Pietro Morettini was a sought-after fortress-builder at the end of the 17th century. Illustration by Marco Heer
Pietro Morettini was a sought-after fortress-builder at the end of the 17th century. Illustration by Marco Heer

The Sopraceneri fortress-builder

Pietro Morettini was the doyen of fortress-building. Originally from the south of the Confederacy, he worked for a number of different rulers and was held in high regard. Only in his homeland was he a relative unknown compared with his contemporaries.

Raphael Rues

Raphael Rues

Raphael Rues is a historian and specialises in Ticino and the German-fascist presence in Northern Italy.

As one of the few prominent engineers and architects from the Sopraceneri region, north of the Monte Ceneri pass, Morettini is a rarity. Most of the internationally renowned names, such as Solari, Pelli, Trezzini, and others, came from the Sottoceneri, south of the pass. Was Morettini from modern-day Ticino at all? Yes and no. Up to 1798 the Leventina District was governed by the canton of Uri. The Blenio Valley, riviera and region surrounding Bellinzona were all controlled by the three founding cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. The southern part, encompassing Lugano, Mendrisio, Locarno and the Maggia Valley, was governed by all of the sovereign cantons except Appenzell.  The canton of Ticino as we know it was not founded until 1803. But back to Pietro Morettini.
In the 18th century it was clear where the power lay in the present-day canton of Ticino.
In the 18th century it was clear where the power lay in the present-day canton of Ticino. Wikimedia / Marco Zanoli
For the sake of argument, we'll call him Ticinese. He was born in 1660 in the hamlet of Camanoglio near Cerentino in the Rovana Valley, which leads off the Maggia. At the time, the region belonged to the bailiwick of Locarno. Morettini's childhood was short and austere, although circumstances were eased by the fact that his father was a master mason. Since there was little work at home, Morettini Senior had already spent several periods in France. Morettini Junior followed him for the first time at the age of 14, working as a stonemason in Besançon. In 1674 the city had just been seized by Louis XIV, then at the height of his power. There was no shortage of work, and Pietro Morettini soon came to the attention of Sébastien Le Prestre. The Seigneur of Vauban was a respected French military engineer, architect and urbanist who was responsible for many of the fortifications built all over France.
Portrait of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban.
Portrait of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. Wikimedia
With Morettini quickly building his reputation, it only made sense for him to go with Vauban to Landau in the Palatinate region of modern-day Germany. He continued to work for Sébastien Le Prestre and was also an active contributor to Louis XIV's expansion plans. In 1692 he experienced first-hand the siege of Namur, in what was then the Spanish Netherlands. After the city fell, Morettini remained for a while to rebuild its fortifications. At the same time he cemented his personal life by marrying a lady from a respected local family, Marie-Rose Ronchan. It was a fruitful marriage, producing eleven children. They were turbulent times in Namur. Only three years after the French siege, the city was regained by English-Dutch troops. Yet Morettini had fallen in love not only with Marie-Rose Ronchan, but also with Namur, prompting him to leave Vauban's service and change sides. It was the only way that he could continue to work in the city, in what is now Belgium. After two more years in Namur he worked under Menno van Coehoorn on buildings throughout the United Netherlands. The irony of switching allegiance was that Morettini's new superior was a major challenger to his old boss in the competition to build the best fortifications in Europe.
The conquest of Namur, 1692, by the French. Painted by Jean-Baptiste Martin.
The conquest of Namur, 1692, by the French. Painted by Jean-Baptiste Martin. Wikimedia
Portrait of Menno van Coehoorn. Painted by Caspar Netscher, ca. 1700.
Portrait of Menno van Coehoorn. Painted by Caspar Netscher, ca. 1700. Wikimedia
In 1703 Pietro Morettini went back to Locarno for the first time since his childhood. He returned in some style, as a respected engineer and as a skilled businessman paid handsomely for his enormous expertise. He remained in Locarno for 15 years, buying and borrowing to soon become the region's biggest landowner. He was commissioned by Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, to plan canals to Losone. He even dreamed of a waterway between Rotterdam and Venice that would bring ships south via the Maggia Valley and Locarno. While that never came to fruition, Morettini was successful on other levels. He was able to unite the various nobles of the Locarno region, for example. At the time they had little interest in working together and were instead engaged in almost pathological rivalry based on local pride, the well-known Ticinese campanilismo.
