The compact historical centre is neatly organised in a regular urban plan, featuring wide parallel roads intersected by narrow streets, resembling a military camp. And this is precisely how the Republic of Venice, which settled in patriarchal Friuli in 1420, wanted Gradisca to develop. The village was founded in 1479 and was meant to facilitate the transfer of troops to the borders of its estates, threatened by the Turks. The boundary wall, which rises twenty meters above the moat, had seven circular watchtowers and two gateways.
Casa dei Provveditori, the residence of the Venetian government representatives, dates back to the same period. It is a typically imposing building from the late-15th century with a barbican to strengthen the corner, whilst the façade with rectangular trabeated windows and a small balcony with a wrought-iron railing are from the 18th century. The vaulted ceilings on the ground floor remain from the 15th century, as do the two double lancet windows on the northern side of Palazzo Coassini, formerly Palazzo del Fisco, for which the façade was redone in the 18th century, and the church of Our Lady of Sorrows, built between 1481 and 1498. Converted into a warehouse by decree of Napoleon in 1810, it lost its sacred items, the magnificent high altar and the side altars, sold by the French, whilst the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows was put in a safe place. The Turkish threat, to which Gradisca owes its fortified centre, did not dismiss the power of the Serenissima. It was Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I who did it in 1511, starting a period of tensions with the Republic of Venice, which resulted in the War of Gradisca (1615-17).
The village was so damaged as a result that it was sold in 1647 by the Austrian Empire, engaged in Germany in waging the Thirty Years’ War, to the Styrian noble Eggenberg family. In this period, which ended in 1717, due to a lack of crown princes, with a return to the hands of the Habsburgs, the dominant local classes achieved remarkable autonomy and what was a military centre became an administrative and economic one too. The area was known to be a real breadbasket, renown for its red wines, silk production and commerce, as well as all kinds of smuggling. By the end of the 17th century all of the most representative noble palaces had been erected. These included the imposing Palazzo de’ Comelli-Stuckenfeld, featuring a squared portal surmounted by a balustrade, with an arched French window above it that ends with an additional trabeation, and based on that style: Casa de’ Portis, Casa de’ Salamanca and Casa Wassermann. These were followed, at the start of the 18th century, by Casa de’ Brumatti, Casa Brumat, Casa Spangher and Casa Ciotti.
Two other examples of architecture from the 17th century that remain, almost intact, are the slender Loggia dei Mercanti, with three rusticated arches with a rustic frame, and Palazzo del Monte di Pietà, with elegant string-course cornices made of white Karst stone and a keystone gateway from which a Baroque canopy with a sculpted Pietà stands out.
Today’s Palazzo Torriani was built between the early 1600s and 1725. It is the most characteristic building in Gradisca and an outpost of Venetian culture, constructed in Palladian style with a central body and two symmetrical side wings. At present, it houses the town hall, the Spazzapan Gallery of Contemporary
Art and the Civic Museum.
The austere Casa Toscani also dates to the mid-17th century – the building has a double open gallery overlooking an internal courtyard, the second tier of segmental arches being very similar to typical Styrian and Carinthian examples of that age – as does Palazzo de Fin-Patuna, already marking the passage from Baroque to Rococo.
In 1754, Gradisca came grinding to a halt: the Habsburg Empress Maria-Theresa decided to unite the counties of Gorizia and Gradisca. Gradisca was no longer strategic, as the empire had eroded the Serenissima and extended over most of northern Italy. The green “Spianata” park thus created became the centre of the village’s social activity.