Marko Polo and Korcula by dr. Zivan Filippi
Korcula and the Polo Family
The 13th century was the time when Europe lived in constant conflict between its town-states, which were still preoccupied with the Crusades. It was a time when numerous armies were crossing European soil, destroying foreign towns and killing off their inhabitants. This was a time of poor living conditions, when food and clothing were lacking, and when European inhabitants did not know much about raw materials and agricultural skills. They had no knowledge of coal, oil, paper, gunpowder, compasses, coffee, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, tabacco...all the things without which the life of contemporary man would seem inconceivable.
But while political instability and economic poverty were limiting the life of the average European, reducing it to pure survival, the stability of the Roman Catholic Church - in spite of all dynastic struggles and doctrinarian rigidity, often with perilous consequences - at the same time opened to him spiritual perspectives, giving hope and laying down the structural base for cultural development. This was the time of the most splendid Gothic building, as for example the cathedral of Chartres, begun in 1294; of Reims in 1210; of Salisbury, erected in 1220. One of the most significant political events was the proclamation of Rudolf for Holy Roman Emperor, who managed to spread the influence of the Habsburgs to Austria, thus laying the foundations of the state which would, for the next five centuries, represent the bulwark of European culture.
In that interplay - of the material and the spiritual, of violence and reconciliation, a mixture of awareness and dream - an unique position was to be held by that small Italian town-state, called Venice. Built on an island archipelago, near the mainland, it looked like an enchanted vision which emerging like Aphrodite from the Adriatic Sea. But Venice was not an apparition. Built in stone in the magnificent style of the Middle Ages with emphasized Byzantine elements and connected by a network of channels and bridges, it manifested the power of a trading and maritime force, spreading its influence across the Adriatic aquatic surface, and over to the Mediterranean as far as Constantinople itself, which fell into its hands in 1202.
The town and island of Korcula was unprotected, and indeed there were many who fought for it at that time because of its strategic position on the maritime trade routes and also because of its geographical configuration which makes it ideal for the refuge of war ships and merchant galleys. For these reasons Korcula was unlikely to escape the powerful arm of Venice. The Croat population of the island and the town of Korcula tried hard to resist the intensions of the Venetian Republic. In order to hinder Venitian plans and protect their island community, the Korculans adopted their communal statute in 1214. That statute, the oldest legal document in this part of Europe, codified the whole life of the town and the island and, in many of its decrees, set an example of the European proportions. Numerous decrees regarding maritime law, the abolition of slavery, the protection of the environment etc. witness to a high political and cultural level in Korcula at that time; though it was living as were other Dalmatian towns in the 13th century as well, in the danger due to the avaricious appetites of the powerful forces around it. The Korcula statute protected Korcula from the authoritarian reign of Venice, but at the same time offered Korcula Venetian protection from other possible aggressors as it wanted to continue its relative prosperity, especially in shipbuilding, stone-cutting and shipping. The citizen of Korcula, though under the yoke and protection of Venice could guard his rights and his lifestyle from the outside world because of the legal codex, but he wished to look beyond the borders and the limits of western metaphysics and he he began to broader his aspirations to take in the outside world, for the fulfilment of his dream regarding a better future. His sailing ships ventured in search of the unknown and, by reason of their masculine violence ploughed the Mediterranean furrows, whereas the citizen himself remained in the secure maternal womb of his city nucleus and his peasant field. Sea furrow, field furrow, and a furrow as the line of his writing, welded in the Korcula statute, spelt for the Korcula citizen the chance of a wondrous joy of existence.
Amidst the overall risks of the European insecurity, Korcula, either by force or willingly, accepts the previous duke of Dubrovnik, Marsilie Zorzi, a Venetian nobleman, as its duke in 1254. In that same year Marko Polo was born.
The Polo family is much respected in Korcula; living overr centuries in the town of Korcula. It produced over the years numerous shipbuilders, smiths, stone-masons, tradesmen, priests, and public notaries. Marko's father Nikola and uncle Mate founded their trading outpost in Korcula, and the members of the Polo family were guardians of the walls around the town of Korcula. But, for the skilful tradesmen Nikola and Mate, Korcula was only the starting point of their business trade and their adventurous life. Marko's father and uncle penetrated deeply into Asia. They erected a tower and founded their own trading outpost in the town of Sudac on the Crimea. They had their main trade centre in Constantinople, to which many Korcula businessmen and shipbuilders were travelling and for some time they were living there. Mate and Nikola Polo traded successfully with the Persians. They were cognisant with the secret ways which led through Syria and Iraq as far as the coasts of Persian Gulf. They also knew the areas where the precious pearl oysters could be found. Wherever they ventured they were made welcome as people who were "noble-minded, wise and reasonable". They knew the routes that led to the fur traders of southern Siberia. They had trade contacts with the dignitaries of various Tartar peoples, and they reached the court of the Great Kublai Khan in China. They had started their journey before Marko Polo was born. The successful Korcula tradesmen feeling secure in their centuries-old native soil of Korcula, left their family and still unborn son Marko, as they gazed towards the Far East searching there for a realization of their dream of the rich life. Their ideas of fusing the cultural structures of the West and the East also decreed the destiny of Nikola's son, Marko Polo, from the day of his birth.
