It’s easy to get to the town by train from Bari or Brindisi. The nearest airport, Brindisi, is just 94 km away. There is a ferry service to and from Greece from the harbour.
Otranto and its history
In the early Middle Ages the town was one of the most important strongholds for Byzantine dominion in Italy and it even had a Greek bishop. The first known bishop was from the 6th century, but we assume there was an Episcopal residence here long before this. From the 9th century, the diocese referred to Constantinople and the town had Orthodox bishops up until the 11th century, when it came under the Roman church.
The Lombard era was extremely short-lived here as it only lasted two years from 757-758, until the Byzantines regained control of the town. When Byzantine dominion in Southern Italy shrivelled until it only covered the very tip of the Salento peninsular, Otranto became its capital and military centre.
Vulnerable as it was, Otranto was frequently attacked by Saracens. Along with Bari and Taranto, Otranto was one of the final bastions in the Byzantine battle against the Normans. The town finally surrendered in 1070, to none less than Robert Guiscard himself. In the 11th to 12th centuries, Otranto experienced a time of prosperity thanks to the many Venetian, Dalmatian and Eastern tradesmen who settled in the town and, naturally, because of the crusades. But the town entered a recession in the 13th century, because it was out competed by neighbouring towns.
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In 1480, the town was besieged by the Turkish navy of Muhammed II, who had become involved in the war between the Aragons and Venetians, and, since promised relief from Naples never materialised, the town had to capitulate to the Turks after just two weeks. This was a huge mistake. On the 12th August, much of the population was massacred by the Turks – spreading terror throughout Europe – and influencing its art (Matteo di Giovanni’s “Strage degli Innocenti" in Santa Maria dei Servi in Siena is a fine example). First the bishop was butchered, then the clergy and then all the inhabitants who had sought refuge in the cathedral, then many more – estimates say the death toll reached 12,000. On the 14th August, all of the 800 prisoners who had survived and refused to convert were executed on the nearby Colle di Minerva. Strangely enough, a monument to these martyrs was not erected until over 400 years later in 1922.
The following year, the Duke of Calabria, Alfonso I, son of Ferdinando I, resumed control of the town, which was thoroughly fortified. The town subsequently suffered Turkish siege several times (1537 and 1638), but it never again fell into their hands of the infidels.
Otranto never really recovered from the 1480 massacre and went into decline. The harbour lay deserted as the people left in droves. At the same time the coastal area, which had hitherto been cultivated, turned to swamp and became infested with malaria. It was only in the 20th century that the area was drained and cultivated once more. Today, Otranto is a charming town with lots of restaurants and small shops. The cathedral, particularly its mosaic floor, is well worth the price of the entry fee and the long walk up.
The Santa Maria Annunziata Cathedral
The foundations were laid in 1080, but only the crypt dates back to this time. The church itself was built in the second half of the12th century but it was necessary to rebuild parts of it after the Turkish invasion. The church still honours the memory of the many martyrs of 1480. Recent restorations have resulted in the removal of Baroque features, which were added in the 17th and 18th centuries but the facade still has a solid Baroque portal from 1674, and above it there is a wonderful Gothic rose window with 16 ‘rays’ from the end of the 15th century.
The pride of the church is the enormous mosaic floor, which depicts various scenes including the Tree of Life. It covers large parts of the floor and was made between 1163 and 1166 by the monk Pantaleone. Besides the Tree of Life, a selection of biblical and other scenes are depicted in white on black. These include the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood, the Fall of Man, Cain and Abel, the Queen of Sheba, knight motifs from the Carolingian and Breton cycles (King Arthur), mythological motifs (Diana, Arion on a dolphin) and depictions of various animals.
But above all the cathedral is dedicated to the martyrs of 1480. In a side chapel, Cappella dei Martiri, you can find the skeletons of over 500 of them. Why not more, the question begs. Because 240 of them were transported to Naples on the orders of Alfonso of Aragon. But the cathedral has retained the majority, and if this isn’t enough, we can also find the grisly pièce de résistance under the altar of the side chapel: the stone on which the martyrs were beheaded.
Of greater artistic interest, if not of equal sentimental value, is the crypt. It is unusually large: five naves completed by three semicircular apses and a veritable forest of 42 columns. These columns are crowned by a variety of capitals, some antique, others Byzantine (6th century and later) and a few Roman. On the walls are fragments of frescos, mostly in Byzantine style.
This little church, dedicated to Saint Peter, is of Byzantine origin from the 10th to 11th century. It is possibly the town’s first cathedral. It is shaped in the form of a Greek cross (all arms of equal length) contained in a square and has three semicircular apses. The interior is simple and beautiful with clean lines and various frescos.
This five-sided fortress was built as a reaction to the Turkish invasion. Work on the fortress began in 1485 on the initiative of Ferdinando I of Aragon, and it was already completed by 1498. The citadel was most probably built on a previous one dating from the time of Frederik II. The fortress has three round towers in the corners and external bastions facing the sea.