Birthplace of Marco Polo

The Adriatic island of Korčula (Croatia) , the former Venetian Curzola, is considered by some historians to host the birthplace of the famous trader and explorer Marco Polo. This theory is the subject of considerable scholarly debate.

The Korčula theory

The modern-day Croatian island of Korčula (in the Medieval Dalmatian: Curcra; Old Slavic: Kukar; Modern Italian: Curzola) was conquered by a Venetian nobleman, Pepone Zorzi, in 1129 and ruled by his family until 1180. It fell under Venetian rule again in 1255 when Marsilio Zorzi conquered the island's city, razing some of its churches during the process and forcing the local Counts to return to Venetian suzerainty. This lasted until the Treaty of Zadar in 1358 when the Hungarian-Croatian King Louis I forced the Venetians to relinquish their hold on Dalmatia, and with this move, the authority of the Zorzis on Korčula ended. The island became part of the Republic of Venice once again in 1420, this time for nearly four centuries. According to a theory not only postulated by Korčulans, Marco Polo was born in the city of Korčula in 1254 to an established family of Dalmatian merchants. Among scholarly references, Korčula was mentioned for the first time as the likely birthplace of Marco Polo by the historian Šime Ljubić in 1856 , which was affirmed in the work of Henry Yule in 1871. In the 20th Century, the theory enjoyed renewed support, becoming more developed and discussed by historians such as Giovanni Orlandini (1926), Sir Denison Ross (1934), Amolio Bacotich, A. G. Moule, P. Pelliot (1938) and many others to this day.

The house known to have belonged to the De Polo family is today a popular tourist attraction in Korčula and is advertised as the real birthplace of Marco Polo. Several celebrations are held in honor of Marco Polo, whose Korčulan origin has become one of the main tourist attractions of the island.

The theory

Marco Polo was captured by the Genoese during the Battle of Curzola, between the Genoese and the Venetian republics (September 8, 1298). On this same island, there are post-thirteenth century records of a De Polo family. Marco Polo was possibly there for more than just a military post, but because he had returned to his home island. The claim was later enforced with various statements.

First of all several evidences link Polo's family to Dalmatia (though not Marco himself).

Dalmatian roots of the family

There were two branches of Polo family found in the Venetian documents from the end of 13th century and later, as citizens of Venice. Both Polo branches had the same Coat of Arms and both were noted only as Poli di Dalmazia in the documents:

  • Chronicon Iustiniani (1358) noted a Polo family among other inhabitants in Venice with quotation that it was unknown from where they had come from, but also they were "Di Dalmazia" in the same chronicle. .
  • A Venetian document from 1446 stated: "Pollo: Questi antigunmente uene de Dalmatia, et per lo suo bon portamento et lialtade per la guerra de zenoa 1381. Io fo fatto del gran conseio. Et mancha questa caxada nel tempo del ser marcho polo... Translation: "Pollo (family) came from Dalmatia in the ancients. Because of good behavior and devotion during the war against Genoa, they were accepted into the Great Council in 1381. And there had been no this family (in Venice) in the age of Mr. Marco Polo". The same was found in the Venetian documents from 1450/1460 and 1600. The Polo family coat of arms was precisely described in a document from 1450/60.
  • Venetian annalist Marino Sanudo noted in 1522 that Polo were "Polo di Dalmatia; fatti 1381; manco sier Marcho siande castellan a Verona - 1418". Polo family from 1381 had the same Coat of Arms as Marco Polo's one. According to A.C. Moule, all numerous genealogies that he had inspected were talking only about Poli di Dalmazia.

In Dalmatia several variances of surname Polo were found: Polo, de Polo, Depolo, Depol, Dupol, all related to the same family. The most of scholars noted Šibenik (Croatia) as the place of the family origins. The city of Šibenik was established by Croats in the 11th century. Korčula was most probably the family outpost. From the earlier Curzolan documents it's obvious that Polo's in Korčula were rich, however with not many real estates recorded, but they were the builders and the owners of the ships, which leads to conclusion that this Polo branch were possibly a branch of the merchants. Marco Polo's branch of Poli di Dalmazia probably removed from Dalmatia to other regions of Mediterranean, like many others of their compatriots, just like it was done also by others, people from Genoa, Catalonia, Pisa, Venice etc. Many of them were traveling by trade and business from the Black Sea, across the Aegean and Ionian Seas to the Mediterranean or the Adriatic Sea where the most known harbor was Venice. Their trading journeys were stopped in 1261 by the fault of the Latin Empire, so immediately after that all these people removed to mentioned regions including Venice. Like immigrants to Venice quoted in Chronicon Iustiniani: Abruliadi from Zadar, Calosi (Caterini) from Kotor, "Corzani di Dalmatia"; Danei "de Chroacia"; Pinctores "de Panonia", Polani and Tribuni "da Pola"; Saponarii from Solin; Sacredi "da Sibenico"; Sirani (came across Siria); concerning Danei these documents noted that after leaving Croatia they were in "civitate Heracliana" - which means that after leaving Croatia, they were staying at the Black Sea, then by time removed to Venice, so possibly it was the same with Polo family:

