Post-classical history

Otranto, Capture of (1480)

The capture of Otranto, a city in Apulia in the kingdom of Naples, by an Ottoman naval expedition, caused consternation in the Christian West and intensified calls for a crusade against the Turks.

In the summer of 1480 the Ottoman fleet set sail from Vlorë in Albania under the command of Gedik Ahmed Pafla, described by Giovanni Albino Lucano, author of an account of the Ottoman invasion from around 1495, as “the most famous Admeto” [Gli Umanisti e la guerra otrantina, p. 54]. Watched by the Venetians, who made no move to interfere, the Ottoman fleet crossed to the Apulian coast and landed near Otranto. Advancing toward the city, the Ottomans took between 600 and 700 prisoners and shipped them off to il Gran Turco (the Ottoman sultan) according to Ilarion of Verona, who wrote a letter to Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, cardinal of Siena, in the autumn of 1480 describing the fall of the city. Rejecting the Ottoman call to surrender, the few, poorly armed defenders dug in. Pounded by the Ottoman cannon, Otranto fell on 11 August. Many of its citizens were slaughtered and the city pillaged. Estimates of the exact size of the Ottoman forces vary in contemporary Italian accounts: Ilarion gives figures of 20,000 soldiers and 200 to 500 ships, while others give lower figures.

After the conquest, the Ottomans strengthened the city’s defenses and raided the surrounding countryside, attacking Lecce, Brindisi, and Taranto. Ottoman success terrified the Italians, and some feared the fall of the kingdom of Naples or even of the whole of Italy to the Ottomans. Ferrante, the king of Naples, sent an army in September 1480 that prevented further Ottoman advance, and leaving a small garrison in Otranto, the main Ottoman forces sailed back to Vlorë. Ferrante demanded an Ottoman surrender and the payment of compensation for the damage inflicted on the kingdom of Naples. This was rejected by the Ottomans, who instead proposed peace based on retention of Otranto and secession of Brindisi, Lecce, and Taranto. To back up their demands, the Ottomans threatened a major invasion of Italy the following year if Ferrante did not comply. Ferrante appealed to Pope Sixtus IV and the other Italian powers for help. Amid an upsurge of crusader spirit in face of this infidel danger very close to home, an alliance between the pope, the dukes of Milan and Ferrara, the kings of Naples and Hungary, Genoa, and Florence (but without Venice) was concluded in September 1480. The pope extended his calls for a crusade. France was willing to join, but England was not. In the face of this mounting hostility, the Ottomans, unable to maintain their hold on the Italian mainland, withdrew in 1481.

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