13 August 2010


Bones of 1480, Otranto Cathedral

When I lived in Venice 12 years ago, the manuscript I was working on contained a number of references -- from 1479, 1480, 1481 -- to the seventy crossbowmen in Nauplion's Castle of the Franks who were much overdue to be paid and so who were close to starvation. They were unimportant in the manuscript as a whole, but I became fixed on the idea of these seventy hungry crossbowmen and it became very important to know who they were. Then I learned that there was a crossbow competition at San Sepulcro -- they have done this annually with another town since 1441 -- and went with delight because I could combine crossbows with Piero della Francesca.

I learned a lot about crossbows and crossbowmen that day. There were exactly seventy men in the competition, of all ages and physical types. They sat to shoot. The quarrel -- the bolt shot by the crossbow -- was terrifying. Those men gave me my seventy hungry crossbowmen, and I saw something of the period in which I was working.

Similarly, the bones of the eight hundred honored in the Cathedral of Otranto have stood witness in my mind -- quite apart from the respect due to their own history -- to the eight hundred of Davia, the  eight hundred of Methoni, the eight hundred of Negroponte. Eight hundred seems to be the chosen number for the summer executions after Ottoman victories, but when a city fell without surrender, all lives were forfeit. 

The siege began on 28 July.  Otranto had no cannon of their own for defense, but even today it
is littered with Ottoman cannon balls. They sent messengers to Ferrante of Naples asking for aid, and hunkered down.  The Ottomans offered a chance for surrender, but Otranto rejected it, filled an Ottoman messenger with a second offer with arrows, and threw the keys of the city into the sea. 

It was a very short siege. On August 14, 1480, the male survivors were executed.  Or massacred.  Or martyred.  These eight hundred have since been honored as martyrs who refused to exchange their religion for their lives.  John Paul II beatified the eight hundred there on this day in 1980, and in 2007 Benedict XVI formally authenticated their martyrdom.

According to the story, an elderly tailor named Antonio Primaldo, was the first to die.  A renegade priest in the employ of the Ottomans tried to persuade Primaldo  to convert, but he refused with a terrific speech.  Thus, all eight hundred males over the age of 15 were condemned to decapitation.  It would be a much more moving story did it not include the detail that when Primaldo was decapitated his corpse stood up, headless, and remained standing through the next 799 decapitations.

As a historian, I am uneasy with elements of the martyrdom because of what I think know about the Ottomans in the period of Mehmed II. I have neither the language competence nor the time to do the research I would like. The story is said to come from Francesco Cerra, one of four surviving eyewitnesses. The heroism of Otranto was magnificent and the story deserves honor as it stands.  Martyrdom gives meaning to the unbearable and I will not take away meaning from this extraordinary chapel and these bones.

Otranto was retaken a year and a month later, on 13 September 1481.  The brothers and relatives and friends of the eight hundred sorted through what the birds and the dogs had left. It must have been nearly unbearable.  The account of martyrdom made their work possible. Most of the bones retrieved were saved in the cathedral, some were sent to King Ferrante of Naples.  These are the bones in the picture above, three great cases heavy with them. Tourist information calls them "spooky," "Gothic," "gruesome." For these bones, such words are obscenities.

When we visited in January 2005, we spent a long time with the bones.  It was easy to spot wounds and fractures in skulls, smashed jaws, damage from abscesses, and after a while we were able to work out faces, some older, some very young. We were surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses to 14 August 1480, and we stood among them as witnesses ourselves.

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