Martyrs of Otranto

Last updated

Antonio Primaldo and 813 Companions

Martyrs of Otranto
Otranto cathedral martyrs.jpg
Relics of the Otranto Martyrs
Died14 August 1480
Salentine, City Otranto, Italy
Venerated in Catholic Church
Beatified 14 December 1771 by Pope Clement XIV
Canonized 12 May 2013, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City, by Pope Francis
Major shrine Cathedral of Otranto
Feast 14 August
Patronage Otranto

St. Antonio Primaldo and his Companion Martyrs (Italian : I Santi Antonio Primaldo e compagni martiri), also known as the Martyrs of Otranto, were 813 inhabitants of the Salentine city of Otranto in southern Italy who were killed on 14 August 1480 when the city fell to an Ottoman force under Gedik Ahmed Pasha. According to a traditional account, the killings took place after the Otrantins refused to convert to Islam.



"The Ottoman ambitions in Italy were ended. Had Otranto surrendered to the Turks, the history of Italy might have been very different. But the heroism of the people of Otranto was more than a strategically decisive stand. What made the sacrifice of Otranto so remarkable was the willingness to die for the faith rather than reject Christ." [1]

The siege of Otranto – with the martyrdom of the inhabitants – was the last significant military attempt by a Muslim force to conquer southern Italy. The slaughter was remembered by Risorgimento historians (like Arnaldi and Scirocco) as a milestone in European history, [2] because as a consequence of this sacrifice the Italian peninsula was never conquered by Muslim troops. [3] The martyrs were presented as civic heroes representing the strength and fortitude of the Italian people. [4]


On 28 July 1480 an Ottoman force commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha, consisting of 90 galleys, 40 galiots and other ships carrying a total of around 150 crew and 18,000 troops, landed beneath the walls of Otranto. [5] The city strongly resisted the Ottoman assaults, but the garrison was unable to withstand the bombardment for long. The garrison and all the townsfolk thus abandoned the main part of the city on 29 July, retreating into the citadel whilst the Ottomans began bombarding the neighboring houses.

According to accounts of the story chronicled by Giovanni Laggetto and Saverio de Marco the Turks promised clemency if the city capitulated but were informed that Otranto would never surrender. A second Turkish messenger sent to repeat the offer "was slain with arrows and an Otranto guardsman flung the keys of the city into the sea". [6] At this the Ottoman artillery resumed the bombardment.

A messenger was dispatched to beseech King Ferdinand of Naples for assistance, but most of the Aragonese militias were already committed in Tuscany. [5] As time went on "Nearly seven-eighths (350) of Otranto's militia slipped over the city walls and fled." The remaining fifty soldiers fought alongside the citizenry dumping boiling oil and water on Turks trying to scale the ramparts between the cannonades. [6]

The citadel fell, after a fifteen day siege, on August 12. [5] When the walls were breached the Turks began fighting their way through the town. Upon reaching the cathedral "they found Archbishop Stefano Agricolo, fully vested and crucifix in hand" awaiting them with Count Francesco Largo. "The archbishop was beheaded before the altar, his companions were sawn in half, and their accompanying priests were all murdered." After desecrating the Cathedral, they gathered the women and older children to be sold into Albanian slavery. Men over fifteen years old, small children, and infants, were slain. [6]

According to some historical accounts, a total of 12,000 were killed and 5,000 enslaved, including victims from the territories of the Salentine peninsula around the city. [7]

Castle of Otranto Otranto castello.jpg
Castle of Otranto

Eight hundred able-bodied men were told to convert to Islam or be slain. A tailor named Antonio Primaldi is said to have proclaimed "Now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for the Lord. And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him." [6] To which those captives with him gave a loud cheer.

On 14 August they were led to the Hill of Minerva (later renamed the Hill of Martyrs). There they were to be executed with Primaldi to be beheaded first. Witnessing this, one Muslim executioner (whom the chroniclers say was an Ottoman officer called Bersabei) is said to have converted on the spot and been impaled immediately by his fellows for doing so.

