What’s the truth about Marco Polo? Was the famous explorer Croatian? To this day, historians and tour guides debate this question. As do the cities of Venice in Italy and Korčula in Dalmatia. And was Marco Polo really the great world traveller he claimed to be, truly the foreign emissary of the great Kubilai Kahn? Fact or fiction? Let us get to the bottom of the Marco Polo mystery and take an exciting journey back in time to the 13th and 14th century.
Who was Marco Polo?
Marco Polo was born in 1254 to Nicolo Polo, a tradesman who, together with his brother Maffeo, had a flourishing business, trading in silk from China and jewels from Constantinople. Though the family lived predominantly in Venice, it has been proven that they originated from Dalmatia.
However, Marco Polo’s birthplace was never documented! In his youth, Marco Polo accompanied his father and uncle on trade voyages, later becoming the commander of a Venetian fleet himself. During this time, he was captured and spent a year imprisoned in Genoa. There he is said to have dictated the stories of his travels to his cellmate, Rustichello from Pisa.
After his release, he returned to Venice, married and had three daughters. He died in Venice in 1324.
Marco Polos (made up?) journey to China
At the age of 17, Marco Polo, along with his father and uncle, is said to have embarked on his great voyage that led to the Great Kubilai Kahn, the famous Mongol ruler, whom Nicolo and Maffeo knew from a previous voyage. Kubilai Khan has asked them to bring him anointed oil from Jerusalem and 100 Christian scholars to spread the Christian faith throughout his Kingdom. The journey proved to be long, with many detours, but in 1275 the brothers, along with Marco Polo, finally returned and are said to have remained until 1291.
At this time, Kubilai Kahn’s empire stretched from China to modern Iraq. It is said the Khan took a liking to Marco Polo, making him his foreign emissary. In this roll, Marco Polo, according to his own accounts, travelled to many places throughout the great empire. Travels of which he spoke of throughout his life. The truth of these stories was already doubted during Marco Polo’s lifetime, an uncertainty that remains to this day. If he really did travel through China, why did he not mention the Great Wall or the everyday, characteristic aspects of Chinese life such as tea, Chinese letters, gunpowder or chopsticks in any of his tales? And how could it be that he himself, though the foreign emissary to the Great Kahn, could not read or write?
It is therefore not surprising that he was labelled a liar during his own lifetime. But even on his deathbed, Marco Polo defended himself from anyone who doubted him. When he was asked to stop telling his tall tales, he is said to have replied, “I have not told half of what I have seen.” Surely the half that he did not tell is the half with about the Great Wall and Chinese letters…
Marco Polo – the world’s first influencer?
Dietmar Henze, who brilliantly analyses Marco Polo’s stories in is wonderful book “Encyclopaedia of the Earth’s Discoverers and Explorers”, comes to the following conclusion: “His whole, long, preordained journey is a bare fable, to put it more clearly, the most colossal hoax in the history of global discovery.” Henze claims that Marco Polo’s reports are freely fabricated from foreign oral accounts, and that much is simply invented. Nevertheless, Marco Polo’s stories aroused an interest and curiosity of the foreign continent of Asia, leading to extensive trade and exchange between the East and the West.
His stories continued to be read widely over 200 years after his death. For a long time, geographers in particular relied on Marco Polo’s very precise measurements of distance when drawing maps. Even Christopher Columbus is said to have calculated his route to India using this information. And we all know where Columbus eventually landed…
And what of the question of Marco Polo’s birthplace?
It is doubtful that this question can ever be definitively answered. Legally speaking, Marco Polo was a Venetian. But this would be the case even if he was born on Korčula as the island was, at the time, under Venetian rule. Therefore, anyone living there was by default a Venetian.
Whether he was born on Korčula or not, we can be fairly certain that Marco Polo visited the island at least once. On the 7th of September 1298, as the commander of a Venetian fleet, he was present at a naval battle between Genoa and Venice, which took place off the shores of Korčula. This was, indeed, the very battle during which he fell captive to the Genoese.
Whatever Marco Polo’s history with Korčula entails, one thing is for sure: Korčula is one of the most beautiful cities in Croatia, and one not to be missed. Korčula is a mini-Dubrovnik! Surrounded by a mighty city wall, the old town has numerous highlights and attractions. Even the town’s layout, with the alleys built to mimic the bone structure of a fish, is an attraction in itself. The medieval architects built the town in this way to create natural air conditioning. The curved bone structure creates a pleasant, natural and constant breeze, even at the height of summer, making a stroll through the town pleasant all year round.
Those who believe Marco Polo was born in Korčula can visit his birth home in the old town of Korčula and purchase a Marco Polo souvenir in one of the many souvenir shops.