Historic map of Otranto by Piri Reis.

Almost forgotten today is Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror’s amphibious attack against Otranto, though in western Europe the Ottoman assault was easily the most electric news of the year.

Southern Italy was an obvious target, because of its proximity to Albania and because Ottoman control of both sides of the Adriatic entrance would force Venice to obey the sultan’s will. Venice did not want to be seen to oppose the Turks. When they attacked Otranto in 1480, Venetian ships helped ferry Turkish troops across to Italy from Albania, though this met with official disapproval in Venice itself. One hundred and forty Ottoman ships carrying 18,000 men crossed the Straits, including forty galleys. After the inhabitants of Otranto refused to surrender, the Turkish commander, Gedik Ahmet Pasha, made clear what would happen to the survivors and pressed on with his assault; the town possessed poor defences and no cannon, and the outcome was predictable. On capturing the city Ahmet Pasha slaughtered the entire male population, leaving 10,000 people alive out of about 22,000; 8,000 slaves were sent across the Straits to Albania. The elderly archbishop was struck down at the high altar of Otranto Cathedral. The Turks then fanned out across southern Apulia, raiding neighbouring cities. The king of Naples, Alfonso V’s son Ferrante, had sent his armies into Tuscany, but once his troops and ships were ready he was able to launch a successful counter-assault. Even when the Turks withdrew, they made plain their intention of returning and conquering the Apulian ports, while rumour enlarged this into a grand army ready to attack both Italy and Sicily from Albania.

The siege of Otranto was an enormous shock to western Europe. All the Christian powers in the Mediterranean offered help against the Turks, notably Ferdinand II, king of Aragon and cousin of Ferrante of Naples. The conspicuous exception was Venice, claiming to be too tired after decades of conflict with the sultan’s armies and navies. Turkish raiding parties had started to penetrate into Friuli, an area of northeastern Italy partly under Venetian dominion – on land as on sea the Turks were threateningly close, and the Venetians preferred appeasement. The Venetian consul in Apulia was advised that he should express his satisfaction at the Christian victory to the Neapolitan king orally and not in writing; written messages were often stolen by spies, and the Serenissima Repubblica was fearful that the sultan might see a purloined letter of congratulations and blame Venice for its two-faced outlook.

The immediate danger of a further attack on southern Italy disappeared with the death of Mehmet in May 1481. He was only forty-nine years old. During the coming years western rulers such as Charles VIII of France and Ferdinand of Aragon would make the war against the Turks a central area of policy. Both these rulers took the view that, if they controlled southern Italy, they would be able to lay their hands on the resources needed for a grand crusade and use Apulia as a convenient launching-pad for attacks on Ottoman lands, which now lay so close; both also had controversial claims to the throne of Naples, notwithstanding the presence of a local dynasty of Aragonese origin. Charles VIII’s invasion of southern Italy, in 1494-5, brought him mastery over Naples, but his position proved unsustainable, and he soon had to withdraw.

In August 1480 about 10,000 Turkish troops landed, a large force at the time, and they easily took the small city after a brief, three-day siege. The seizure was only the opening operation of a larger intended conquest of Italy: Realizing full well the danger at hand, all the Italian states rallied to the defence of Christendom (except Venice, whose commercial connections in the East were always a complication), pledged themselves to a formal Holy Alliance against the Turk and sent money and men to help the King of Naples remove the Turkish bridgehead.

After the conquest, the Ottomans strengthened the city’s defenses and raided the surrounding countryside, attacking Lecce, Brindisi, and Taranto. Ottoman success terrified the Italians, and some feared the fall of the kingdom of Naples or even of the whole of Italy to the Ottomans. Ferrante, the king of Naples, sent an army in September 1480 that prevented further Ottoman advance, and leaving a small garrison in Otranto, the main Ottoman forces sailed back to Vlore. Ferrante demanded an Ottoman surrender and the payment of compensation for the damage inflicted on the kingdom of Naples. This was rejected by the Ottomans, who instead proposed peace based on retention of Otranto and secession of Brindisi, Lecce, and Taranto. To back up their demands, the Ottomans threatened a major invasion of Italy the following year if Ferrante did not comply. Ferrante appealed to Pope Sixtus IV and the other Italian powers for help. Amid an upsurge of crusader spirit in face of this infidel danger very close to home, an alliance between the pope, the dukes of Milan and Ferrara, the kings of Naples and Hungary, Genoa, and Florence (but without Venice) was concluded in September 1480.

Through the winter of 1480 and into the following year the allied Italian force maintained a blockade, but the decisive event of the siege occurred back in Constantinople – the sultan’s death in May 1481. The resulting concentration of political energy on the capital eliminated the possibility of reinforcing Otranto, and so in September the Turkish garrison surrendered on terms (they were none the less put to death in revenge for the thousands of Christian captives massacred or sold into slavery). Many Europeans had not expected a Turkish defeat. Sensing a looming tragedy, during the siege a German cleric had made his pilgrimage to ‘the Eternal City before … it was taken by the Turks’. In 1481 the fall of Rome to the sultan was scarcely less imaginable than had been the fall of the second Rome, Constantinople, twenty-eight years before. Over the next generation, wild rumours and prophecies flourished in Italy and Europe: that the Pope had been seized by Barbary pirates, or that the sultan would take Rome, but turn Christian and usher in the next age.