In Venetian history

Marco Polo is one of those characters a tourist guide in Venice will always mention. Born in Venice in 1254, Marco Polo accompanied his father and his uncle when he was only 17 and reached Asia where he lived for several years. Diplomat on behalf of Kublai Khan. Accompanying the Mongolian princess Kököchin to her future husband in Persia. Diplomat on behalf of the Pope. Getting back to Venice to be then caught by the Genoese in a naval battle, dictating his memories to Rustichello from Pisa. And finally, passing away on January 9th in 1324 in Venice where he was buried in the church of San Lorenzo.

Kublai Khan in the edition by Scrinium of Marco Polo’s Will, 2017

Marco Polo: between the game in the pool and the fake news in Croatia

Many years ago when giving my first tours to some groups of North American students I remember some giggling from the back when I mentioned Marco Polo in Corte del Milion, where his house used to be. I thought I was making some funny mistake, or that I said something wrong… so one day, after the nth time I heard my group reacting in a funny way, I asked what was going on and they explained, “We play Marco Polo in the pool”. A water game I had never heard of, and it sounded great fun 🙂 A player, blind folded, cries “Marco!”, the other players reply “Polo!” And just hearing “polo”, the blind folded one needs to understand where the others are and catch them.

You can find another Marco Polo, slightly differently spelled, as a brand for casual wear, originally founded in Sweden in 1967 and now present in over 40 countries. You will look cool when wearing Marco Polo contemporary clothing.

The case of Marko Polo from Korčula: “invented tradition” for just touristic reasons?

But the most interesting thing is what you can find in the town of Korčula, on the homonymous island. In 2010 the Tourism Board of this Croatian island printed 15,000 leaflets and posted online information describing Croatia as homeland of Marco Polo (spelled as Marko), supposedly born in Korčula. In this town, you can find Marco Polo’s home, the reenactment of Marco Polo’s naval battle, Marco Polo restaurants, display of items of the lifetime of Marco Polo, even streets designed as in the 14th century to create Marco Polo’s urban atmosphere. 

As Croatian researcher Olga Orlić beautifully explained in her essay “The curious case of Marco Polo from Korcula” for the Journal of Marine and Island Cultures, it is a case of pure falsification, you could almost say it is a theft of heritage, an “invented tradition whose truthfulness is not overtly questioned because its tourist potential is considered useful”.

It turned also useful for nationalistic purposes —a hero is always a hero—, but also to boast European roots for Croatia, striving to be viewed as a European land.  

Now, even when you read that Marco Polo was caught by the Genoese in a naval battle near Korčula, that is not true either. As the battle where he was taken as a war prisoner took place in Yumurtalk, in the gulf of Alexandretta, Southern Anatolia, nowadays Turkey.

Not just Marco Polo

Well, how many will go to Verona to see Juliet’s balcony and yet, how can they believe it is the real balcony of a fictional character? By the way, in Venice you can also find Desdemona and Othello’s houses, but somehow their aura and fame have not spread that much. I wonder why. 

Not to mention how many of the paintings in the Doge’s palace in Venice tell about battles which Venetians won, but likely never took place or when in fact Venetians lost. 

What you can see in Venice related to Marco Polo

Fake news exists and if we really are eager to contrast it, there is only one way: promoting and supporting a different viewpoint, possibly claiming to be authoritative. In fact, what can we see in Venice that informs visitors it was Venice the homeland of Marco Polo?

Remains of byzantine house in Corte Seconda del Milion in Venice, 13th century

“Nizioleto” mentioning Marco Polo by the Malibran Theatre in Venice

A plaque on the Malibran Theatre and the burial in San Lorenzo Church

Marco Polo is just mentioned on the back of the Maria Malibran opera house in a stone plaque. The theatre was in fact built where his house used to be before a fire destroyed it at the end of the 16th century. Across the “sotoportego” though, you reach Corte prima and Corte seconda del Milion where still some remains of that Byzantine house are visible. And they shamefully lie covered in graffitis. 

Arch by the Corte Seconda del Milion in Venice, 13th century

Graffiti covering an ancient column in Corte Seconda del Milion, 2024

A simple plaque is also the way the City Council of Venice remembers another famous Venetian, a lady —her name was Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia. Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia graduated at the University in Padua in 1678 and her degree is the oldest in the history for a woman. Thanks God her name is long, so the plaque could not be small, otherwise who would see it? But wouldn’t you find a better way to remember what she did?

Back door of the Malibran Theatre in Venice featuring a small inscription mentioning the houses of Marco Polo, 1881

Similarly, the church of San Lorenzo where Marco Polo had his family tomb was ravaged after Napoleonic secularization edicts and Marco Polo’s ashes are gone. The church is now hosting the research centre Ocean Space founded by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation.

San Lorenzo church in Venice, its façade

Baroque altar of San Lorenzo Church in Venice

I must say I have high expectations for the temporary exhibition that the City Museums in Venice will dedicate to Marco Polo this year. If you happen to be in Venice from 6 April to 29 September, 2024, do go. Here is the link:

Marco Polo’s memories and handwritten will

But, but do you know what I like most? Well, for sure his memories. My grandfather gave me the book as a present when I was 7 years old. True, the original manuscript is lost and what we can read is the copy kept at the National Library in France, to be believed the most faithful one among the over 150 manuscripts spread around the world’s libraries. 

A fac-simile of Marco Polo’s will

However, the most touching document that says more than anything else in Venice about Marco Polo is permanently displayed in the Marciana National Library in St Mark’s square. It is Marco Polo’s will. The will was beautifully restored and in a window case we can see its fac-simile thanks to Dr. Tiziana Plebani and Scrinium publishing house.

The Fac-simile published by Scrinium of Marco Polo’s Will, Cod. Lat. V, 58 (=2437), no. 33; parchment, 1324

The original will is kept in the State Archive of Venice. It’s dated 12 July 1366. It is very rich in information. Marco Polo bequeathed all his belongings to Donata Badoèr, his wife, and to his daughters, Fantina, Bellela and Moreta. He freed his Tartar slave. He mentioned his belongings, including the precious gold “paiza” (a tablet carried by officials and envoys to signify certain privileges and authority), which he had received from Kublai Khan —so no way he didn’t go to China as someone still says!

Marco Polo’s Will, Cod. Lat. V, 58 (=2437), no. 33; parchment, 1324, Venice State Archive

For a person who traveled most of his life, crossing several countries, visiting different cities, learning about different civilizations, religions, judicial systems, what would he answer if you asked him where he is from? Likely, he would not understand the point of the question.

More than buildings in stone, therefore, it is Marco Polo’s handwriting which we can admire in Venice, his handwritten heritage. Nothing fake, terrifically real. 

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

Recommended Posts
Showing 2 comments
  • Jill Kerby

    What a terrific post about Marco Polo – thanks so much. Unfortunately I won’t see the exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, but while I am here (until March 21st) I will revisit all the places you’ve mentioned and raise a toast to Venice’s best known and most intrepid traveller. ☺️☘️

    • Reply

      Oh, thank you!!! So sorry you will miss the exhibit, but the will is beautifully displayed in the Marciana National Library together with the world map of Fra Mauro. It will be a treat. Grazie!!!

Leave a Comment