Fortress was soon abandoned, but Austrians kept the three other fortresses. Šibenik became a city of major naval importance, along with Pula and Kotor. Austrians started with the construction of concrete fortifications and bunkers, which continued until the mid-20th century.
During the War for Croatian independence, Šibenik was an important strategic point and was besieged by the Yugoslav People's Army. The Croatian forces steadfastly defended Šibenik. During the Battle of Šibenik on 16-22 September 1991, many historical buildings were damaged. The fortresses were then used – we hope – for the last time.
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St. Michael’s Fortress was built as an observation point above the bay of Šibenik and the mouth of the river Krka, and as a refuge for the surrounding population. The position was used as a fortification since the pre-Roman era, but none of these early walls were preserved. Archaeological findings from Roman, Late Antique and early Medieval era were also excavated on the fortress. Since the 11th century, this location became the nucleus of the city of Šibenik. As the central defensive point, it was often besieged and attacked, as well as repaired and rebuilt.
St. Michael's Fortress is a monument whose layered historical development is visible in the currently preserved state. The central part of the fortress is a castle, an interior courtyard enclosed by towers connected with a high wall. The castle is circled by other fortification elements from all sides. North-east from the castle, towards St. John’s Fortress and along the whole southern side towards the city core, there are two faussebrayes. These front areas were built as an additional obstacle for the enemy, to prevent an easy approach and mining of the walls. They were well connected with the castle and other spaces of the fortress due to the need for quick communication. By the 16th century at the latest, a spacious artillery platform (place-of-arms) was established in the north-west. The platform was bordered by two towers and one of them is preserved. Next to the second, demolished tower, there is a recently discovered fortified position which controlled the coastal suburb of Šibenik.
The double walls (strada di soccorso) connected the fortress with the coast. From the historical point of view, some other spaces were included in the fortress complex, like the Madonna tower (cavalier), a high platform built in 1639, southeast from the castle, or the defensive wall towards St. John’s Fortress built in 1657. Generally, the castellan of the fortress directly managed almost one acre of walled structures, differently levelled areas and interior facilities.
Barone fortress was built in 1646 on Vidakuša, the 80-metre-high hill above the town, and its building was financed by the people of Šibenik after several requests for help from the Republic of Venice were rejected. In the spring of 1646, the Ottomans began to gather their army in Bosnia and the Dalmatian hinterland. The construction of the new defence system of Šibenik began on 1 August 1646, under the direction of Baron Christoph Martin von Degenfeld. The works were completed after only 58 days. Barone was originally a redoubt, a smaller fortification guarding the approach toward the city. In 1659, the fortress was extended and enlarged under Antonio Bernardo (Governor of Dalmatia). Demi-bastions with thick ramparts were added to the northern wall. A new main entrance was built, and in the southern part, towards the city, auxiliary facilities were erected.
St. John’s Fortress was built in 1646 on a 120-metre-high hill north of the old town of Šibenik. It was also built in only 58 days as the main point of the new defence system of the town, just before a large attack of the Ottoman army. The fortress was built by the inhabitants of Šibenik with their own hands and means according to the design of the Franciscan engineer Antonio Leni from Genoa. This first version of the fortress had the shape of a "star". To control the area, a tenaille was built on the northern side. Only a few days after completion, the first attack took place and the following summer another one with tens of thousands of soldiers. A month-long siege followed, with St. John's Fortress in particular being heavily damaged by Ottoman gunfire. Nevertheless, the defences held.
St. John’s Fortress is a complex fortification monument which was expanded and adapted several times in its first decades. The first work on Leni’s cramped and almost improvised fortress began nearly right after the rejected siege in 1646. The fortress was then significantly expanded towards the north and the west. After the second siege, the damaged fortress bastions were reconstructed with tufa and additionally expanded. The external fortifications towards the north and the west had also gone through several transformations from 1647 to 1664. The original tenaille and several secondary fortification elements were finally replaced with a line of three sequential hornworks. Since then, the main contours of the fortress have not been changed. St. John’s Fortress was connected to other fortification structures in the city with defensive lines.
Since 2012, St. Michael’s, St. John’s and Barone Fortress have undergone extensive renovations and transformation into modern adventure sites with diverse leisure, experiential, and educational functions. These efforts have been made possible through EU funds. These fortresses are today managed by the Public institution Fortress of Culture Šibenik whose sustainable approach to cultural heritage preservation and event organization represents one of the best practices in the development and management of fortified monuments in Europe.
It is relevant to mention that along with the three described fortresses; in the City of Šibenik area there is one more, fourth fortress – which is under the management of the Public Institution Nature of Šibenik-Knin County:
St. Nicholas Fortress was built on the island of Ljuljevac, guarding the entrance of the St. Antoniu Channel from the Adriatic into the Bay of Šibenik. Designed and constructed in the 16th century by the Venetian architect and builder Giangirolamo Sanmicheli (nephew of Michele Sanmicheli), the fortress of St. Nicholas stands as one of the most valuable and best-preserved examples of defensive architecture in Dalmatia. Armed with 32 cannons and constructed of bricks with stone foundations, the structure served various armies over the centuries and underwent several renovations. Since 2017, the Fortress of St. Nicholas has held the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the defence system of the Republic of Venice between the 16th and 17th centuries.
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Walk along the promenade in The St Anthony's Channel is about 4.4 kilometres long and designed in the natural harmony of the protected area. It takes about two hours to walk along the whole promenade, which proves to be a great experience accompanied by the opportunity to enjoy awe-inspiring panoramic views of Šibenik and the Šibenik archipelago from several locations. It also takes you to an island in close proximity to St. Nicholas Fortress.
Šibenik is also the starting point for various boat tours across the bay, through the St. Anthony Channel towards the sea, often combined with swimming, snorkelling or diving.
A short car drive from Šibenik takes you to Krka National Park, famous for its waterfalls, lakes, and lush greenery. The river Krka springs near Knin and flows into the bay of Šibenik after only 72 kilometres. With hikes to the famous waterfalls, canoe trips and much more, nature lovers have a wide range of activities at their disposal. Less adventurous can take a boat trip from Skradin to explore the park's stunning natural beauty.
From Šibenik you can also take a tour to the offshore islands or Kornati National Park. It comprises of more than a thousand islands, islets and reefs what makes it the densest group of islands in the Mediterranean.
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