Located in the southern Italy along the east coast of Salento peninsula, Otranto has had a fair share of tragedy and death. It is also home to some interesting historical events and the Otranto Cathedral famous for holding the skulls and bones of 800 men who were killed by the Ottomans during their invasion of Rome in 15th century. The relics of these martyrs of Otranto remain now in the cathedral, also known as Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata or Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata.
In 1480, Otranto was under siege for 15 days by Ottoman Turks who broke through the city’s defenses and, according to historical accounts, killed 12,000 people and enslaved 5,000.
The siege started on July 28, 1480, when the Ottomans, commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha sailed and landed beneath the walls of Otranto. The city held strong defense for a while, but soon the garrison couldn’t resist the attacks. The townsfolk started abandoning the city and after them the militia as well started leaving. After 15 days, on August 15, 1480, the Ottomans broke through the defenses and captured the city. Women and older children were sold into Albanian slavery and men over fifteen years, small children and infants were killed. Including victims from the Salentine peninsula, a total of 12,000 were killed and 5,000 were made slaves.
The Ottoman Turks selected 800 able-bodied men and told them to convert to Islam. When they refused they were taken to the Hill of Minerva (Colle della Minerva) and executed on August 14, 1480.
When the 800 men were told to convert to Islam or die, a tailor named Antonio Primaldi was 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.” The rest of the men agreed to it and cheered his proclamation. So, they were led to the Hill of Minerva, renamed Hill of Martyrs, to be executed, starting with the beheading of Primaldi.
The city was recaptured by Alfonso of Aragon with the help of King Matthias Corvinus of of Hungary in the spring of 1481 and the remains of the 800 were transferred to the city’s cathedral.
During the siege, a message was sent to King Ferdinand of Naples for help, who unsuccessfully tried to recapture the city between August and September of 1480. Then Alfonso of Aragaon, who was at that time battling the Florentines, led a campaign to free Otranto from the Ottomans whom he saw as a threat to his home. He was joined by King Matthias Corvinus and Otranto was successfully recaptured in the spring of 1481. The bodies of the 800 martyrs were found on October 13, 1481 and taken to the Cathedral of Otranto.
All the 800 martyrs killed on Colle della Minerva were beatified on December 14, 1771, by Pope Clement XIV, who also authorized their cult, and canonized on May 12, 2013, by Pope Francis.
The process of canonization is a lengthy one, and doesn’t start until after at least five years after the person’s death to ensure that the person is revered among the faithful still. It is also required that the right church authorities must check, approve, vote and confirm that miracles have happened because of the person’s sacrifice for the canonization to proceed. The canonical process for Otranto’s 800 martyrs started in 1539, with them being beatified in 1771. On July 6, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a decree recognizing that Antonio Primaldo and the rest were indeed killed “out of hatred for their faith”. On December 20, 2012, he authorized a decree attributing the healing of a sister named Francesca Levote to the intercession of the martyrs. On May 12, 2013 they were canonized. They are now called the patron saints of Otranto.