Marko achieved the usual education of a young nobleman of his age. He learned a lot about classical writers, he understood the text of the Bible and knew the basic theology of the Roman Catholic Church. He spoke French and Italian, especially the trade vocabulary, and was skilful in keeping business books. The Church books and songs in Croatian from Marko's time have been preserved in Korcula, and it is most probable that Marko knew the Croatian language as spoken by the inhabitants of Korcula. That knowledge was to help him very much when he traveled with his father and uncle across south Russia, then inhabited by Slavonic tribes and under Tartar reign. The European languages which Marko learned in his youth were to be the basis for the development of his polyglot talents when he came in touch, in the Far East, with Chinese; this, too, he learned successfully.
Korcula first had a bishop in 1300, which contributed a great deal to the writing and maintenance of the archives, both Church and secular, and some well-known families kept their own archives. Thus, the always rich Korcula tradition passed on by word of mouth, received also written support for the preservation of the collective communal memory, thus giving birth to capable men ready for the adventures of body and spirit in distant worlds.
The oldest written document in which the Polo family is mentioned is a deed of gift dated March 14th 1400. The then duke of Korcula, Mihajlo Musi and three Korcula judges donated to a certain Joannis a building in the town quarter on the eastern side, near the house of Bogavaz Dupolo. It is the exact location of the present "tower of Marko Polo"; from which one can see clearly all the Peljesac Channel; the route of trading vessels from Hellenic times to the present day.
A somewhat older document, from 1430, speaks about the life and work of members of the Polo family in Korcula in the 13th century, mostly featuring the centuries-old tradition of building Korcula style wooden boats, well known in the whole of the Mediterranean. That document is to be found in the private archives of the Kapor family in Korcula. In this, Mate Polo applies to the community of Korcula for a piece of land for his ship-yard, near the place where his grandfathers were building boats. That document is concrete evidence that the Polos were living in Korcula and building the boats even before Marko Polo was alive. Korcula shipyards were situated both on the eastern and western shores adjacent to the fortified medieval town. In this a way, the shipbuilders, working in the vicinity of the city walls, and living inside them, were able to defend their town in case of enemy attack. In the list mentioning ship-builders in 1594, there are 16 ship-wrights from the Polo family, and in the 1810 list, 22. From a legal case of 1778, we learn that the name of the owner of a shipyard in the eastern suburb was Marko Depolo. As the skills of ship-building, as well as the ownership of the shipyards, were passing from generation to generation, from father to son, various families were for centuries using the same plots for the needs of their workshops. It is evident from the land-registry maps of the past century, and from photos exhibited in the City Museum that Mihovil Depolo, Nikola's son, (1864-1943) was the owner of one of the bigger shipyards on the eastern side ("Borak"), and that Lovro Depolo (1853-1943) was the owner of the biggest shipyard of all on the western side of the town of Korcula ("Sv. Nikola").
The Korculans were not only outstanding ship-builders but also experienced seamen. They excelled, too, as good warriors in many sea battles; among them, members of the Depolo family. Archive material and memorials confirm that the duke of Korcula, Andrea Zane, in 1584, entrusted, among others, Jerolim, Pavle and Nikola Polo, with finding crews for the participation of the town of Korcula in one of the sea battles.
Archive material concerning Korcula reveals also the rich religious life of the Korcul people especially notable in the founding and regular activities of the brotherhoods. These offered, to the various groups belonging to specific crafts, a spiritual refuge and place of relaxation from every day hard work. Like others, the Polos lived an intensive religious life. Bishop of Vinzenza, Mihovil Priuli issued a charter on January 28 1603, for the founding of the brotherhood of St. Michael (Sveti Mihovil). Among the founders, were listed the names of Pavle, Marko, Jakov, sons of Dominik De-Polo, and Vicko and Ivan, sons of Nikola De-Polo. The name of the Franciscan procurator (representative), Marko de Polo, was inscribed on the apple of the silver carrying cross belonging to the Franciscan monastery founded on the island of Badija, near Korcula. The cross was the work of the Sibenik goldsmith, Dobrosevic, whose name was also inscribed on it. The alter painting of St. Ann in the church of All Saints, dating from the beginning of the 17th century, reveals in the text at its base that the painting was the gift of Vinzentie de Polo, presbyter Marko de Polo, and others.