Arguments to support the theory

In addition of the Dalmatian roots of Marco, further arguments are listed to support Korčula as a birthplace.

  • The oldest saved document mentioning Polo-Depolo family in Korčula was the enfeoffment by which the Duke and the judges of Korčula granted a building neighbouring the house of Bogavaz Dupol (14 March 1400). Also there was request by Mate Polo in 1430 to the Korculan Commune Council concerning getting the ground "near the place where his great grandfathers had built their ships".
  • According to Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski the Marco Polo Coat of Arms included two "black chickens", while several editions of Il Milione got three and J. Siebmacher heraldry (Wappenbuch des Königreich Dalmatien, Nürnmberg 1873) presented four of it. However by some opinions there was better possibility that the crows , ravens or magpies (short-tail) were presented and certainly not chickens . In Italian language, pollo means chicken or fowl; in Croatian language pilić means chick or chicken His surname could be a possible Italianized form of surname Pilić (similarity with Pollo) and Polić (often case of "romanization" of surnames was removing of ending -ić and replacing it with -eo or -o). Some Pilić families still reside on the island.
  • Marc Pol was his signature in Il Milione. In old-Chakavian Croatian dialect "pol" was a water bird. It's important to notice that word "pol" doesn’t exist in Latin, Venetian neither Italian language. Belgian linguist t’Serstevens considered that its original was not Polo nor Pollo, but much probably Slavic surname - Pol, so therefore differently formatted. He pointed to family coat of arms (three water birds on it) as a proof for his thinking.
  • The Polo family coat of arms was included in heraldic collection of Šibenik noble families by a historian and heraldist Federico Antonio Galvani (Il Re d'armi di Sebenico, Venezia 1886).
  • Curzola is seen on the geographical map, where the elder Polo's and Marco Polo's travelling routes from Europe to Asia and back were marked. Since only a few cities were marked, obviously Korčula had an important position on their journeys. An original map from Marco Polo's ages is saved in the London Record Office

Marco Polo's and his family connections to Croatia are obvious also according to other evidences during his lifetime:

  • In a document, Polo is appealed to as "barba": this is the Dalmatian dialect for uncle. Instead, in Italian, "barba" means "beard", while "uncle" translates in "zio".
  • Marco's two daughters, Moreta and Fantina, were married to the two patricians, Dolfin and a Bragadin. The coat of arms of both the families, Dolfin and Bragadin, are carved in stone on Curzola.
  • Allegedly Marco Polo was absent in Venice until 1305, however he was noted in 1300 among rebels led by Marin Bacon (habitator) who were rebelling against Venetian aristocratic government. After that rebellion had ended in blood, Marco Polo was one of 43 "banditi" adjudged to suffer death . He saved his life by escape. Some scholars concern that he was the same Marco Polo who escaped to Skradin to the Royal house of the Croatian Ban Pavao Šubić Bribirski, an enemy of Venice .
  • Also there was another rebellion in Venice in 1310 under leadership of Baiamonte Tiepolo (the grandson of the Duke) and Marco Querini. Among these rebels there were Jacobello and Francesco Polo from the branch Polo di S. Geremia. B. Tiepolo was a grandson of the Duke of Trogir - Stjepko Šubić (1274), from his mother family side, so therefore in parentage with Croatian Ban Pavao Šubić. That rebellion was also ended in blood. Its leaders were driven through to the Croatian area under Venetian government. They were acting in collusion there with the enemy of Venice (Ban Šubić) so Venice determined them for extermination. Some rebels successfully escaped to Ban Šubić
  • Marco Polo was buried (1324) by the church of San Lorenzo near the brotherhood of the Scuola degli Schiavoni in the Venetian quarter of Castello, which was by centuries settled by Croats from the eastern Adriatic coast . (Schiavoni was Venetian for Slavs/Croats).

