(Written by Gian Antonio Stella, taken from the newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, April 22, 2011.)
The HINA press agency reports that former Croatian president Stjepan Mesić has inaugurated a museum dedicated to Marko Polo in the Chinese city of Yangzhou. That’s right, “Marko” Polo with a “k”. Mr. Mesić paid solemn tribute to the “Croatian-born world traveller who opened China to Europe” and, apparently, the Chinese applauded. If ever proof were needed that the Italian authorities don’t know what they are doing, this is it. How could they possibly let anyone kidnap Marco Polo? Yet the myth of the Venetian trader and traveller’s “Croatianness” is not new. According to Alvise Zorzi, who has written a shelf’s worth of books on Venice, including one on Marco Polo, traces the story back to another legend, which claims that the Venetian traveller was captured by the Genoese in a sea battle in 1298 near the island of Curzola – “Korčula” in Croatian – off the Dalmatian coast. Zorzi dismisses this version: “It seems more likely that on one of his travels, Marco Polo ended up in the hands of the Genoese off the coast of Cilicia at Laiazzo [today Ayas in Turkey – Trans.]”.
This, however, is not the point. Even if Marco Polo had by some chance been born at Curzola (Italo Calvino was born in Havana but no one would dream of calling him a “Cuban writer”), the island that Croatians now call “Korčula” was culturally Venetian, as is obvious from the old town, the Marcian Lions over the doors and the cathedral of St. Mark. In fact, it was held in fief by the Zorzi family until the fifteenth century.
To claim that Marco Polo, or indeed any other resident of Curzola at that time, was Croatian simply because the island is in Croatia today, is to stretch history perilously far. By the same token, the ancient episcopate of Thagaste in Numidia is today called Souk Ahras, and is located in Algeria, so St. Augustine was an Algerian philosopher. Septimius Severus, born in Roman Leptis Magna, a short distance from modern-day Al Khums in Tripolitania, would be a Tripolitanian emperor while Justinian was born in what is now Zelenikovo in Macedonia, so he would be Macedonian, or if you like Turkish, since he governed from the present-day Istanbul. To say nothing of the well-known French patriot, Nice-born Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Ridiculous. As if that wasn’t enough, Zorzi goes on, Marco Polo never mentions Curzola in Il Milione. He dictated his memoirs while languishing in a Genoese prison to Rustichello da Pisa, a composer of chivalrous romances, which at that time were written in langue d’oïl (as was Marco Polo’s book, originally entitled Le livre de Marco Polo citoyen de Venise, dit Million, où l’on conte les merveilles du monde). Moreover, Curzola is nowhere mentioned in the Polo family archives in Venice.
There is plenty of archive material – births, deaths, marriages, wives, wills and so on – from which to trace the impeccably Venetian roots of the Polo family, which was almost certainly resident in the San Trovaso district. All you want.
How is it then possible that the Croatian president, if we do not wish to question the Hina agency story picked up by the Rijeka/Fiume-based Italian-language newspaper, La voce del popolo, was invited by the Chinese authorities to inaugurate a museum to the Venetian traveller at Yangzhou, where Marco Polo tells us he was an administrator for the emperor, Kublai Khan, and some years later the missionary Odorico da Pordenone would also reside? How is it possible that the Italian government and diplomatic service allowed someone as incredibly famous among the Chinese as the author of Il Milione to slip through their fingers, to the possible detriment of friendly relations, commerce and tourism? With all due respect for Stjepan Mesić, can we condone his going to China and thanking his hosts for the honour of inaugurating a museum dedicated “to a Croatian-born world traveller who opened China to Europe, and who with his writings also reawakened Europe’s interest in China”? Let us leave to one side nationalist resentment and rancour over the expulsion of 350,000 Italians from Istria, Dalmatia and the Quarnero. We have already seen, in the former Yugoslavia, what hate can do if its flames are fanned. That’s how it went. End of story. Yet the Yangzhou snub is merely the latest in a long line of “misappropriations” by Zagreb of a cultural heritage that does not belong to Croatia.
Take, for example, the tourist brochures of Spalato, in which Croatian nationalists rechristened the Lion of St. Mark a “post-Illyrian Lion”. The same goes for the “tweaked” memorandum given to John Paul II for his 1988 visit to Dalmatia, which prompted the pontiff to say that “Spalato and Salona have special significance for the development of Christianity in this region, starting from the Croatian age and then in the subsequent Roman period,” as if the Slavs hadn’t arrived in the seventh and eighth centuries but a thousand years earlier. Above all, it goes for the exhibition in the Vatican library inaugurated for the 2000 Jubilee by Franjo Tudjman, who in his effort to obliterate any memory of Venetian-Italian culture called Marco Polo “Croatian by descent and by birth”.
The exhibition was entitled “Religious Art and Croatian Faith”. But, despite their attempt to pass off the Venetian Basilica of Parenzo as a “high expression of Croatian art”, the Croatian professor Miljenko Domijan, one of the coordinators, admitted to “Novi List” that the claim was a stretch.
Indeed, admitted the scholar, the exhibition labeled as “Croatian” many works by men of Italian culture: “We didn’t have a choice, because the works produced by men of Croatian ethnicity have little value. I don't know what we would be able to show, all of it would be inferior.” The portrait of the bishop of Spalato by Lorenzo Lotto, a Pietà by Tintoretto, a silver bust of St. Stephen by a goldsmith of Rome, a statue of St. Giovanni da Traù by the Tuscan Niccolò Fiorentino, the ark of St. Simon by Francesco da Milano (renamed “Franjo iz Milana” by the Croats), a painting by Carpaccio, the plans and documents of the Cathedral of Zara in Pisan style, and the Cathedral of Sebenico built by Giorgio Orsini da Zara (renamed, of course, Juraj Dalmatinac) were all Croatized...