The Ottoman Capture of Otranto

Although Pierre d’Aubusson, Grand Master of Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John, had been seriously wounded during the siege of Rhodes, immediately after it was over he set out to rebuild the ruined city of Rhodes and its defence walls and towers. Three days after the Ottoman withdrawal the Grand Master and the council met and decided to send an envoy to Italy to inform Pope Sixtus and King Ferrante of their victory over the Turks, and also to request further aid, ‘for it is of course assumed that the enemy proposes to come back’. By the beginning of October 1480 d’Aubusson decided that the Ottoman fleet had finally left the region and was not likely to return in the immediate future. The council therefore decided to allow the departure of the galleys and mercenaries that had been sent by King Ferrante. But they decided to retain the 100 men of arms who had come to Rhodes with the prior of Rome, because the knights had suffered such heavy casualties during the siege that their garrison needed reinforcements.

Mehmet’s expedition against the Ionian Islands in 1479 had given him possession of Santa Maura, Ithaka, Cephalonia and Zante, the former possessions of Leonardo III Tocco, who had taken refuge with King Ferrante of Naples. Corfu, the northernmost of the Ionian Islands, remained in the possession of Venice, which because of its peace treaty with the Ottomans remained neutral when Gedik Ahmet Pasha conquered the other islands in the archipelago.

On 2 July 1480 the Senate wrote to Vettore Soranzo, the Captain-General of the Sea, who at the time was on Corfu, informing him that the Ottoman fleet had left the Dardanelles and had divided into two parts, the larger one headed for Rhodes (where the siege had already begun on 23 May) and the other bound for the Adriatic.

As soon as Soranzo received the letter he left Corfu with twenty-eight galleys for Methoni, in the south-west Peloponessos, which together with nearby Methoni were called the ‘Eyes of the Republic’, for they surveyed all maritime traffic between the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic. Soranzo’s instructions were to avoid any conflict with the Ottoman forces, but if they attacked any Venetian possessions he was to oppose them. At Methoni, Soranzo met with an Ottoman envoy, who requested safe passage for a Turkish flotilla headed into the Adriatic, along with provisions. Soranzo agreed to the envoy’s requests, and he followed with his squadron as the Turkish ships headed towards the Adriatic to join Gedik Pasha’s fleet at Valona in Albania.

On 24 July 1480 Naples, Milan, Florence and Ferrara renewed their alliance for twenty-five years, an alignment designed to counter the pact between Venice and the papacy. Pope Sixtus IV immediately summoned envoys of the Italian states to Rome in order to gain their cooperation in sending help to Rhodes. The envoys expressed their concern that internecine war in Italy would make it difficult or impossible to help the Rhodians, and they asked the Pope to give them reassurance in this matter. Sixtus responded on 27 July with a circular letter to the states of Italy, making an impassioned appeal to keep the peace and take united action against the Turks before it was too late.

We think of nothing else than how the Italian states may with a unity of purpose resist the terrible power of the Turks… [Now] we have the enemy before our very eyes. He has already been sighted, poised to strike at the province of Apulia with a large fleet. If he should seize Ragusa or Rhodes (which God forbid!), nothing would be left of our safety… Hear our paternal voice, consider the common peril, and judge for yourself how great is the need to quicken our pace…

Meanwhile, Gedik Pasha’s fleet had left Valona on 26 July, headed across the Adriatic to southern Italy. The Venetian squadron under Soranzo remained at Corfu and made no move to interfere with the Ottoman fleet, which comprised forty large galleys, sixty smaller galleys and forty freighters, carrying some 18,000 troops and 700 horses for the cavalry.

The original plan was for the expedition to land near Brindisi, but, having learned from the sailors on a captured Italian freighter that the coast further to the south was undefended, Gedik Ahmet decided to head for Otranto. On the morning of 28 July he landed a squadron of cavalry without opposition near the castle of Roca, and the horsemen rode through the countryside as far as Otranto, on the heel of the Italian peninsula, capturing many of the locals and their cattle. The garrison at Otranto made a sortie and drove off the Turks, killing many of them and freeing some of the prisoners.

