Seven hundred years of Marco Polo

With Ina for coffee: Vicko Marelić, curator and head of the city museum of Korcula/Croatia.

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Probha Rani Das
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By Ina Stašević, Croatia, Europe: An intellectual is like an shipwrecked person who learn how to live in a certain sense with the land, not on it, not like Robinson Crusoe whose goal is to colonize his little island, but more like Marco Polo, whose sense of the marvellous never fails him, and who is always a traveller, a provisional guest, not a freeloader, conqueror, or raider.´

Edward Said, Representations of the intellectual, Reith lectures, p44, 1993.

Seven hundred years after his death, Marco Polo is still incredibly famous and captures the imagination of scientists, historians, travelers and ordinary people. An extremely interesting and intriguing lecture by Vicko Marelić, entitled "Marko Polo-homo Adriaticus", curator and head of the Korcula town museum and head of the Marco Polo heritage centre, and an excellent connoisseur of Marco Polo's legacy, was held on June 12 at the Confucius Institute of the University of Zagreb/Croatia.

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The lecture recalled the interesting encounters, events and vivid descriptions along the Silk Road that Marco Polo encountered. His records of the social, cultural and economic life of China in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) are very impressive and shed new light on the knowledge of this ancient culture. Polo was also in India, where he visited today's Tamil Nadu and Kerala between 1292 and 1294. He recorded many aspects of Indian life, the vast wealth he saw in India. 

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On this occasion, an interview was conducted with Vicko Marelić, who was born in London 41 years ago and moved to Korcula in 2020 (island and city in the Adriatic See/Croatia). He studied history and French language and literature in England and France. He is currently finishing his doctorate in history at the University of Vienna. He is the curator and head of the museum dedicated to the life of this great explorer. 

Marco Polo is one of the most famous travelers in the history of the West. The place of his birth is still debated by scholars and historians. According to some sources, he was born in Korcula in 1254 which was part of the Venetian Empire, rather like Mumbai was part of the British Empire when Salman Rushdie was born there. As the world greatest traveler, he traveled the Silk Road, the route that connected Europe with Asia, between 1271 and 1295, of which he spent 17 years in China. Both Croatia and Italy claim his inheritance. In the past, both countries proclaimed him as their greatest world traveler.

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1. In the context of historical unknowns, how was Marco Polo's birth documented?

In the year of Polo's birth in 1254, Korcula belonged to the Venetian Empire, so when it is said that Polo was born in Venice, it is considered the Venetian Empire, for which the eastern Adriatic was of capital importance. Control of Dalmatia on the Eastern Adriatic made Venice an Empire, rather like control of India made Britain an Empire. 

In scholarly debates about disputes on the Adriatic, Professor Larry Wolff, from the University of New York, who wrote a lot about Venice, especially about its connections with the eastern Adriatic, warns that one should be careful with the term Italian/Italy in that historical period. Venice is therefore an early medieval empire, while Italy and Croatia are modern states, formed in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Even the Venetian chroniclers, such as Ramusio and Barbaro, confirm that Marco Polo was born in Dalmatia, for which we also have a charter from the 14th century from Venice in which it is written that the Polo family originated from Dalmatia. Foreign sinologists, such as Frances Wood (head of the Chinese collections at the British Library) or Jonathan Clemens, also refer to this. Even the Italian encyclopedia Treccani mentions the possibility that Marco Polo was born in Korcula. Heraldic publications from Italy claim that Marco Polo was born in Korcula.

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2. Polo was the first to bring information about Asia to Europe, which was a big surprise for many. Why? What were the differences between Europe and Asia?

Paul's book mentions many exciting details related to the details of the countries and peoples of Asia. He was one of the first Europeans who had access to and insight into the Mongolian imperial court, and he so impressed Kublai Khan that the powerful emperor offered him a job in his service. As an official of the most powerful emperor in the world, he travels throughout that great empire and through his notes, remarks and comments gives an insight into a previously unknown, mysterious and wonderful Asian world. 

His ethnographic notes are still valuable today, because they described the life, customs and beliefs of the inhabitants of China and Asia at that time. Through his book, Europe could hear for the first time about exotic phenomena such as paper money, gunpowder and porcelain. Among them is the compass that Marco Polo brought from China.