Between August and September 1480, King Ferdinand of Naples, with the help of his cousin Ferdinand the Catholic and the Kingdom of Sicily, tried unsuccessfully to recapture Otranto. [8] Seeing the Turks as a threat to his home Alfonso of Aragon left his battles with the Florentines to lead a campaign to liberate Otranto from the Ottoman invaders beginning in August 1480. [9] The city was finally retaken in the spring of 1481 by Alfonso's troops supported by King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary's forces. The skulls of the martyrs were placed in a reliquary in the city's cathedral. [6]


On 13 October 1481 the bodies of the Otrantines were found to be uncorrupted and were transferred to the city's cathedral. [10] From 1485, some of the martyrs' remains were transferred to Naples and placed under the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary in the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello - that altar commemorated the final Christian victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571. They were later moved to the reliquary chapel, consecrated by Benedict XIII, then to a site under the altar where they are now sited. A recognitio canonica between 2002 and 2003 confirmed their authenticity.

In 1930 Monsignor Cornelio Sebastiano Cuccarollo O.F.M. was made archbishop of Otranto, and as a sign of affection and recognition to his old diocese he gave some of the relics to the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Valleverde in Bovino, where he had been bishop from 1923 to 1930, where they are now in the crypt of the new basilica. Other relics of the martyrs are venerated in several locations in Apulia, particularly in Salento, and also in Naples, Venice and Spain.


A canonical process began in 1539. On 14 December 1771 Pope Clement XIV beatified the 800 killed on the Colle della Minerva and authorised their veneration.

At the request of the archdiocese of Otranto, the process was resumed and confirmed in full the previous process. On 6 July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a decree recognising that Primaldo and his fellow townsfolk were killed "out of hatred for their faith". [11] On 20 December 2012 Benedict gave a private audience to cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B., prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in which he authorized the Congregation to promulgate a decree regarding the miracle of the healing of sister Francesca Levote, attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Antonio Primaldo and his Companions. [12]

They were beatified in 1771 and their canonization date announced by Pope Benedict on 11 February 2013. [13] They were canonised by Pope Francis on 12 May 2013. [14] They are the patron saints of the city of Otranto and the Archdiocese of Otranto.


The dead would have included both those who died during the fall of the city and in the aftermath of the siege, including residents of Otranto (which had a population of about 6,000) and people in the surrounding area. Various interpretations have been given of the events that led to their deaths. Some modern historians, such as Nancy Bisaha and Francesco Tateo have questioned details of the traditional account. [15] Tateo notes that the earliest contemporary sources describe execution of up to one thousand soldiers or citizens, as well as the local bishop, but they do not mention conversion as a condition for clemency, nor is martyrdom mentioned in contemporary Italian diplomatic dispatches or Turkish chronicle. [15] Bisaha argues that more of Otranto's inhabitants were likely to have been sold into slavery than slaughtered. [15]

However, other historians, such as Paolo Ricciardi and Salvatore Panareo, have argued that in the first year after the martyrdom there were no information about the massacres in the contemporaneous Christian world and only later – when Otranto was reconquered by the Neapolitans – it was possible to get details of the massacre from the local survivors who saw it. [16]

The contemporary Turkish historian Ibn Kemal indeed justified the slaughter on religious grounds. One modern study suggests it may have been a punitive measure, devoid of religious motivations, exacted to punish the local population for the stiff resistance they put up, which delayed the Turkish advance and enabled the King of Naples to strengthen local fortifications. Intimidation, a warning to other populations not to resist, may also have entered the invaders' calculations. [17]

After deciphering documents in the state archives at Modena, author Daniele Palma suggests the executions were the result of failed diplomacy. The records reference bank transfers and payment negotiations for captives following the siege of Otranto. With a typical ransom of 300 ducati (about 3 years’ worth of earnings for a normal family), Palma says that those killed were likely farmers, shepherds, and others too poor to raise the ransom. [4]

See also

Related Research Articles

Year 1480 (MCDLXXX) was a leap year starting on Saturday of the Julian calendar.

Otranto Comune in Apulia, Italy

Otranto is a town and comune in the province of Lecce, in a fertile region once famous for its breed of horses.

The Ottoman wars in Europe were a series of military conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and various European states dating from the Late Middle Ages up through the early 20th century. The earliest conflicts began during the Byzantine–Ottoman wars, waged in Anatolia in the late 13th century before entering Europe in the mid 14th century, followed by the Bulgarian–Ottoman wars and the Serbian–Ottoman wars waged beginning in the mid 14th century. Much of this period was characterized by Ottoman expansion into the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire made further inroads into Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, culminating in the peak of Ottoman territorial claims in Europe.

