Any effort to try to understand the nature and origin of the cultural properties that are part of the Catalan military monumental heritage wouldn’t make sense if you didn’t know the technological and geopolitical process that brought about its birth. In order to achieve this purpose the Foundation relies on its own physical publications that develop the topic at length and in depth. That’s why digitally here, where clarity and conciseness are necessary, we will only develop a short summary of the history of the modern and contemporary fortifications.

But before we begin we would like to clear up a common confusion related to a generic name which most of the military monuments are known by. If we use the word “castle” for a fortification built between the 16th century and the WWII it’s incorrect; fortress and castle cannot be used as synonyms. Castles were typically built with the technologies of the Middle Ages and used for the strategic and political interests of feudal society. On the contrary, bastion fortifications, named fortresses, together with other systems that followed until more recent times were built with the technologies of the Modern and Contemporary periods. They served the political and strategic interests of modern estates, born in the 15th century.

Where does this confusion come from? There are different possible answers: respect for tradition; common use by the military institution; the similarity of uses despite the technological change; the repeated occupation of medieval structures, etc. Whatever it was, it became common to use castle for fortifications designed specifically for the modern and contemporary artillery.

Understanding this difference, we can now think carefully about the phenomenon of the appearance of modern fortresses. Around that time gunpowder appears as the driving force in artillery. The effects caused by the first musket impacts, that started to appear sometime in the 15th century, didn’t go further than those caused by big war machines of that time. All of them shot the same kind of stone projectiles and all of them hit against the thick masonry ramparts, built taking into account this circumstance.

The greatest real advantage of these dangerous devices, that were smoking and noisy, isn’t found in the destructive power of its shots but rather in its simple construction, its convenience during use and transportation and (we say this with a certain reserve) its precision. Simplicity was a must. A forged iron tube that once was in the right position was ready to be used immediately. It’s true that its manufacture was long and delicate. It was a very expensive piece; however as it lasted over multiple campaigns one got their money’s worth. Its predecessors offered no comparison, that’s why war machines were promptly replaced by muskets.

Despite everything that has been said, the feudal castle didn’t disappear immediately when faced with the medieval artillery, but rather they coexisted for more than a century. The greatest virtue and the worst defect of the primitive cannons, including bombards amongst others, was that it was charged at the back via a portable chamber. This meant that the barrel remained still and thus it didn’t need any extra space to be used other than the space needed to place the machine itself. This is how feudal artillery was adapted without bigger problems with the castles’ narrowness, having to open low gunboats in the ramparts or placing them in the patrol path.

During the second half of the 15th century, advancement in the metallurgy progress brought the cast iron spherical projectile. The medieval stone projectile lost part of its effectiveness when it was broken up against a rampart, whereas the iron didn’t. It was the iron material that cleared the path that made the ancient defensive structures obsolete. In parallel the recovery and improvement of the old smelting techniques allowed the manufacture of lighter, more reliable bronze canons with the capacity to support reasonable charges.

However, these new canons weren’t charged by the back but charged by the muzzle. The new system improved the use of the powder’s combustion gases but the disadvantage was that they needed a backwards movement of the cannon in order to clean and charge it. This is why they needed some space that not all of the towers nor ramparts could offer, especially with the large-bore caliber canons. The traditional castle couldn’t be adapted any more, not only in order to face the impact of iron projectiles but also the canons couldn’t be functionally used.

Nevertheless, this transition didn’t happen immediately. During the second half of the 15th century medieval technology made big efforts to adapt to artillery progress. Much evidence can be found, for example the Gothic castles which adapted to the modern artillery followed by the true solution that would continue to modernity: the transitional fortresses. The technological process didn’t stop either with these fortresses as it finally gave way to the bastioned fortification1.

By the 16th century the bastioned fortification created the first works capable of comfortably accommodating and effectively using the modern artillery canons. This new fortification efficiently maximized the long and short distance defense by using the bastion. This new system was so highly effective that it was used for three centuries, with some small improvements.

The bastioned fortification system, fortresses, was born in Italy and, in fact, this technique was called italienne, as much because of its origin as for the nationality of the first engineers using this new system all around Europe. Nevertheless, it is incorrectly known as ”Vauban’s Style” or “Vauban’s System”, in connection with the extensive works of the famous military engineer Sébastien Le Preste, Marquis de Vauban, who worked during the reign of Louis XIV of France.


The bastioned fortifications were still in use until the middle of the 19th century. Curiously and on the contrary to what had happened up to that point, the disappearance of this kind of fortification was not only caused by the metallurgic progress, but also by the coincidence of the progress of chemistry. Appearing in around 1860, the explosive power of the smokeless powders or chemical powders to propel projectiles eclipsed the traditional black gunpowder.

From this combination new canons appeared which were capable of shooting projectiles for kilometers with an explosive and penetrative capacity never before seen until that moment. All the bastioned theory, based on the flank, the short range and the penetration of the old cannons disappeared to give way to the polygonal fortification. With these the last active defensive systems built with engineer works started to be used. As an accurate reflection of the technological possibilities of each moment as well as of the state’s industrial capacity, this was, without any doubt, the period with most the technological evolution and perfection in the history of the fortification, as well the shortest. After WWII, the fortification, as it had been known in previous centuries, had disappeared.

  • The military monumental heritage of Catalonia
  • Understanding of the military monumental heritage


1 Examples preserved of this period are the magnificent Gothic castles with artillery in La Mota (Valladolid) and Coca (Segovia). As well the extraordinary transitional fortress in Salses (Pyrénées-Orientales, France)

2 In Catalonia, the constructions with this system are rare, except the fort of Sant Julià de Ramis, close to the city of Girona. It was built between 1897 and 1916. This special military work, nowadays in private hands and closed to the public, despite the fact it’s an excellent construction built in an advanced time, compared to others, has uncertainty of its future as cultural belonging.