Marco Polo, a famous Medieval traveller, merchant and writer, was one of the first Europeans to visit China and travel the Silk Road. He did not only travel to China, but he was an honourable guest in mighty Kublai Khan’s court, and had a rare opportunity to experience life in the vast Mongol Empire.
Although Marco was born in Medieval Venice, researchers have found evidence that his family might have originated from the Island of Korčula, in Croatia.
Korčula has been known by many different names throughout history – the Greeks called it Korkyra Melaina, Latin speaking inhabitants named it Corcyra Nigra and Italians, in this case Venetians, called it Curzola.
Situated in the southern Adriatic, in Croatian region of Dalmatia, the town of Korčula is one of the oldest settlements in Croatia.
In Medieval times, the whole of Dalmatia along with the islands was threatened by the Venetian Republic, that was to became the most powerful and influential state in the Mediterranean.
The Island of Korčula was in great peril. Strategically very well positioned, connecting important maritime trade routes, it was a desirable target to the Venetian Republic.
In order to resist the Venetian intentions of conquest, the Croatian population on the Island of Korčula adopted its communal statute in 13th century, one of the oldest of its kind in Europe.
This document protected the autonomy of Korčula and enabled its citizens to live in relative prosperity and peace, as well as travel and explore the rest of Europe and the world.
Marco Polo was born in 1254 to a wealthy Venetian merchant family. Although it’s generally regarded that Marco was born in Venice, some historical records tell a different story: there is evidence to suggest that he was born in the Medieval city of Korčula, from where it is believed that the Polo family originated from.
The street where the alleged Marco Polo’s birth house is situated today corresponds with the area that used to belong to the Polo family during the Medieval period. There is no scientific consensus on the etymology of the surname; its origin might be Slavic.
The “Pol“ is a regional term for a certain bird species in this part of Dalmatia. This theory is supported by the fact that the Polo family’s coat of arms has four of those types of birds on it.
The Polo family is, even today, very respected in Korčula. Over time, this family had produced numerous shipbuilders, smiths, stone-masons, tradesmen, priests, and public notaries.
The Polo family were guardians of the walls around the town of Korčula. Marco’s father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo started their business here; but Korčula was only the starting point for their prosperous career.
They set off on a trading voyage before Marco’s birth, visiting Constantinople, then the capital of the Latin Empire, built on remains of declining Byzantium.
Marco was educated well, usual for youngsters descending from noble families of that period. He spoke Italian and French, learned book keeping, but he also learned about writers from the Ancient world, studied the Bible and learned about basic Catholic theology.
It is also very probable that Marco spoke, or, at least understood, Croatian. Being multilingual would help him later on his travels.
Together with his father and uncle, Marco embarked on a journey to Asia. Thanks to many adventures he had been through on his travels and everything he saw, Marco was able to describe the Orient more accurately to the Western world.
Thus, he and his father and uncle were one of the first people to “open” this part of the world to the then secluded Europeans. Describing his hardships in Gobi desert, Marco wrote:
“This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end … at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.”
After 24 years of travelling, they returned to Venice, and found it at war with Genoa. This was when Marco was imprisoned, sharing the cell with his future biographer, Rustichello da Pisa. Marco told him about his adventures and Rustichello, who happened to be a writer, wrote it down. The book was titled “The Travels of Marco Polo”.
In 2011, a museum dedicated to the Venetian explorer in the Chinese city of Yangzhou was opened by the former president of Croatia, Stjepan Mesic. This wasn’t very well received by the Italians; the British newspaper the Telegraph wrote that “Italians have reacted with fury to an attempt by Croatia to claim the legendary explorer Marco Polo was one of their own“.
Whatever the truth, one thing is for sure: when you’re in Korčula, you can pay a visit to Marco’s house. Make sure you don’t miss it!
Do you think Marco Polo was Croatian? Let us know in the comments below!