A polyglot, the indefatigable Morettini quickly made a name for himself in the Catholic cantons of the Old Confederacy. First he was appointed engineer to the canton of Lucerne. Working on behalf of the canton of Uri and the municipality of Andermatt, in 1707 and 1708 he was in charge of excavation and other work at Andermatt for the Urnerloch tunnel. This section of road was highly treacherous and anything but stable. To cross the gorge, travellers had to navigate the dangerous Twaerren bridge. It was thought for many years that the bridge hung on iron chains set into the rock, but recent research has found that the structure was more reminiscent of the wooden water channels known in the Valais as bisses. These long beams of wood were simply fixed to rock ledges or specially hollowed-out niches. The Urnerloch project took around eleven months to complete. It was incredibly important to the region because the population's only financial income came from the customs duties charged on the transit of goods through the almost impassable Schöllenen gorge. The Urnerloch was the very first road tunnel in modern Switzerland. It was 64 metres long and only just high enough for a carriage to pass through.
View from the Urnerloch tunnel towards Andermatt. Graphic reproduction from ca. 1830.
View from the Urnerloch tunnel towards Andermatt. Graphic reproduction from ca. 1830. Swiss National Museum
Between 1707 and 1712, during the conflict between Christian denominations in Switzerland that preceded the Second War of Villmergen, Morettini planned fortifications en masse for the Catholics in Fribourg, Solothurn, Rapperswil, Sursee, Bremgarten, Willisau, Mellingen and Baden. He mainly produced preliminary studies. Although recognised as outstanding, fortunately not all were executed, owing to a lack of opportunity and funding. The only exception stands in Wassen, in the canton of Uri. In the preceding centuries, the Susten Pass had been a strategically important route through the Alps. The Urner feared that foreign troops would invade once again over the Susten and decided to place fortifications (Schanzen) at various points in the Meien Valley. Built in 1710, the Meienschanze in Wassen is the only one of Morettini's military works in Switzerland that is still at least partly visible. It proved its worth just two years after construction, in 1712 during the Second War of Villmergen. It was here that the Urner successfully repelled the troops from Bern that had already advanced along the Susten Pass.
Only one biography of Pietro Morettini was ever published. Author Marino Viganò included the plans for the Meienschanze fortifications.
Only one biography of Pietro Morettini was ever published. Author Marino Viganò included the plans for the Meienschanze fortifications.   Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern
The Meienschanze, immortalised on canvas by Caspar Wolf, 1778.
The Meienschanze, immortalised on canvas by Caspar Wolf, 1778. Wikimedia
He had at last enjoyed success at home, but Pietro Morettini was not one to rest on his laurels. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was busier than ever, and following a short period (1715-1716) in the service of the Papal States, he decided to work in future for the Republic of Genoa. At the age of 55 he was taking on another new challenge. Genoa had for centuries been a major maritime power. It maintained its position through a combination of skilful trading, a flourishing banking sector and countless trading posts on the Black Sea. By now, though, its golden age was over. Ground down by the conflicts with Savoy and France, its decline was just a matter of time. The Genoese, meanwhile, were determined to delay it for as long as possible. To do so, they needed good defences. It was a clear case for Pietro Morettini. He worked for Genoa between 1717 and 1736, and was appointed its first engineer and director of fortifications. He produced studies and managed various construction sites, including those at Ajaccio, Calvi and Bonifacio on Corsica, which was then ruled by the Republic of Genoa. Much of what Morettini created still stands today. Examples include the wonderful powder magazine at the Gavi Fortress, or the Palazzo della Sibilla within the Priamar Fortress in Savona. Morettini was also heavily involved in the military matters of the Republic of Genoa, rising to the rank of colonel. This commitment encouraged two of his sons to remain in the Republic's military service, later as officers in charge of organising mercenary troops.
The Priamar Fortress in Savona still attracts tourists today.
The Priamar Fortress in Savona still attracts tourists today. Wikimedia
Morettini returned to Locarno in 1737, and died just a month later at the age of 76. The Morettini line survived until 1850 when it, too, disappeared forever. Pietro Morettini was one of Switzerland's greatest military engineers, but also built a reputation as an architect, city planner and tunnel-builder. His experience throughout continental Europe gave him an extraordinary work ethic, and he was always producing new ideas. Impressive evidence of this is to be found in at least 40 fortifications and structures, and around 100 projects. It is therefore entirely fitting that today's tunnel between Tenero and Locarno is also known as the 'Mappo-Morettina Tunnel' in his honour.

Tesori — treasures from the Patriziato di Ascona archive

14.10.2022 28.02.2023 / Casa Vacchini
An exhibition in the Casa Vacchini in Ascona traces Pietro Morettini's work in the Ascona-Locarno region. It particularly features projects for rivers and lakes, and the rights of the nobility between the Maggia and Melezza rivers from 1703 to 1711. The display was organised by the Patriziato di Ascona heritage federation along with the Antenna Ticinese dei Verbanisti historical association. It runs until the end of February 2023.

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