If we walk through the cemetery of Korcula we can see numerous tombs of the Depolo family, dating from the founding of the cemetery to the present day. Outstanding for its beauty is the family vault of Nikola and Rosa Depolo from 1891.
The surname Polo derives from the name Pavao. It was first mentioned in its Croatian form Paulovic (Pavlovic), then in the Latin form De Paulis, Venetian Di Polo, and afterwards remained only Depolo. The earliest mentioned medieval Identification System was the first name and, beside it, the additions, which specified the particular person, differentiating it from others of the same name. The surname appeared only when one of the additions to the name became hereditary. The confirmation of this rule, and that in the case when the surname Polo derives from the name Paulus (Pavao), is found in the following example. The public notary, Jakov Giricic, drew up a will for the ship-builder Paulus (Pavao) in Korcula on February 1st 1565. His surname is not mentioned, only his first name. The original of that will is now kept in the Historical Museum in Dubrovnik. It is evident from other documents written after the said will (contracts, wills and registers) that the sons of the testator now bear the permanent surname, De Paulis. The grandson of the will-maker, Nikola, bears the surname Di Paulo, and the great grandsons, Ivan and Vicko, whom we find among the founders of the brotherhood of St. Michael, bear the surname De Polo.
A frequent use of the surname in its Croatian form of Paulovic (Pavlovic) is evident from a review of the registers between the 16th and 18th centuries. It is last time mentioned for the February 2nd 1747 when Margarita, daughter of Ivan Paulovich and Vica Foretich, was born. The form of the surname Depolo became common with the birth of Mihovil, son of Marko and Palma, on June 18th 1771. From that time it has been listed in this form only. There is an interesting case of the brothers Marko and Andrija, of whom each uses another form of the surname. The contract made in 1525, between the Korcula builder, Marko Pavlovic and the Korcula chapter house, states that Marko obliged himself to complete the building of the northern aisle of the cathedral in Korcula. However, he died during the building in 1532, and his brother, the priest Andrija, with the surname De Paulis was proclaimed the tutor of his children.
712 persons with the surname Polo-Depolo were born in the period between 1583 and 1946. Domenego di Polo, god-father at the baptism of Vinzenza Ismaelis on June 26th 1583, appears on the very first page of the first registry of births in Korcula. The most impressive survey of the expansion of the surname Polo-Depolo is the list of priors ("gastaldi") of the brotherhood of St. Roko, founded on August 16th 1575. A review of the archives of Dalmatian town-communities reveals that the members of the Polo family, later Depolo, have lived continuously in the town of Korcula for centuries.
With regard to Italian professional literature, the most frequent opinion is that the Polo family comes from Dalmatia. Such a claim is evidenced in the manuscript chronicle about Venetian history covering the history of Venice from its beginning until 1446, and also in the book Le vite dei dogi (The Lives of the Dukes), published in Venice in 1522. The same thesis is expounded in later Italian literature, as for example in Biografia universale antica e moderna from 1882 and Storia di Venezia from 1848.
Today, there are Depolos living outside Korcula - in Dubrovnik, Split, Rijeka, Zagreb, Athens, Ismir, New Zealand, USA, Chile and Argentina. All of them originate from Korcula, and have family connections with their Korcula relatives.
All the facts mentioned lead to the conclusion that Korcula is the town of the Polo family - Paulovic (Pavlovic) - De Polo - Di Polo - Depolo g continuously in the period from the 13th century, and according to verbal tradition even much earlier, until the present day. At the same time Korcula is the town from which many members of this family have gone to other towns and other countries. Some of them return and some of them spend their whole lives in the new environment. If the above written documents, especially those printed in Venice, say explicitly that the family of Marko Polo comes from Dalmatia, all available historical sources confirm that Korcula is, without any doubt, the town of origin of the family called POLO - DEPOLO.
The centuries-old oral tradition - handed down by word of mouth in songs, proverbs, stories, legends - connects Marko Polo and Korcula; in the development of writing, the organization of authority, education, and culture. This cedes place gradually to written evidence in the form of archives, manuscripts, contracts, deed of gifts, registry of births, deaths and marriages, and, in the recent times, in the form of literary works. So the legend of Marko Polo expands ever further, and more and more it is taken over by visual and written media: television programmes, expert and popular periodicals, tourist reviews, and set books all over the world. Marko Polo and Korcula become an inseparable structural pair in which each pole enriches and ennobles the other.
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