The Ottoman Capture of Otranto

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Ottoman Wars: Battles of Otranto 1480 and Chaldiran 1514 DOCUMENTARY

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

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

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

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

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’.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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