Classical Age of the Ottoman Empire

The Classical Age of the Ottoman Empire concerns the history of the Ottoman Empire from the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453 until the second half of the sixteenth century, roughly the end of the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. During this period a system of patrimonial rule based on the absolute authority of the sultan reached its apex, and the empire developed the institutional foundations which it would maintain, in modified form, for several centuries. The territory of the Ottoman Empire greatly expanded, and led to what some historians have called the Pax Ottomana. The process of centralization undergone by the empire prior to 1453 was brought to completion in the reign of Mehmed II.

Gedik Ahmed Pasha was an Ottoman statesman and admiral who served as Grand Vizier and Kapudan Pasha during the reigns of sultans Mehmed II and Bayezid II.

The War of Ferrara was fought in 1482–1484 between Ercole I d'Este, duke of Ferrara, and the Papal forces mustered by Ercole's personal nemesis, Pope Sixtus IV and his Venetian allies. Hostilities ended with the Treaty of Bagnolo, signed on 7 August 1484.

Andrea Matteo Acquaviva Nobleman, condottiero

Andrea Matteo Acquaviva, 8th Duke of Atri (1456–1528) was an Italian nobleman and condottiero from the Kingdom of Naples. Born in Conversano, Puglia, he was the second son of Duke Giulio Antonio Acquaviva and his wife Caterina Orsini del Balzo. She was a first cousin of Queen Isabella, the wife of King Ferrante of Naples.

Siege of Rhodes (1522)

The Siege of Rhodes of 1522 was the second and ultimately successful attempt by the Ottoman Empire to expel the Knights of Rhodes from their island stronghold and thereby secure Ottoman control of the Eastern Mediterranean. The first siege in 1480 had been unsuccessful.

Siege of Rhodes (1480)

In 1480 the small Knights Hospitaller garrison of Rhodes withstood an attack of the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman invasion of Otranto 1480-1481 invasion of the Italian city of Otranto by Ottoman Empire forces

The Ottoman invasion of Otranto occurred between 1480 and 1481 at the Italian city of Otranto in Apulia, southern Italy. Forces of the Ottoman Empire invaded and laid siege to the city and its citadel. According to a traditional account, more than 800 inhabitants were beheaded after the city was captured. The Martyrs of Otranto are still celebrated in Italy. A year later the Ottoman garrison surrendered the city following a siege by Christian forces and the intervention of Papal forces led by the Genoese Paolo Fregoso.

Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio titular church in Rome

The Basilica of Saints John and Paul on the Caelian Hill is an ancient basilica church in Rome, located on the Caelian Hill. It was originally built in 398.

Palatias and Laurentia Italian saint

Palatias and Laurentia are martyrs venerated by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. According to tradition, Palatias or Palatia was an aristocratic Roman woman who was converted to Christianity by her wet nurse or slave Laurentia. They were executed for being Christians at Fermo, in present-day Italy, during the reign of Diocletian.

Turks in Italy are Italian citizens of Turkish origin. The term Turk or Turkish used in Italy may apply to immigrants or the descendants of immigrants born in the Ottoman Empire before 1923, in the Republic of Turkey since then, or in neighbouring countries once part of the Ottoman Empire that still have a population whose language is Turkish or who claims a Turkish identity or cultural heritage, in contrast to the many other peoples from present-day Turkey and the former Ottoman Empire, who identify with their own communities.

Giulio Antonio Acquaviva Condottieri

Giulio Antonio Acquaviva was an Italian nobleman and condottiere. He was 7th Duke of Atri and 1st of Teramo, Count of Conversano and San Flaviano and Lord of Padula and Roseto.

Andrea Cambini historian, humanist, writer

Andrea Cambini or Andreas Cambinus (1445/1460—1527) was an Italian historian, humanist and writer.

Otranto Cathedral church building in Otranto, Italy

Otranto Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Italian city of Otranto, dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. It is the archiepiscopal seat of the Archdiocese of Otranto. The cathedral was consecrated in 1088. It is 54 metres long by 25 metres wide and is built on 42 monolithic granite and marble columns from unknown quarries. Its plan is a three-aisled nave with an apsidal east end. On either side of the west façade are two lancet windows.

Stefano Pendinelli Roman Catholic archbishop

Stefano Pendinelli was the Roman Catholic archbishop of Otranto, Italy. He was slain in 1480, along with all his priests, by the Ottoman force that invaded Otranto. He is among the 813 martyrs of Otranto canonized by Pope Francis in 2013.

