Chapter 2: the fall of Otranto
The sky was of a gleaming blue, unbearable. Francesco Zurlo, chief of the castle garrison, was on the ramparts when he noticed a dark image on the sea, coming from East. The sunshine wasn't of help but certainly he had never seen such a big fleet. Venetians? Neapolitans? Everyone but not Infidels, he thought with a quick tremble going down to the stomach. In the meantime, few women were leaving the church after the end of the tertia mass. Obviously, men were in the fields working out the foodstuff for their subsistence. Just after the end of the mass, Don Stefano Pendinelli, Archbishop of Otranto, took his tunic off to his young helper Pietro accompanying it with these words of scrupulous affection:
Archbishop Stefano – "Dear Pietro, now you have to choose: you are no more a child. Our castellan Francesco Zurlo promised his brother's attention on your application to the Dominicans' seminary in Lecce. Your father, may he rest in peace, would have been very happy to see you entering that sanctuary of Faith and Culture".
Pietro – "Uncle, you already know how much love I store in my heart for you. You have been my only relief after my parents died. And I have been considering very carefully my future with the Dominicans…but…I won't apply there. It's probably the best place I could find, I know, now that Naples has closed its gates to our count. Yet, I wish I could become one of his bailiffs someday. Do you remember Messer Carlo's disgraceful olive trees? He is saying Count Raimondo sent him an expert, actually he uses the term "agronomist", that has taught him how to increase the oil yield from those doomed shrubs. I could study …"
Archbishop Stefano – "SHUT UP! You and your vile jobs! Are you joking me? You'll apply to the Dominicans! Anyway, we'll resume later this matter"
The Archbishop couldn't imagine they wouldn't have had the opportunity to finish their discussions. Despite the castellan's wishes, those vessels off shore were actually Turkish. And that day was 28th July 1480, the day God and men left alone Otranto. Gedik Ahmed Pasha was commanding the countless fleet with thousands and thousands of men on board. The vessels started to bombard the town and few hours later the first Janissaries were landing presumably here:
(a beach called today Turks' Bay, near Otranto)
Helped by so many hours of daylight, the cannonade went on and intensified during late afternoon. By then, hundreds of Christians – out of a total populace of nearly 20.000 inhabitants – had been killed. When night finally came over the wretched town and the bombardment was suspended, Francesco Zurlo reorganised Otranto's defence. As many residents as possible were displaced into the citadel, shielded by the remnants of the walls and the small garrison under his command. Taking advantage of the darkness, the chieftain sent out six scouts: two in the direction of Lecce with a urgent message for Count Raimondo, four surveying the surroundings in search of those Turks gone ashore in the afternoon. Both missions were successful. Count Raimondo was soon aware of what was going to happen to one of his richest fiefs, but cunningly disguised to Zurlo's envoys how much reluctant he was to throw himself in a wild rash against the overwhelming army of the Infidels leaving undefended the rest of the region. The scouts sent north and south to survey the coastline (an old scheme, hoping to get back for reporting at least one for each pair) came back at dawn with discomforting news.
Scout – "Ser Francesco, they have camped near the twin lakes. There wasn't much movement among the tents when it was dark. With the first lights three groups of horsemen left the camp. Each one was composed of some fifty units, moving towards North, South and East".
Francesco Zurlo – "Damned Mohammedans, they sent probably some explorers around. But the size of the groups suggests me they are going to sack everything they find on their way: there shouldn't be a reason for sending explorers in dozens… Now, we should prepare to defend the town"
Zurlo didn't mistake. By midday the horde stormed on Otranto. Great part of the town was already deserted, because the Archbishop and the castellan had agreed to give shelter to the residents in the citadel. Those who weren't able to find a refuge were simply butchered. Still, there were no signs of friendly armies: with Count Raimondo incapable to match the Turks, the last hopes were placed on Duke Alfonso, elder son of King Ferrante and heir to the throne. But he didn't come. Since then on, the fall of Otranto was only a matter of time, not so much time…
11th August 1480
With full control on the town and nobody over the horizon, Ahmed Pasha had an easy task with the siege. The citadel, crowded with thousands of displaced persons, had been bombarded at full strength for two weeks. Finally, on 11 August the Ottoman forces launched the assault to the stronghold. The garrison faced heroically the enemies as much as it could. Francesco Zurlo fell at the gates with his men, beastly severed in two parts, while the Turks entered the town from all sides. The onslaught lasted an entire day: when the sun went down, 12.000 Christians had been murdered, 5.000 captured and destined to a life of slavery. As a sign of affront towards Christ, Ahmed Pasha ordered to use the cathedral as a stable for his horses.
