I visited Korčula, in Croatia, when I was researching my novel Shadow of the Dome. I was particularly keen to explore the Marco Polo House – you might be surprised to know that this claims to be the birthplace of the great explorer!
Most historians are of the opinion that that Marco Polo (1254-1324) was born in Venice, but the old walled town of Korčula, on an island of the same name close to Dubrovnik, has a strong rival claim. The evidence for either birthplace is not conclusive, so I set out to find the connection between Marco Polo and Korčula.
Polo Family Links With Korčula
On the one hand, Marco Polo was certainly a Venetian citizen, and it is known that he spent at least some of his early life in Venice and that he eventually settled there. On the other hand, Korčula was a part of the Venetian republic in the 13th century and it is also true that the Polo family had long trading links with the Croatian town.
The Croatian tradition is that Marco Polo was born to a local family of merchants and shipbuilders who moved to Venice soon afterwards. The records show that some members of the Polo family were active in the shipbuilding industry in Korčula at the time and, indeed, the name Depolo has been prominent in the town to the present day. It is also likely that Marco’s father and uncle had business interests in both Korčula and Venice.
However, the known facts of Marco Polo’s early life are that he was born after his father and uncle had set out for their first trip to China and that he met his father for the first time 15 years later. During that time Marco’s mother had died and he had gone to live with an aunt and uncle in Venice. Would an orphaned Croatian boy have travelled across the sea to live with relatives in a distant city? Or is it more likely that he was already in Venice at the time of his mother’s death?
Later Connection With Korčula
Whatever the truth of the matter, Marco Polo does have a later (if tenuous) connection with the island. Though he spent many years of his life in China (accompanying his father and uncle on their second trip to the court of Kublai Khan), he did eventually return to Venice. He was unwilling to settle immediately into the relatively sedentary life of a prosperous merchant and became involved in the war between Venice and Genoa.
He was commanding a ship in the naval battle of Korčula when he was captured and taken to prison in Genoa. It was here that he related his experiences to his fellow prisoner Rusticello who wrote them down and created the book that we now know as Marco Polo’s Travels.
Marco Polo And Modern Day Korčula
Today the town abounds with allusions to the explorer, with a Marco Polo hotel, Marco Polo restaurant and countless reminders in the shops. Every year in July there is a Marco Polo Festival of Song and Wine although, apart from the name, it is difficult to tell what connection the festival has with Marco Polo!
Tourists can visit the Marco Polo House, the house in which he is reputed to have been born. This has now been opened as a small museum with items related to the explorer’s travels, but the chief item of interest is the tower which gives panoramic views across the old town.
And in 1997 the International Marco Polo Centre was set up in Korčula with the aim of studying Marco Polo’s life and work, encouraging tourism in Korcula and establishing cultural ties between Europe and Asia. As the town’s tourist website acknowledges, the truth about Marco Polo’s birthplace will never be known, but his legacy in spreading understanding between different cultures will always remain.
Quite apart from the Marco Polo connection, the town of Korčula is a great place for a day out. It is a bit like a miniature Dubrovnik, with a maze of narrow streets, an old city wall and restaurants on every corner. Elsewhere on the island you can enjoy hiking, cycling, watersports or vineyard visits.
Ferries run to Korčula from Dubrovnik and from the neighbouring island of Hvar.
(You can read more about the research I did to write Shadow of the Dome, from the South China Sea to a shopping mall in Dubai…)