By that time Gedik Ahmet had landed the rest of his army, estimated to number 18,000. He then sent an Italian-speaking envoy into Otranto offering terms of surrender, and when these were rejected the pasha threatened the city with ‘fire, flame, ruin, annihilation and death’. Gedik Ahmet then positioned his siege guns and began bombarding the city, which was only lightly defended, its small garrison having no artillery to fire back at the Ottomans, while at the same time his cavalryman laid waste the surrounding countryside, putting all they encountered to the sword.

Word of the Ottoman attack quickly reached the court of King Ferrante at Naples, where it was feared that this was the beginning of a full-scale Turkish invasion of Italy. Niccolo Sadoleto, the Ferrarese ambassador to Naples, wrote on 1 August to inform Duke Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara.

This morning four horsemen have come [to Naples], riding at breakneck speed from Apulia and the region of Otranto. They have gone to find the lord king at Aversa, where he went yesterday evening, and they have brought him the news of how the Turks have landed at Otranto with 150 sail, and have made three assaults upon the castle. The news is all over Naples. I have no certain information, however, except that the lord king has in fact returned posthaste from Aversa within the hour.

Soon afterwards Sadoleto added in a postscript that the report of the Ottoman landing was true, and that ‘the number of ships is uncertain, but the armada is so great that it is believed to contain all the vessels that were at Rhodes!’. That same day Sadoleto wrote to Duke Ercole saying that he thought that King Ferrante would soon ask all his allies to help him to repel the invaders, who besides attacking Otranto had taken three villages in the vicinity. He reported that a horseman had arrived from Taranto ‘who says that there are more than 350 vessels, and that the Turks have attacked the castle of Otranto and ranged as far as Lecce, burning villages, taking prisoners and killing little children as though they were dogs…’.

Luca Landucci, a Florentine apothecary, viewed the Turkish attack on Neapolitan territory as a blessing to his native city. He noted in his diary that Duke Alfonso of Calabria, son of King Ferrante of Naples, had intended to do much evil against Florence but ‘by a great miracle it happened that on the sixth of August [sic], the Turkish army came to Otranto and began to besiege it; so it was necessary to leave our neighborhood, at the king’s command, and return to defend the kingdom…’.

On 2 August King Ferrante wrote to summon home Duke Alfonso, who was with his troops in Siena, which the Neapolitans had been trying to take. Ferrante then wrote to inform Pope Sixtus that the enmity between the various Italian states must be put aside because of the common danger posed by the Turkish invasion. Otherwise, he warned, he would throw in his lot with the sultan and work for the destruction of all the other states in Italy.

The Signoria of Venice had been making efforts to maintain peace with the Ottomans. On 3 June 1480 the Senate had instructed Zaccaria Barbaro, their new ambassador to Rome, to avoid Venetian involvement in the anti-Turkish alliance then under discussion among the Italian states. At the same time the Signoria was trying to avoid attempts by the Ottomans to involve Venice in an invasion of Italy. On 23 August 1479, during the Tuscan War, the conflict between the Kingdom of Naples and its allies against those of the papacy, Gedik Ahmet Pasha had sent an envoy to the Senate suggesting that the Venetians join him in an attack against King Ferrante and the Pope, both of whom he declared to be the worst enemies of Venice. The Senate politely declined the suggestion, remarking that ‘Venetian merchants had suffered no losses either in the papal states or in the Neapolitan kingdom’.

The defenders at Otranto were able to hold out only until 11 August, when the Ottoman infantry poured through a breach in the walls and took the city by storm. All the older men of the city were put to the sword, while the younger men and women were enslaved, 8,000 of them being shipped off to Albania. It is estimated that 12,000 of the 22,000 inhabitants of Otranto were killed by the Turks. The aged archbishop of Otranto, Stefano Pendinelli, remained to the last in the cathedral of Otranto, praying for divine deliverance as the Ottoman soldiers slaughtered his congregation. One Italian chronicler says that the Turks sawed the archbishop in two on the high altar of his cathedral, although a more reliable source suggests that he died of fright. The Italian chronicler goes on to say that Gedik Ahmet Pasha had 800 of the townspeople beheaded when they refused to convert to Islam, leaving their remains unburied on the eminence now known as the Hill of the Martyrs. All the martyrs were canonised in 1771 under Pope Clement XIV, and their skulls are still displayed in the cathedral.