The Portuguese expedition to Otranto in 1481, which the Portuguese call the Turkish Crusade, arrived too late to participate in any fighting. On 8 April 1481, Pope Sixtus IV issued the papal bull Cogimur iubente altissimo, in which he called for a crusade against the Turks, who occupied Otranto in southern Italy. The Pope's intention was that, after recapturing Otranto, the crusaders would cross the Adriatic and liberate Vlorë (Valona) as well.

Beheading was a standard method of execution in pre-modern Islamic law, similarly to pre-modern European law. Its use had been abandoned in most countries by the end of the 20th century. Currently, it is used only in Saudi Arabia. It also remains a legal method of execution in Qatar, Yemen, and was reportedly used in 2001 in Iran according to Amnesty International, where it is no longer in use.

Pirro Del Balzo was a southern Italian nobleman, a protagonist of resistance against the House of Aragon kings of Naples and Sicily.


  1. Matthew Bunson. "Library : How the 800 Martyrs of Otranto Saved Rome".
  2. Alfonso Scirocco, In difesa del Risorgimento, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1998. ISBN   88-15-06717-5
  3. Girolamo Arnaldi, L'Italia e i suoi invasori, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2002. ISBN   88-420-6753-9
  4. 1 2 Brancolini, Janna. "The Italian astrophysicist who solved the mystery of the martyrs of Otranto", Kheiro Magazine, May 19, 2017
  5. 1 2 3 De Vargas, Ivan. "The 800 Martyrs of Otranto", Zenit, May 13, 2013
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Byfield, Ted (2010). Christians - Their First Two Thousand Years, Renaissance: God in Man, A.D. 1300 to 1500. Edmonton, Alberta: McCallum Printing Group Inc.
  7. Paolo Ricciardi, Gli Eroi della Patria e i Martiri della Fede: Otranto 1480–1481, Vol. 1, Editrice Salentina, 2009
  8. G. Conte, Una flotta siciliana ad Otranto (1480) , in "Archivio Storico Pugliese", a. LXVII, 2014
  9. Peter G. Bietenholz, Thomas Brian Deutscher (1985). Contemporaries of Erasmus: A Biographical Register of the Renaissance and Reformation. 1–3. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
  10. On 13 October 1481 the bodies of the Otrantines were found to be uncorrupted
  11. Iván de Vargas (13 May 2013). "The 800 Martyrs of Otranto". Zenit.
  12. Promulgation of the decree of the Congregation of Causes of Saints Archived 31 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  13. "Pope Francis completes contentious canonisation of Otranto martyrs".
  14. Tom Kington (12 May 2013). "Pope Francis proclaims 800 Italian saints". The Telegraph.
  15. 1 2 3 Nancy Bisaha (2004). Creating East And West: Renaissance Humanists And the Ottoman Turks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 158. Recently, though, historians have begun to question the veracity of these tales of mass slaughter and martyrdom. Francesco Tateo argues that the earliest contemporary sources do not support the story of the eight hundred martyrs; such tales of religious persecution and conscious self-sacrifice for the Christian faith appeared only two or more decades following the siege. The earliest and most reliable sources describe the execution of eight hundred to one thousand soldiers or citizens and the local bishop, but none mention a conversion as a condition of clemency. Even more telling, neither a contemporary Turkish chronicle nor Italian diplomatic reports mention martyrdom. One would imagine that if such a report were circulating, humanists and preachers would have seized on it. It seems likely that more inhabitants of Otranto were taken out of Italy and sold into slavery than were slaughtered.
  16. Salvatore Panareo, "In Terra d'Otranto dopo l'invasione turchesca del 1480", Rivista storica salentina, VIII 1913, pp. 36–60
  17. Ilenia Romana Cassetta, ELETTRA ercolino, "La Prise d'Otrante (1480-81), entre sources chrétiennes et turques", in Turcica, 34, 2002 pp.255–273, pp.259–260: "L'unique historien qui décrit la chute de la ville et le meurtre d'un grand nombre d'habitants est Ibn Kemal. Il justifie le massacre des chrétiens par des motivations religieuses. En réalité, cet événement semble avoir eu davantage un caractère punitif et d'intimidation qu'une connotation religieuse." (p.259)