Until the decline of the Republic of Venice, the lagoon was defended by a few strategically placed forts to control the port mouths, such as “Due Castelli” between S. Nicolò on the Lido and the Island of S. Andrea, which were fortified by the architect Sanmichieli, while there was virtually no form of defence for the land joining the lagoon to the mainland, except for the Mestre Castle, that had declared their devotion to the city from the XIV century onwards.
After the fall of the Republic in 1797, militarisation began in the Lagoon by the French and Austrian-Hungarian authorities, and the fortified harbours were built in detached forts with military command and barracks located in the convents that the city had suppressed and on all the islands in the lagoon.
In 1945 there were almost one hundred garrisoned forts.
In this “modern” phase after 1797, as the entire defence system was constantly and progressively strengthened, the coastline of Saint Erasmus was also fortified, which is when the Massimiliano Tower was built by the Austrians between 1843-1844. They built it on the remains of a previous fort the French had built during their occupation between 1811-1814.
The fort is circular in shape with an indoor area of 600 square meters, an external diameter of approx.18.50 linear meters and an internal diameter of 8.50 linear meters and a height from the ground of 11 linear meters, while certain outbuildings, such as the cistern, arms store and certain artillery stations were built on the outside between the canal and the bordering landfills.
The entrance foyer leads to the central, circular cloister where there are fifteen cells built on two floors of about 40 square meters each, with an access corridor running around them.
The fort takes its name from its inventor, Archduke Massimiliano Giuseppe of Austria-Este (1782-1863), who was born in Milan and was the third child of the Governor of Lombardy and Duke of Modena (1803-1806) Archduke Ferdinand.
This passage should perhaps be explained, because legend holds that another archduke had been in the tower in the past, Massimiliano I, Emperor of Mexico.
This particular Massimiliano, second son of Archduke Francesco Carlo of Austria and brother of Francesco Giuseppe, the future Emperor of Austria, was born in Schönbrunn on 6th July 1832 and was shot and killed in Mexico on 19th June 1867.
Massimiliano I had been Viceroy of Lombard-Veneto since February 1857 when he took over from Field Marshall Radetsky, and his story is very interesting and is entwined not only with the European political tension of that time but also the colonial events in the Americas, with the American Civil War and the riotous revolutionary governments in Mexico.However the “Italian” Massimiliano who designed the tower retreated there in 1848 during one of the most strained periods of the Italian Risorgimento wars.
The idea of giving the tower a circular shape came about because it meant that the artillery that resided there could be used at 360° and was based on studies by the Este Noble Military Academy in Modena.
The results of these studies were applied to the entrenched field in Linz, and another entrenched field built by the Austrians in Brescello, on the Po River.
Four of these towers were built here between 1834 and 1836 but were then demolished after Italian Unity came about.
This means that the only remaining example of a Massimiliano Tower is this one in Venice.
The tower had long since been abandoned and the landfill was used to house hens, rabbits and other domestic animals, but it has now undergone a magnificent restoration by the New Venice Consortium as part of the Programme Agreement between the Venice Town Council, the Veneto Regional Council and the Venice Water Authorities, and was returned to Venice in 2004. The restoration fully respects the architectural layout that had been taken from the document archives, but modernised with the inclusion of totally removable structures that enable an everyday use as a gallery.