Bad news: Croatia appropriates Marco Polo. Good news: he might have not even been to China.
by Anastas Vangeli
Finally, another bizarre symbolic conflict over historical figures. After having devoted a great deal of my time examining the Greco-Macedonian conflict over the narratives of ancient Macedonian origin, and the copyrights to the legacy of Alexander the Great [MA thesis, conference paper, numerous research and press articles and book out of print this week], I was very excited to find out that Italy and Croatia had a similar tug of war of their own. The stake is the right to claim another globally renowned historical figure: the traveler Marco Polo. As journalists from the Telegraph have written back in April, the roots of this contest lie in historical uncertainties and alternative explanations of the past [and arguably, a lot of mythologization]:
The exact date and place of Marco Polo’s birth are unknown but most scholars believe he came from Venice. It has been argued by some historians, however, that he was born on the island of Korcula on the Adriatic coast, in what is today Croatia. According to this theory, his father was a merchant from Dalmatia named Maffeo Pilic, who Italianised his surname to Polo when he established himself in Venice.
And for the story to be even more appealing to me, the conflict had escalated – well, in China. It was not Croatian myth-makers and B class historians, but former president Stipe Mesic who had the main role. In the city of Yangzhou, where Polo allegedly served under Kublai Khan, it was Mesic [and no Italian officials] who opened a memorial hall devoted to Marco Polo, whom he described as a “world explorer, born in Croatia, who opened up China to Europe”. A highly emotional rant in Corriere della Serra followed soon, blaming not only Croats for “kidnapping” Marco Polo, but Italian authorities for allowing that in the first place and the Chinese for their mistake. And the day was saved by Chinese media, who, elaborated that Mesic was only “attending” the event and was not really there as an official representative of Croatia [I could not find the news on Xinhua though, but this page has cross-published it]. The reaction was picked up by the Shanghaiist, which sided with the Italians and went on to question the responsibility of the Yangzhou officials for the mess.
This small-scale feud between the two Adriatic countries is not to be compared with the full-fledged cold war between Greece and Macedonia. However, it exhibits some of the basic features of how the world looks through nationalist lenses. Due to an obvious lack of critically examining the past, nationalists always tend to project the world of today in the past. For the matter of fact, Marco Polo was no Croat or Italian, for no concepts of Croat or Italian nation existed back in the thirteenth century. Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant, who might have originated from the Dalmatian coast. While the author of the Corierre della Serra makes a valid point that “[t]o 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,” he fails to take in account that to claim that Marco Polo or any other resident even of Venice at time was Italian is also stretching history too far [reminder: centuries of disunity [and wars] between various polities on the territory that is Italy today, foreign rule and long walk to the emergence of the Italian state, as well as a process of nationalization and homogenization of the country that can still not erase the cultural and economic differences between the North and the South]. Marco Polo was no Italian or Croat, just as Alexander the Great was not Greek nor Macedonian in the sense contemporary Greeks and Macedonians are. Italians, Croats, Greeks or Macedonians of today, and their self-definition as such, are the result of the hard work of man-made institutions that emerged in the last 200 years, long after the contested historical figures were gone.
Marco Polo and Alexander the Great are especially appealing to Croat and Macedonian nationalists respectively, because they are brands known worldwide – even in China. The chance is, someone would perhaps have heard about Davor Suker or Darko Pancev [or for that matter, Tito and Yugoslavia], but hey, we are talking about two people who are considered to have significantly changed the course of world history and are of global importance, making us equal part-takers in global affairs. They happen to be very old too. They serve both as an evidence of longevity and our civilizing mission [or as the line in one Serbian movie goes, “while they were still eating like pigs with their hands, we had already been eating with forks”].
Moreover, Marco Polo and Alexander the Great are plausible as national heroes because they [or the selectively remembered, mythologized images of them], on top of being global brands, embody traits that in the value system of nationalism are considered to be of great importance – they are the indicators of the character of the nation. Marco Polo is imagined audacious and wise, a true diplomat and the person who set the cornerstones of Sino-European relations; Alexander the Great is imagined as a military and political leader who crushed his opponents and established one of the largest empires in history.
Yet, what if a Marco and Alex were not that awesome to begin with?
For instance, if you tell an average Macedonian nationalist that Alexander was Greek, than you risk hours of kafana-style history talks and lectures on both ancient history, and history of Modern Greek propaganda. Tell a Greek nationalist that Alexander was Macedonian, you will face similar response. However, as soon as you bring up historical accounts that Alexander was a ruthless megalomaniac, a psychologically unstable tyrant, who wanted to Asiatise Europe rather than to Hellenize/Macedonize Asia; and especially if you question his straightness [allegedly, he was a bisexual who was also intimate with his mother], the encounter with the person believing to be his descendant might soon escalate into a brawl [many nationalists happen to be homophobic, too]. Alexander was a liberator, and more importantly, he was a healthy and straight man, they believe. When Oliver Stone begged to differ and rendered a gay image of Alexander in his Hollywood blockbuster, he was almost sued by Greek lawyers for distorting history and hurting their national feelings.
Marco Polo’s legacy does not remain unquestioned as well. Today, the Telegraph ran another story on Marco Polo, this time presenting a viewpoint of history and archaeology scholars arguing that the Venetian has not even made it to China:
[Archaeologists] think it is more likely that the Venetian merchant adventurer picked up second-hand stories of China, Japan and the Mongol Empire from Persian merchants whom he met on the shores of the Black Sea – thousands of miles short of the Orient. He then cobbled them together with other scraps of information for what became a bestselling account, “A Description of the World”, one of the first travel books. The archeologists point in particular to inconsistencies and inaccuracies in his description of Kublai Khan’s attempted invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. […] “One theory is that Marco Polo copied a sort of guide book on China written by a Persian merchant. Only about 18 sentences in the entire manuscript are written in the first person – it is extremely rare for him to say ‘I saw this with my own eyes’.
“I believe that rather than being one person’s account, it’s a sort of medieval database of European knowledge of the Far East at the time.”
Assuming that such a version of history might be truer than the current one, an important question that is to be raised here: would Stipe Mesic have still attended the ceremony/opened the museum in Yangzhou? Would Croats still claim a Marco Polo who was not a discoverer, but a fiction writer or translator, or even a liar? Would Italians protest with the same intensity over the appropriation of such a historical figure? Would Chinese build the museum, to begin with?
I personally, always cheer for pluralizing historical accounts. Knowing how far nationalist mythomania can go, it is always good to have a narrative that might downplay irrational behavior, or at least give you the opportunity to be happily bitter about it and ridicule myth’s supporters. Consoling over the construction of the monument of Alexander the Great so tall that it overshadows everything else on the skyline of the main square, one can always say that Skopje has the largest statue of a gay man in the world erected by a homophobic political leadership; a statue of a man who never even laid foot in Skopje during his lifetime. In case Croatian authorities decide to honor Marco Polo in a similar way, one can always say “look at that guy, he had never even been to China.”