Martyrs of Otranto
Relics of the Martyrs of Otranto
Died14 August 1480
Otranto, Italy
Venerated inCatholic Church
Beatified14 December 1771 by Pope Clement XIV
Canonized12 May 2013, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City, by Pope Francis
Major shrineCathedral of Otranto
Feast14 August
PatronageOtranto, persecuted Christians

The Martyrs of Otranto, also known as Saints Antonio Primaldo and his Companions (Italian: I Santi Antonio Primaldo e compagni martiri), were 813 inhabitants of Otranto, Salento, Apulia, in southern Italy, who were killed on 14 August 1480 after the city had fallen to an Ottoman force under Gedik Ahmed Pasha. According to a traditional account, the killings took place after the citizens had 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 its inhabitants, was the last significant military attempt by a Muslim force to conquer southern Italy. The slaughter was remembered by historians of the Risorgimento like Girolamo Arnaldi and Alfonso Scirocco as a milestone in European history[2] because the sacrifice had the consequence that 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]


Main article: Ottoman invasion of Otranto

Painting in the Cathedral of Naples depicting the artist's conception of the massacre of Otranto citizens by the Ottomans in 1480.

On 28 July 1480, an Ottoman force, which was commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha, consisting of 90 galleys, 40 galiots and other ships and 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 of the townsfolk thus abandoned the main part of the city on 29 July and retreated into the citadel, and the Ottomans began bombarding the neighboring houses.

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

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

The citadel fell after a 15-day siege on August 12.[5] After the walls had been breached, the Ottomans began fighting their way through the town. Upon reaching the cathedral, "they found Archbishop Stefano Agricolo, fully vested and crucifix in hand", who was 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, the Ottomans gathered the women and older children to be sold into Albanian slavery. Men over 15, 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

There were 800 able-bodied men who 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] The captives with him then gave a loud cheer.

On 14 August, they were led to the Hill of Minerva (later renamed the Hill of Martyrs), where they were to be executed with Primaldi being beheaded first. One Muslim executioner, who the chroniclers state was an Ottoman officer, called Bersabei, witnessed that and is said to have converted on the spot and to have 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, attempted to recapture Otranto.[8]

Seeing the Ottomans 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 from August 1480.[9] The city was finally retaken in the spring of 1481 by Alfonso's troops, supported by forces of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. 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 uncorrupt, and they were transferred to the city's cathedral. 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. The altar commemorated the final Christian victory over the Ottomans at the Battre of Lepanto in 1571. They were later moved to the reliquary chapel, consecrated by Benedict XIII, and then to a site under the altar at which they now are. 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, and they are now in the crypt of its 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 had been killed "out of hatred for their faith".[10] 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, and authorized the Congregation to promulgate a decree regarding the miracle of the healing of Sister Francesca Levote, which was attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Antonio Primaldo and his Companions.[11]

They were beatified in 1771 and their canonisation date announced by Pope Benedict on 11 February 2013, the same day that he announced his intention to resign the papacy.[12] They were canonised by Pope Francis on 12 May 2013.[13] They are the patron saints of the city of Otranto and its archdiocese.


The dead would have included those who died both 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.[14] Tateo notes that the earliest contemporary sources describe execution of up to 1000 soldiers or citizens, as well as the local bishop, but they do not mention conversion as a condition for clemency, and martyrdom is not mentioned in contemporary Italian diplomatic dispatches or Ottoman chronicles.[14] Bisaha argues that more of Otranto's inhabitants were likely to have been sold into slavery than to have been slaughtered.[14]

However, other historians such as Paolo Ricciardi and Salvatore Panareo have argued that in the first year after the martyrdom there was no information about the massacres in the contemporaneous Christian world, and it was only later, after Otranto had been reconquered by the Neapolitans, that it was possible to get details of the massacre from the local survivors who had seen it.[15]

The contemporary Ottoman historian Ibn Kemal indeed justified the slaughter on religious grounds. One modern study suggests that it may have been a punitive measure devoid of religious motivations that was exacted to punish the local population for putting up a stiff resistance, which delayed the Ottoman advance and enabled the King of Naples to strengthen local fortifications. Intimidation and warning to other populations not to resist may also have entered the invaders' calculations.[16]

After deciphering documents in the state archives at Modena, the author Daniele Palma suggests the executions were the result of failed diplomacy. The records reference bank transfers and payment negotiations for captives after the siege of Otranto. With a typical ransom of 300 ducati, about three 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


  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. ^ a b "Brancolini, Janna. "The Italian astrophysicist who solved the mystery of the martyrs of Otranto", Kheiro Magazine, May 19, 2017". Archived from the original on 7 June 2023. Retrieved 31 December 2019.
  5. ^ a b c De Vargas, Ivan. "The 800 Martyrs of Otranto", Zenit, May 13, 2013
  6. ^ a b c d e 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. Vol. 1–3. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
  10. ^ Iván de Vargas (13 May 2013). "The 800 Martyrs of Otranto". Zenit.
  11. ^ Promulgation of the decree of the Congregation of Causes of Saints Archived 31 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ "Pope Francis completes contentious canonisation of Otranto martyrs". 12 May 2013.
  13. ^ Tom Kington (12 May 2013). "Pope Francis proclaims 800 Italian saints". The Telegraph.
  14. ^ a b c 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.
  15. ^ Salvatore Panareo, "In Terra d'Otranto dopo l'invasione turchesca del 1480", Rivista storica salentina, VIII 1913, pp. 36–60
  16. ^ 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)