Criticism of Venice as a birthplace

Venice as the explorer's birthplace was first time mentioned in one source from 16th century, three hundred years after his death. All later literature which gave it as option or fact, was relying on that source:

  • At first Giovani Ramusio (1458-1515) and then some other Italian writers concerned that first member of Polo family was some Andrea Polo di San Felice (Venice), allegedly a grandfather of Marco Polo from father's side. This statement by Ramusio and his followers was never covered by any evidence. There were no original documents about Andrea Polo di San Felice. Additionally there were no traces of Polo family original place of residence in Venice and Italy. Especially there were no proofs of their Venetian or Italian ancestry.
  • John Larner in his study concluded that Ramusio's description of Marco Polo largely depended on either doubtful testimonial, verbal history or his own imagination .
  • Some writers, like Lazarri, were relying on Marco Barbaro - Venetian genealogist from 16th century, they claimed that Polo family came to Venice from Šibenik (Kingdom of Croatia) in 1033 . English writer A.C.Yule found that Barbaro had not given any proof for his statement (1566), but had relied on Ramusio, 9 years after Ramusio's death. Moule informed about several alleged Barbaro's genealogy manuscripts, but of different hand-writing styles. Additional analysis of these manuscripts defined it as fake documents . Therefore neither Ramusio, neither Barbaro were convincing nor credible. Rafo Ferri informed that Šibenik was first time mentioned in 1036.

First known seats of Polo family in Venice were his uncle's house from 1261 and another of his father and other uncle from 1295:

  • There is Marco Polo's quotation in his book (1298) about his father Nicola and uncle Maffeo: they estoient (stayed, sojourned) in Constantinople in 1250 and transported some merchandise from Venice. He didn’t quote that they were citizens of Venice. If this quote is properly translated, it appears that they were actually the citizens of Constantinople in 1250.
  • His uncle Marco elder in his testament (1280) written in Latin language noted that he was habitator in Venetian church district S. Seuri, and that a second wife of his brother Nicola Floraldise Polo born Trevisan (Marco Polo's stepmother) was in Venice too in that moment. He also noted that he was codam Constantinopoli, what means that once he had sojourned in Constantinople. He added that his son and daughter (Nicola, Marota) were still there in their family house in Soldaia (Crimea, Sea of Azov). In Medieval European city-communes habitator was usually used for an individual of the class of habitatores - the lowest city class (paysants, workers, immigrants). Higher classes were cives (citizens) and nobiles (noblemen).
  • Marco Polo's quotation about himself: in 1298 he was bourgeois et habitant en la cite de Venese (a citizen from class of the merchants and, if the Old French habitant, refers to the city class of habitatores, a member of that class); He described himself in 1298 and 1307 with the same words.
  • According to Giovanni Orlandini, first Polo inhabited Venice from the Near-East and after the 1260s, in the wake of the fall of the Latin Empire (1261). Many western people left the Near-East and the Black Sea area then. Also there was no trace of explorer's family in Italy until the middle of 13th century, their genealogy non è chiara ne secura (was not clear, neither safe), there were no genealogy data of this family in Italy until the middle of 13th century. British writer Moule noted that there were no reliable and complete data in Italy until the middle of 14th century.
  • Polo family continually stayed in Venice from not earlier than 1295. Brothers Nicola and Maffeo Polo stayed temporarily in Venice 1269–1271 and continually after 1295 when they bought a house in the area of Venetian district of San Giovanni Cristostomo until they died (1300-1309). Marco Polo's uncle Marco elder probably removed after 1261 to Venice in St. Sueri church district, while his brothers were in Soldaia or already on their way to China. Marco Polo's father was not present in Venice between 1250 and 1269, his mother was unknown. Since Marco was born in 1254, it was not possible that his conception and birth occurred in Venice because of absence of his father there. Also it was not possible that his mother was there. Brothers Nicola and Maffeo were staying in the Black Sea then and were travelling as merchants, Marco's conception and birth probably happened somewhere in their Black Sea houses in Soldaia or Constantinople, or somewhere in the Adriatic Sea, perhaps in Korčula. In 1269 he was 15 years old boy in his uncle's house in Venice, the first known Polo family seat there. It was possible that he had moved to Venice with his uncle, eight years earlier.
  • On their return to Europe Nicola, Maffeo and Marco Polo brought a message from Kublai Khan to the Pope and to the known European rulers . However Venetian Duke was not mentioned in the massage. Although a European force, Venice was not mentioned in the document brought to Europe by so-called "Venetian" Polo's.
  • Marco did not write his book with his own hands, although he was a scholar. A book did not originate in Venice, neither in Venetian language. It was written in Old French language. The earlier interests for his book was not noted in Venice, neither from Venetians. That first interests came from the Frenchmen. In the introduction of his book (written or rewritten) in 1307, Marko noted that he was giving that copy of the book to an administrator of the French king, wishing that "noble regions of France" were acquainted with it. Some concern that Marko was able to use French language, but was not able to use Latin. . First translations of the book to Italian and Latin languages didn't originate in Venice. It was in Toscana .
  • It is known that Dante Alighieri did not mention Marco Polo, neither his book when he was staying in Venice in the beginning of 14th century. Also he was not mentioned neither in Chronicon Iustiniani (1358), although that chronicles noted all Venetian and world accidents, as well as famous Venetians, including known immigrants and their works. Marco Polo was noted only in one Venetian document (1305) among other naval captains concerning payment of some taxes in the Venice port. He was never noted as some Venetian Republic employee or administrator, public worker or famous and meritorious person.