After the fall of Otranto the Ottoman cavalry plundered the surrounding region, which was abandoned by all the Italian men capable of bearing arms, leaving only women, children and old men, many of whom were slaughtered. The cavalry extended its raids as far as Taranto on the west and northward to Lecce and Brindisi, so it appeared that Gedik Ahmet was going to use Otranto as his base for a wider invasion of Italy.

King Ferrante, after sending a courier to inform the Pope of the Turkish invasion, quickly mustered an army, which left Naples for Apulia on 8 September. His son, Alfonso, withdrew his troops from Tuscany, and by the end of the month he too headed for Apulia. By the time the Neapolitan forces reached Apulia the Ottoman troops had withdrawn from the surrounding countryside and retired within the walls of Otranto. By then Gedik Ahmet Pasha had returned to Valona with a large part of his army, leaving a garrison of only 6,500 infantry and 500 cavalry in Otranto under Hayrettin Bey, the sancakbey of Negroponte, a Greek convert to Islam who was fluent in Italian. When Ferrante tried to negotiate with Hayrettin Bey he was told that the sultan was not only going to keep Otranto, but that he also demanded Taranto, Brindisi and Lecce. Hayrettin went on to say that if these demands were not met the sultan himself would appear the following spring, leading an army of 100,000 troops and 18,000 cavalry, along with a powerful artillery corps, with which he would conquer all of Italy.

News of the fall of Otranto and rumours of a coming Turkish invasion caused panic throughout Italy. According to Sigismondo de’Conti, the papal secretary, the Pope was so terrified that he contemplated fleeing to Avignon.

In Rome the alarm was as great, as if the enemy had already encamped before her very walls… Terror had taken such hold of all minds that even the Pope meditated flight. I was at the time in the Low Countries, in the suite of the Cardinal Legate Giuliano, and I remembered that he was commissioned to prepare what was necessary at Avignon, for Sixtus IV had decided upon taking refuge with the French, if the state of affairs in Italy should become worse.

But Sixtus regained his nerve and realised that aid had to be given to the Kingdom of Naples, even though Ferrante had recently betrayed him during the Tuscan war. As Sigismondo writes of the Pope’s decision to come to Ferrante’s aid:

Sixtus IV would have witnessed with great indifference the misfortunes and losses of his faithless ally, had Ferrante’s enemy been anyone but the Sultan, but it was a very different matter when the common foe of Christendom had actually got a footing on Italian soil, and speedily the Papacy and Rome itself were threatened with utter ruin, unless he were promptly expelled… [The Pope] at once sent all the money he could get together, permitted tithes to be levied from all the clergy in the kingdom, and promised a Plenary Indulgence to all Christians enlisting under the banner of the Cross.

Later in the summer of 1480 Sixtus issued a bull calling for united Christian action against the invaders before they took all of Italy: ‘How perilous it has become for all Christians,’ he wrote, ‘and especially the Italian powers, to hesitate in the assumption of arms against the Turk and how destructive to delay any longer, everyone can see…’ He went on to warn that ‘if the faithful, and especially the Italians, want to keep their lands, homes, wives, children, liberty, and the very faith in which we were baptised and reborn, let them believe us that they must now take up arms and go to war!’.

King Louis XI of France indicated that he would give his support to an anti-Turkish alliance. The Sforza dukes in Milan also offered the Pope their support, but they said that peace had to be established among the Italian states before they sought help from the French kingdom, ‘for we confess that we cannot see how we may expect foreign aid if we make light of our troubles at home’.

The anti-Turkish coalition, known as the League of Naples, came into being on 16 September 1480, its members consisting of the papacy, the King of Naples, the King of Hungary, the Dukes of Milan and Ferrara, and the Republics of Genoa and Florence. Representatives of the league gathered in Venice at the beginning of October, and the Neapolitan envoys led the pleas for Venetian help against the Turks. The Republic of Venice was exhorted to join the league, but the Signoria immediately declined, saying that for ‘seventeen successive years’ they had fought the Turks almost alone, with an unbearable cost in men and money, and now they could do no more.

Sixtus then began preparations to build a papal fleet in Genoa and Ancona, while at the same time he appealed to England, France and Germany to join the coalition. Emperor Frederick III declined because of internal political problems, as did Edward IV of England, who wrote to the Pope that rather than making war against other Christians, as he was forced to do in order to keep his throne, he would have ‘preferred being associated with the other sovereigns of Christendom in an expedition against the Turk’. Edward had been fearful of a Turkish invasion, and a year earlier he had said that the Pope should have unified Italy, ‘owing to the great perils…for the Christian religion, when the Turk is at the gates of Italy, and so powerful as everyone knows’.

