The Church of Saint Anthony (Chiesa di Sant’Antonio) and the adjoining convent were erected at the end of the 15th century by the Observant Friars under “la protezione di Santa Maria della Grazie” or the protection of Holy Mary of Grace, as can be read on the scroll found in the courtyard adjacent to the sacristy, which also indicates the year of construction “SUB TUTELA S. MARIAE GRATIARUM IN FUND. ERECTUS A.D. 1497 “.
In front of the convent, in the space currently belonging to the Villa Comunale, or the Municipal Villa, the friars also established a cemetery where they themselves took care of the burial of the dead. It was the residents of Martina who identified the convent with the name of the place in which it was built, an area named after the main entrance to the village: the Arch of Santo Stefano, the main access to the urban aggregate. After receiving the papal authorization, the name remained so until the end of the 19th century, after which the church was officially dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua.
Both the church and the adjoining convent suffered profound alterations over the course of time; the façade of the Church was completely rebuilt in 1835 in a neoclassical style. The bell tower that stands on the left of the façade was recently restored, returning its original beauty and simplicity. The interior of the three-nave church has two rows of mighty stone columns with pointed arches, the capitals of which are decorated with acanthus leaves and lion heads in a late gothic style, perfectly preserved in their original state. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, the interior space underwent expansion of the left nave, losing the volumetric symmetry typical of medieval churches. The cloister frescoes added in the first half of the 18th century depict scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the city of San Martino and Santa Comasia, and St. Anthony of Padua who was also named patron saint in 1531 for the legendary events that occurred during the Cappelletti siege.
At the time of Charles V, the Kingdom of Naples was claimed by the French Crown which hired fearsome mercenary soldiers of Balkan origin, known as Cappelletti, for this purpose. The Cappelletti, after the sacking of Monopoli and Noci, went to Martina and, intending to conquer the city, settled in the Convent, hoisting their defensive banner on the church bell tower. The citizens of Martina remained closed within the walls trying to repel the Cappelletti attacks by throwing stones, burning embers, and boiling oil from the top. After several days of siege, when the people were exhausted, the archpriest Don Bernardo Angelini invoked the help of the patron saint,
placing the keys of the city gates in the hands of the statue of St. Martin on the main altar of the church.
Legend has it that on the walls of the city a large cavalry with weapons and white garments miraculously appeared, incited by a bold commander: it was St. Martin, rushing to save his city, followed by St. Anthony of Padua. It was June 16, 1529: the terrified Cappelletti ran away and Martina was saved. In memory of this miracle the statue of St. Martin was placed on the Arch of Saint Stephen and St. Anthony was acclaimed as the third patron saint of the city.
This article has been translated by Kelly Gonzalez, enrolled in the second year Italian course at CLIC Center for Languages and Intercultural Communication, Rice University, Houston, Texas