The Fortress Franzensfeste

At 65,000 square metres, Franzensfeste is the largest historical complex in South Tyrol. This masterpiece of Austrian military architecture, whose construction began in 1833 under Emperor Franz I., was opened after just five years by Emperor Ferdinand I. in 1838. But its strategic importance and thus its reason for existence had already been lost by this time. The enormous efforts and horrendous cost were all in vain. The huge fortress was from then on only useful as a depot and over a century and a half fell into a slumber as a closely guarded military facility.

When the military finally left the fortress in 2003, a group of brave volunteers from Franzensfeste had to clear the complex of the vast quantities of accumulated vegetation, rubble and dust.

Franzensfeste has been open to the public since 2005 and has been extensively (if modestly) refurbished during the course of two major exhibitions, the European Art Biennale Manifesta7 in 2008 and the South Tyrolean Provincial Exhibition of 2009. Since then it has been a popular venue for a wide variety of exhibition and event formats. In 2013 it came into the ownership of the Province of South Tyrol and, since January 2017, has become the tenth and most recent of the museums to be run by the Province of South Tyrol.

Chronology of events

1797 Napoleon’s “Armée d’Italie” advances up the Eisack Valley towards Austria.
1830 After the outbreak of a new revolution in France, Austria starts fortifying its southern borders.
1833 Construction of the present fortress under Archduke John. Built according to the plans of Franz von Scholl, it is a functional fortress consisting of some 20 million bricks and 250,000 cubic metres of granite. The structure is divided into three units, all of which can defend themselves independently. Each entry point is doubly and triply secured, while the loopholes have no blind spots. In an emergency, a subterranean stairway of 451 steps provides an escape route to the upper fortress, which could be defended by just a few soldiers.
1838 Inauguration of the fortress. It is named after the Emperor Franz I, who is however no longer alive to see the completion of this bastion. Construction costs amount to some 2.6 million guilders (400 million euros).
1845 Construction of a chapel in the courtyard. It is one of the first neo-Gothic buildings in Tyrol. Holy mass is celebrated here for the guard force.
1867 The last part of the rail line from Bozen to Innsbruck is realised.
1871 Four years after the opening of the rail line over the Brenner Pass, in 1871 the line is extended up the Pustertal Valley, crossing the fortress. At the insistence of the military, it runs through the middle of the fortress as a precaution should an enemy seize control of the rail line.
1882 Austria, Italy and Germany form the Triple Alliance, mutually pledging peace. The fortress is downgraded to a depot.
1919 After the annexation of South Tyrol by Italy, the fortress falls to the Italian army without a fight.
1939 Construction of a reservoir at the foot of the fortress. The hamlet of Unterau to the south is flooded by the new lake, as is part of the fortress.
1943 Benito Mussolini ships the Banca d’Italia’s reserves – 127.5 tonnes of gold – from Rome to Milan. Via his Republic of Salò, a protectorate of Hitler established in September 1943, the gold comes into the hands of the German military administration, which stores it in Franzensfeste. In 1944 three gold transports leave the fortress: a total of 79 tonnes – according to documents brought to Berlin – disappear in the chaos of the war’s last days.
1945 A small part of the fortress is destroyed in an air raid on the Brenner rail line.
1945-2003 Franzensfeste fortress is used by the Italian military to store weapons and ammunition. Soldiers of the Brigata Alpina Tridentina do their military service here, guarding the entire complex round the clock.
2003 The Italian army leaves Franzensfeste.
2005 The first tours of the fortress are organised at the initiative of the Oppidum association from Franzensfeste.
2008 Following extensive maintenance and renovation work, the fortress is for the first time opened to a wider public in the context of the Manifesta international art exhibition.
2013 The fortress comes into the ownership of the Province of South Tyrol
2015 Since January 2015 Franzensfeste has been home to a consortium that runs an exhibition on the construction of the Brenner Base Tunnel and a BBT information point.
2017 The fortress of Franzensfeste becomes South Tyrol’s tenth provincial museum.