Otranto is the village where you witness the first sunrise in Italy. Here the sun rises from the sea and the show is renewed on time every day. Speaking of show in Otranto comes naturally because the town is a stage between land and sea in which the protagonists are the castle and the cathedral, each with its own role: the first of closure and defense, the second opening to the world of time.
Otranto, east of Italy
And the two symbols are in this perfect witness of their time marked by a before and after relating to the massacre that the inhabitants of Otranto suffered at the hands of the Turks in 1480, when 18,000 men aboard a fleet of several ships in command of the Admiral Gedik Ahmed Pasha besieged first and then plundered the village. The siege lasted a fortnight and the chronicles of the time report that out of a population of 20,000 people perished 12,000 and when the city was conquered 813 men older than 15 years, after refusing to convert to Islam, were beheaded hill of Minerva.
According to historians, the “sacrifice” of Otranto was necessary for the balance and structure of international politics of the time: Venice wanted to come to terms with the Ottoman Empire for control of the Adriatic Sea but also wanted to curb the power of the Aragonese on the pugliese coasts. And so Otranto was left to his destiny.
The sack has left the walls and the castle as inheritance to the village giving it the modern aspect of a fortress-city, overlooking a crystalline sea, and the right reputation of an impregnable country: after the terrible event it became a bulwark of the whole territory, ready to welcome the inhabitants of the whole area among its imposing defensive walls – as the well-prepared guide Annamaria Tarantino explained to us during the visit to the historic center.
The Aragonese Castle was built by the King of Naples Ferdinand of Aragon between 1485 and 1498 and still presents itself today as a magnificent manor from the immense mass with the mighty walls interspersed with three towers: Ippolita, Alfonsina and Duchessa.
To increase the charm of the fortress with the ramparts still perfectly preserved and passable, ideal for walks overhanging the sea caressed by the breeze, two elements.
The first is the wide and deep moat that surrounds it and that is interrupted only at the entrance by a bridge today in stone but probably at the origin drawbridge.
The second is the Torre Matta, one of the original four cylindrical towers of the castle that in the ‘500 with the advent of firearms was incorporated into a quadrangular bastion more effective in the logic of the defensive throw of the grazing type. From the upper compartment you can access directly to a full height room at the base of which you reach through a panoramic lift. The cylindrical part of the original tower has remained with a series of beautiful decorated corbels. Open to the public in December 2016, the space that was cluttered with debris and relocation material, hosts exhibitions, conferences and meetings.
Until October 30th 2018 it will be possible to admire the photographs of Carlo Toma in the exhibition “Pareidolìa: looking beyond what appears – a magic for everyone”, on the illusory perception of ancient olive trunks that involves the visitor in a fun game of interpretation and association.
The entire castle is today the most important cultural container of the city and, in addition to temporary exhibitions, it hosts the permanent “Places of prehistory” dedicated to the Grotta dei Cervi of Porto Badisco, characterized by the most important pictorial patrimony of the European Neolithic period.
If its manor represents for Otranto the post-siege and massacre, the cathedral has always been the symbol of peaceful coexistence developed in the centuries up to 1480 when it was one of the most flourishing towns of Salento, open to commerce and welcoming to people.
Witness is the beautiful mosaic floor, one of the largest that have arrived so well preserved up to us. An immense work, attributed to the monk Pantaleone and formed by 600,000 cards, representing the Tree of Life in the center of the main nave and two other smaller trees on the sides, the Redemption and the Last Judgment.
On its meaning distinguished scholars have launched into interpretations and hypotheses of the most varied. Perhaps it was thought of as an immense prayer carpet on which East and West met? Perhaps the tree is connected to the Jewish Kabbalah? It could be seen as the connection between earth and sky with two great elephants that support it because it has no roots because God has not given it that it is the principle of everything.
Many representations between branches and leaves, from the twelve zodiacal signs to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, from the construction of Noah’s ark to the story of Cain and Abel, from the Tower of Babel to the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
And still extinct creatures and bizarre monsters that speak to us of an equally extinct harmony with nature. Singular the presence of a cat with boots that along with other symbols from hidden meanings does not help to sort the skein and to unravel the true message of the mosaic still unsolved after rivers of words and pages. The most accredited hypothesis remains that of a visual document not only of intersections and exchanges between different knowledge and traditions but of an instrument aimed at teaching and educating the faithful by warning them of the profound changes of the Church in years in which, let us not forget, the schism was being witnessed between East and West. Therefore, it remains an enigma, a work that seems to have neither beginning nor end. And this could be the metaphor of its meaning.
In the cathedral is also spectacular the crypt, where you can admire as many as 72 columns with capitals all different from each other. When you descend into this space you get the impression of entering a mosque. The cathedral, moreover, collects Arabic, Romanesque and Baroque elements, emphasizing once again the crucible of cultures present in the city.
The façade is in Lecce stone and in Romanesque style, while the rose window that was built in the middle of the Renaissance has sixteen converging rays in the center and is influenced by the canons of Gothic-Arab art. The portal, of Baroque taste, was added in 1674.
Inside, the coffered gilt-style ceiling of Moorish style stands out, replacing the original trussed ceiling. In the apse of the right aisle is the Chapel of the Martyrs where the remains of the 800 victims of the Turks are kept in glass cases, while behind the altar there is the stone used for their decapitation on the hill of Minerva.
Our tour ends a few steps to meet another face of Otranto, the church of San Pietro, built between X and XI century: a Byzantine wonder that would testify the passage of the saint here on his journey to Rome.
Simple outside, it reveals in its interior precious and bright frescos with oriental motifs. Very interesting are those in the left aisle dating back to the mid-tenth century that represent a “Lavender of the feet” and a “Last Supper”.
In collaboration with Municipality of Otranto