Criticism of the theory

Most historians points out that the Curzola theory is not based on historical documents, but just on coincidences and suppositions. All the proofs presented are based on the speculation that every man called Polo before, during and even centuries after the lifetime of Marco Polo was related to the explorer.

As a matter of fact:

  • It is not known whether Polo took part in the Battle of Curzola. It should be noted that the battle was a major Venetian defeat. This knowledge remained widely known in the following centuries, while little is known about a number of minor skirmishes which were fought before and after the Battle of Curzola. It has been proposed that the time between the battle of Curzola and the release of the Venetian prisoners could have been too short for the redaction of Marco Polo's book. It is also possible that he had been captured before 1298, but released with the men taken prisoner on Curzola.
  • Polo could hardly have been close to Curzola to return to his "ancestral roots". The sources, reporting that he was captured near the island, also state that he was the commander of a Venetian ship. This ship was part of a fleet of approximately one hundred ships, with more than 10,000 men on board. No one however, mentions Polo's supposed birth on the island.
  • In Italian Pollo, and not Polo, is the correct word for "chicken" or "fowl" (the two words sound quite different). On the other side "Polo" is a Venetian first name and family name for "Paul". Even today it is common in the Veneto, and its variants "Pol" and "De Polo" are common as well. "San Polo" is also the name of a sestiere of Venice, named after the church of San Polo (St. Paul). Other toponyms are the Campo San Polo and the church of San Zanipolo (SS John and Paul).
  • "Barba" in Venetian, such as in other northern Italian dialects, means "uncle" The Dalmatian dialect still retains this word because of the Venetian influence .
  • Il Milione never mentions Curzola. Neither are there any references to Curzola in his uncle Nicolò's will. There are also no references in any other official documents about the Polo family, dating to the beginning of the 13th century.

Arguments for Venice

The mainstream of historiography and all the older sources consider Marco Polo as born in Venice.

The Polo's homeplace in Venice is well known, located where the Teatro Malibran stands today.

As a matter of fact:

  • Polo stated he was a "citizen of the City of Venice". In later texts he was styled a "noble man", and in fact, he went on to marry Donata Badoer, a woman born in one of the most ancient and respected patrician families of Venice.
  • There are documents reporting the presence of the Polo family in Venice in the 11th century. The early biographers of Marco Polo, including Ramusio, reported that his grandfather, Andrea Polo, was living in the contrada of San Felice.
  • It can be argued that Polo grew up in Venice. Il Milione reports that when Marco's father came back to Venice after his first voyage, he found the young Marco (age 15), living in Venice, with his uncle, after the death of his mother
  • In Il Milione it is clearly stated that the Polos had their homes in Venice ("we may as well go to Venice and visit our households").

Possible Croat ethnicity

If Korčula was Polo's birthplace then the issue of whether he was an Italian or Croat would seem settled , since some Dalmatian islands were predominantly inhabited by Slavic people.. But the historian Alvise Zorzi has stated that, in 13th century, a romance language was spoken in Curzola.

The Korculan Statute (13th century) quotes every of five island settlements and their districts (universitas) with borders. The most toponims were Dalmatian indeed, however many are even today. Also together with Dalmatian formatted names there were many Croatian ones found in the documents, like the first Korculan bishop Ivan Kručić in 1291 or in the same year Korculan deputies and messengers sent to Ragusa, Blaž Črnotić and Cepreda Obradić.

Early Croatian language was originally written in Glagolithic alphabet. Since documents in Medieval were written in Latin language, Slavic names in Dalmatian cities were usually written in Dalmatian format. Venetian chronicler Giustiniani (16th century) noted that Dalmatian language was "schiavo ma diverso dall’atro" - Slavic (spoken by Slavs) but different than the other (Croatian).


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