3. Which model of behavior and work can be read from Marco Polo's writings, and which are extremely valuable for today's tensions between East and West?

How to travel, how to have a broader perspective, how to be metaphorically marooned, be shipwrecked, how to learn to live with the land and not on it, not like Robinson Crusoe, whose goal is to colonize his small island, but more like Marco Polo, whose sense of the miraculous never leaves him, because he is always a traveler and a guest, never an intruder, a conqueror or a robber.

4. What is the global significance of Marco Polo?

Polo is one of the few people from the Middle Ages that everyone in the world has heard of. His book is to travel writers and journalists what Herodotus' Historia is to history and Machiavelli's Il Principe is to political science.

Returning to the backward society of medieval Europe, full of knowledge about the civilization called Cathay, where prosperity, knowledge and culture marked everyday life, Marco Polo first freed European medieval society from the shackles of ignorance. He bequeathed a whole series of new knowledge to his members, which later became the inspiration for the flourishing of European culture, which is known to us as the Renaissance.

His travelogues encouraged traders from the West to take over from the Arab world the trading of spices that Marco Polo introduced them to, which laid the foundations of European commercial prosperity. These signposts also led Christopher Columbus to head into the setting sun in search of an easier route to the treasures of Cathay, and unknowingly he stumbled upon America.

Columbus's copy of the "Book of Wonders of the World" is one of five facsimiles located in the Marco Polo Center, with visible 366 notes that the Genoese sailor, of Portuguese education and Spanish fame, wrote, dreaming of those roofs of gold and other abundant wealth in the Far East. Marco Polo helps Columbus discover a new world through the book. He teaches us the value of reading, which allows us the capacity to constantly discover new worlds and broaden our horizons.

5. Today, China wants to renew the cooperation of the countries along the former Silk Road. What has their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) brought from 2013 to today at the global level?

Like Marco Polo, BRI has various branches, such as cultural co-operation, tourism project yet its most significant element is in terms of infrastructure investments. It is one of the largest investment projects in the 21st century, which, among other things, took part in the construction of the Peljesac bridge. This largest platform of international cooperation today connects not only Europe and Asia, but also Africa, South America and even space. 

Although many countries in the EU keep the BRI at an arms length, the Chinese claim that this is a win-win constellation for everyone involved, is something that everyone can benefit from, and the fact is that today it is the largest project of international cooperation. Inspired by the Silk Road of the past, BRI has built some 3,000 infrastructure projects worldwide.   

In culture, the Silk Road is in vogue, there are many exhibitions on the subject. For example, in 2022 in the Ethnographic Museum of Vienna, while the British Museum in London plans to open an exhibition on the subject in September. For us in Korcula, we managed to open a new exhibition about Marco Polo and the Silk Road before Venice and before the British Museum. This gave us the opportunity to take advantage of some anniversaries that coincided on a micro-macro level, such as September 7, an important anniversary for BRI but also for Korcula.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of BRI last year, which coincides with the date of the Battle of Korcula in 1298, in cooperation with the Chinese Embassy in Croatia and three other embassies from the Silk Road, we organized a symposium where lectures were held by the Chinese Ambassador Qi Qianjin himself gave a keynote in Korcula’s town hall scientists and journalists. 

We maintain very good relations with the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Croatia, and we hope that with their support we can continue to do what Marco Polo started more than 700 years ago, connect East and West, the Adriatic Sea and the Sea of Japan, Korcula and China.

6. As a good connoisseur of Marco Polo's life, what would you single out as interesting and less known to the public? 

In today's global world, 700 years after his death, Marco Polo is still a role model from the Adriatic Sea to the Sea of Japan as someone who builds bridges between people through what is most important for civilization, through a medium we all love, and that is his true story transposed into a book. It is a magnificent fact that Marco Polo was only 17 years old when he set out on his brave journey to an unknown world. History does not remember a younger explorer who undertook a longer journey. Marco Polo is a suitable symbol and model for today's young Europeans because he represents courage, enterprise, creative imagination, intellectual curiosity, and the ability to admire. 

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