The day after, he asked his soldiers to gather in front of him all the surviving Christians.
Gedik Ahmed Pasha – "I want to give you, hopeless sons of the Roman Pope, an opportunity to save your own life: convert to the one true faith, the one of Muhammad, and you will be allowed to come back home alive. Marvel at the magnanimity of Muhammad's champions and blame to your paltry Christian King, who has not protected you"
Archbishop Stefano – "LEAVE US TO OUR DEATH, HEATEN! We are not scared of your assassins and God is waiting for us in Heaven, a place where you never will be accepted!"
Gedik Ahmed Pasha – "Is this your last word, pastor? Would you die for your arrogant God! I second your will: our slayers are going to send all of you to your Heaven!"
In few minutes the slayers arrived on the hill where Ahmed Pasha and the prisoners were. They took the Archbishop and all those Christians and decapitated them one after the other on a rock. Their bones now rest in the Cathedral of Otranto, they're called the 800s Martyrs.
Pietro Pendinelli managed to escape such massacre with a friend. Thanks to a horse found in the evening before, they left the town towards the interior of the province, without knowing where they were headed. His apprehension was constantly aimed to his uncle Stefano and yet he was happy for having avoided a terrible death. On their way they crossed few rural communities, warning their inhabitants of the upcoming threat. Then they reached Lecce and finally found someone determined to take the arms against the Turks to defend their homelands.
The renewal of the Christians
The rest of the picture is (almost) real story. Left undefended Otranto, the small forces of the Count of Lecce dealt with the subsequent raids of the Infidels for the remainder of the good season, without any help from King Ferrante and his son Alfonso, Duke of Calabria and crown prince. Despite the lack of numbers to try to regain the town, Count Raimondo managed to avoid the loss of other districts. Actually, Ahmed Pasha was also scared of leaving the coastline with a force capable to take over Lecce, at risk of losing its newly conquered port. His incursions sacked other small towns, but saved the big ones and proved to be quite ineffective for either resupplying purposes or Christians' discouragement. Raimondo was particularly busy on this front, moving from one town to the other, everywhere the Turkish menace came into view along the region. Anyway, time passed by in favour of the Christian side, because in October 1480 Ahmed Pasha came back in the Balkans and left in Otranto a garrison of a thousand men.
During the following winter the Christian front recouped his determination, whereas the Turkish garrison lost his own waiting for reinforcements that never came, because in the meantime Mehmed II had died and a furious civil war between his two sons held back Ahmed Pasha on the other side of the sea. Finally in April 1481 Duke Alfonso arrived in Lecce with his army and took under his command a Count Raimondo and his men, moving on Otranto. Raimondo didn't feel to be so proud of that man, who had guiltily come nine months after the landing only to gain his glory as the "champion that regained Otranto", but in any case accepted his authority. The siege was started on 1st May by land and by sea. Siege machines were put around the town under the supervision of the renowned military engineer Ciro Ciri. The citadel was bombarded – again – for days and days but the small garrison stood firm inside what remained of the walls. The siege lasted until September 1481, when finally the Turkish battalion surrendered to the Neapolitan army and Count Raimondo could regain possession of the ruined town. As expected, the military glory went to Duke Alfonso. But people's gratefulness went to his vassal, who had contained with few means the Infidels until the arrival of the royal army. Thus ended the epopee of Otranto. And started that of Raimondo…