Marco Polo, the great 13th century explorer, is Korcula’s favorite son and there are signs of that all over Old Town (in Korcula they sometimes spell his name Marko). In the Old Town is a house that is supposedly his birth place, and numerous shops in the Old Town sell Marco Polo related items. A group of 4 collectively call themselves Marco Polo Museum, as they have set up various scenes that explore the life of the great explorer and try to explain his connection to Korcula. They even offer Marco Polo icecream, which we didn’t sample! On one narrow street, in front of a souvenir shop, is a huge wooden chair with Marco Polo inscribed on the top. It’s supposedly lucky to sit in it, as then the person will come back to the island. We did, so we’re hoping there’s a return visit to Korcula in our future! There’s also a lovely restaurant called The Marco Polo, halfway up one of the narrow lanes.
Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) was a medieval Venetian merchant, who is better known as a world-renowned writer and traveller. The exact date and place of Marco Polo’s birth are unknown but most scholars believe he came from Venice. Some historians argue, however, that he was born on the island of Korcula on the Adriatic coast, in what is today Croatia, although evidence for this is sketchy. Nevertheless, Korcula still claims him as their own.
If he were from Korcula, the story goes that his father was a merchant from Dalmatia named Nicolo Pilic, who Italianized his surname to Polo when he established himself in Venice. Records show that Marco Polo’s father Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo Pilic were rich merchants from Sibenik in Dalmatia, then under Venetian rule. They went to Venice as businessmen. All of the merchant and nobility class of that time used the Italian version of their names, so Pilic, which is Croatian for chicken, became Polo in Italian. The Pilic/Polo family coat of arms shows a crown and four chickens.
Together with his father Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo, Marco Polo was amongst the first Europeans to travel the famous Silk Road trade route, stretching from the Middle East to China. They traveled under the auspices of the Venetian Republic. He brought back amazing stories and exotic goods, like silk, that Europeans had never seen before.
After the trip, Marco Polo fought in an important naval battle near Korcula against the Genoese, between the Venetian and Genovese states. He was captured and taken to Genoese prison. He told his story about his travels through Asia between 1276-1291 to a cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who wrote it down. It was published, making Marco Polo almost instantly famous.
It was written first in Old French as Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the
World). In Italian it became known as Il Millione, or Oriente Poliana, and in English it’s usually known as The Travels of Marco Polo. Some have questioned whether these fabulous stories are actually true, but most scholars believe they are broadly authentic, and the record of an observant traveler.
Whatever the truth of his birth, Korcula town still boasts Marco Polo’s alleged house of birth. The interior is rather featureless and partly ruined, but the house’s tower (loggia) gives a panoramic view of Korcula, stretching from east to west. The house is under the protection of the Korcula Town Hall and the plans are that it will soon be turned into a Museum of Marco Polo.
Maybe we’ll see that next time? I’m also inspired to read Marco Polo’s book, something I’ve never done, not in its entirety anyway.