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  • Writer's pictureMark Tedesco

Our Italian Adventure: Spotlight on the Skulls of Otranto

PART 49: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.

We live in Puglia in the Summer and then back again in the winter.

Step 1: As we explore towns in Puglia, we discover some fascinating stories behind what we see. Some stories are connected to a building; other times, to a piece of art. This week we will look deeper into the skulls and bones stored in cases in the side chapel of the Cathedral of Otranto.

Come with us.

Step 2: What?

I'm not into skeletons. I lived in Rome for eight years and never went to the "Bone church." I'm not frightened of human skeletons; I am just not interested in seeing them as a tourist attraction.

But when we went to the Cathedral of Otranto to see the 1000-year-old "Tree of Life" floor, I was drawn to the side chapel, which houses bones, behind glass, and a stone, under an altar. I was intrigued because behind these remains is a story.

In the 1400s, the Ottoman Empire expanded; in 1480, 120 Ottoman ships landed in Otranto. Their goal was to conquer and use the city to control southern Italy, slowly working their way up to Rome. Around the same time, the Ottomans attacked Vieste, Taranto, and Brindisi.

20,000 Ottoman Turks invaded and sacked Otranto that year, burning, destroying, and looting the city. They killed about 12,000 residents and sold about 5000 women and children into slavery.

The remnants of this attack are the canon balls strewn throughout the city today.

But 813 men and the bishop were hiding in the crypt of the cathedral of Otranto. They were eventually discovered, taken into custody, and given the choice to convert or be executed. The local tailor, Antonio Primaldo, stood up and said: "We believe in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and are ready to die for him a thousand times."

Primaldo was the first to be executed (beheaded), followed by all the others, and their bodies were dumped and remained unburied on Minerva Hill (now called Martyrs Hill), for more than a year, until September 13, 1481, when the army of Prince Alfonso of Aragon recaptured Otranto. The remains were subsequently taken to the cathedral, where a chapel was built in 1711 to the right of the main altar. Most of the bones were placed in glass cases behind the altar (which can be seen today). The stone below the altar is said to be where they were beheaded.

During the occupation, the Ottomans badly damaged the cathedral; they used it for everything, from a mosque to a stable. When the city was re-taken, the rose window and some of the 12th-century frescoes in the crypt were eventually restored along with the unique Norman mosaic floor, considered one of the most important examples of 12th-century art.

Today the cathedral stands as a monument to art, history, culture, and also to the faith of these men.

Step 3: Why?

Why is this story important or even interesting?

The bones of the martyrs of Otranto are fascinating because they testify to both intolerance and the fortitude of the human spirit.

On the one hand, the bones in the chapel of Otranto remind me that I am not immune to intolerance when faced with those who are different in their beliefs, lifestyle, appearance, or culture. On the other hand, the bones remind me of "legacy" since these men would have been forgotten by history if they hadn't affirmed their beliefs in the face of adversity.

Insights: As I wander through the beautiful streets of Otranto and look at the shops and cool restaurants, I usually stumble across at least one or two canon balls lodged in the stones. They remind me that Otranto is more than cute shops and fascinating architecture; the city's history includes cannon balls, defensive systems, and a burial area in the cathedral.

When I see the bones of the martyrs of Otranto, I am not just looking at human remains but at the stories of 813 people, with their individual histories and backgrounds, whose lives converged at the same point on that day.

Their bones tell a story to the visitor willing to look, pause and reflect.

More next time.

My book is "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy." Amazon US:

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Thank you for this history lesson about the Cathedral Otranto. Visiting a place and being able to connect to its history makes it so much more enjoyable and intriguing. I always enjoy learning about the people who occupied this place and time. Your insights are priceless!

Mark Tedesco
Mark Tedesco

Thank you so much! Teaching high school history for 25 years taught me that it is the story behind something/someone that brings it to life and makes it interesting.

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