Louis XI assured the Pope that France would participate in the crusade, but only if all the other Christian states shared the burden. The Sforza Dukes of Milan said that aid from northern Europe would be long in coming and that the united Italian states would have to make the effort themselves, even without Venice, ‘because we are prepared to strive beyond our strength for the common safety and to defeat in war the barbarous, butcherly and savage Turks’. The private instructions given to their envoys by the Sforzas began with a statement impressing upon them the grave emergency of the situation. ‘We do not believe that for many centuries a more grave and perilous thing has befallen not only Italy but all Christendom than this…invasion of Calabria by the Turk, both because of the inestimable power and great cruelty of the enemy and because of the utter shame it brings to our religion and the Christian way of life.’

The Pope and the College of Cardinals agreed to contribute 150,000 ducats towards the crusade, 100,000 of which would be spent equipping twenty-five galleys for the papal fleet, the remainder to be sent to King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, who was expected to divert Mehmet’s attention from Italy to central Europe. In addition, Sixtus was recruiting a force of 3,000 infantry. The ambassadors who convened in Rome agreed that a fleet of 100 galleys should be launched for the crusade, and that 200,000 ducats should be sent annually to Corvinus to support his offensive against the Turks. Since the papacy was assuming such a large financial obligation, it expected the other Christian powers to shoulder their share of the burden and sent briefs informing each of them of their assessment. King Ferrante was to provide forty galleys for the Christian fleet and was to send Corvinus 100,000 ducats; Milan was to contribute 30,000 ducats; Florence, 20,000 ducats; Genoa, five galleys; Ferrara and Siena, four galleys each; Bologna, two galleys; Lucca, Mantua and Montferrat, one galley each.

Louis XI sent envoys to Rome to discuss the situation with Pope Sixtus. The king offered to contribute 200,000 ducats a year for the crusade, and if the Pope permitted him to tax the benifices of the clergy in France ‘he would add another 100,000 ducats’. Louis estimated that Italy could easily contribute 40,000 ducats annually for the crusade; Germany, 200,000; ‘all the Spains’, an additional 200,000; ‘and the king of England, who is so powerful and has such rich benifices, 100,000 ducats’. He had been informed ‘that the Venetians are willing to declare themselves against the Turks, provided that they are assured that all Italy is going to join in and will not leave them in the lurch’. His envoys were authorised to commit their king to his pledge of 300,000 ducats annually, provided that he was allowed to tax the clergy, and that the other states of Europe support the crusade to the amounts ‘of which mention is made above’. Louis also noted his desire for assurances of peace from his neighbours to the east, ‘and in making the aforesaid offer he does not discount the fact that he must be safe from the king of England through the duration of the war [against the Turks] and for one year thereafter’. He said that the King of England was ‘as good a friend as he had in the world’, but the Pope had to realise the responsibilities that Louis had to maintain the security of his own kingdom.

Meanwhile, Emperor Frederick III and King Matthias Corvinus were waging war on one another in Austria. At the same time Turkish akincis were raiding in Croatia, Carniola, Carinthia and Styria, some of them even penetrating into Friuli, despite the peace treaty between the Ottomans and Venice.

The Neapolitan army finally went on the offensive during the winter of 1480-1, putting Otranto under siege and containing the Ottoman forces within their beachhead in Apulia. Then in March 1481 the Neapolitan fleet defeated an Ottoman naval force in the Adriatic, cutting off the Turkish garrison in Otranto from the sea and thus intensifying the siege.

On 8 April 1481 Pope Sixtus issued a bull proclaiming a new crusade, summoning all the princes of Europe to arms against the Turks. He imposed a three-year peace on Christendom, beginning on 1 June 1481, lest ‘western Europe go the way of Constantinople and the Morea, Serbia and Bosnia, and the empire of Trebizond, whose rulers (and peoples) had all come to grief’.

But a general fear prevailed that, once again, nothing would come of this effort. The classical scholar Peter Schott, canon of Strasbourg, wrote later that month from Bologna that he had gone to take a last look at Rome ‘before the Eternal City was taken by the Turks’.

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