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A painting of the Battle of Otranto.

The Battle of Otranto

In the late 15th century, the Ottoman Empire had its sight set on conquest of southern Italy. Historians point to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 as the true end of the Eastern Roman Empire, but the imperial ambitions of Sultan Mehmed II, its young Ottoman conqueror, were just beginning. Over the following decade, the last fragments of Byzantium were methodically swept up around the Aegean and Black Sea coast.

During the summer of 1480, the first part of the Sultan’s plan to dominate Italy was put into place – the capture the port city of Otranto in Puglia. On July 28 of that year, an Ottoman fleet of 128 ships and 20,000 men arrived near Otranto. Immediately they laid siege to the city. After 15 days, the walls of Otranto were breached and the Turkish army went from house to house, sacking, looting and lighting the dwellings ablaze. A total of 12,000 were killed and another 5,000 were enslaved.

The Turks had left a small group of 800 men alive and tried to forcibly covert them to Islam or face death. One man, a textile worker named Antonio Primaldo Pezzula, turned to his fellow citizens and declared, “My brothers, we have fought to save our city; now it is time to battle for our souls!” The 800 men, aged 15 and older, unanimously decided to follow Antonio’s example and offered their lives rather than renounce their faith. The Turks offered to return their women and children from the chains of slavery if the men would embrace Islam. The men still refused. On August 14, 1480, on the vigil of the Assumption, the 800 men were led outside the city and beheaded by the Turks. Their remains were later collected and to this day kept in the Cathedral of Otranto. The Martyrs of Otranto were collectively canonized as saints by the Roman Catholic Church on May 12, 2013.

Between August and September of 1480, King Ferdinand of Naples, with the help of his cousin, Ferdinand the Catholic and the Kingdom of Sicily, tried unsuccessfully to recapture Otranto. The Christian forces ultimately besieged the city on May 1, 1481. The Turkish Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror was preparing for a new campaign on Italy, but died suddenly in Constantinople on May 3. This threw the Ottomans into a state of confusion and as different factions vied for succession, any chance of reinforcing the foothold in Puglia waned. The Turks finally surrendered and left Otranto in September of 1481, ending the 13-month occupation.

During the 1481 siege, one of the Italian nobles who lost his life was Don Diego I Cavaniglia, Count of Montella and Troia. He was made Count of the fief of Montella in the Province of Avellino, Campania, in 1477 and in the same year, married Margherita Orsini of the Dukes of Gravina. They lived in Montella in the Palazzo Comitale. At the beginning of the summer of 1481, Count Diego left Montella with his men at the behest of the King to travel to Otranto. It was near the end of the Battle of Otranto that the Count was struck in the knee by an arrow. He died a few days later in the castle of the princes, Castriota di Copertino, where he had been taken. His body was brought back to Montella and buried in the Church of San Francesco and placed in a sarcophagus created by the sculptor Jacopo della Pila.

In 1980, when the Irpinia earthquake struck, the floor of the Church of San Francesco heaved and in the rubble, workers found a skeleton still clad in funeral clothing. It took nearly a quarter of a century to determine through DNA analysis, that the skeleton and the robes belonged to Diego I Cavaniglia. The restoration of the 15th century garments was entrusted to Dr. Lucia Portoghesi and is now on display in Museo dell’Opera di San Francesco in Montella in the province of Avellino, Campania.