Marko Polo and Korcula by dr. Zivan Filippi
The Battle Before Korcula


The great world traveller Marko Polo could not rest in the narrow confines of Venice, so he travelled along the Dalmatian Coast making trade with small town-principalities, which were under the reign of the Serenissima. He very probably visited his native town of Korcula. Marsilie Zorzi, the first Venetian duke of Korcula, died in 1271. According to his testament he was succeeded by Ruggiero Zorzi, and a respected member of the Venetian Big Council, Marin Zorzi, reigned over Korcula in 1281. This supreme body of the Venetian Republic gave him one galley which he had to keep at the ready for the defence of Korcula and Venetian interests at sea. The crew of the galley consisted of young Korcula men, who were always on call. Korcula ship-builders were among the first in the building of wooden war galleys for Venice, either in the Korcula shipyards or in Venetian ones. They were a precious source of that craft for Venice, so that they played an outstanding role in its Arsenal in the town of Venice itself.

In one of the biggest and cruellest sea battles of the Middle Ages, in the conflict between the fleets of Venice and Genoa on September 7th 1298, in front of the town of Korcula, the great Venetian traveller and explorer, originating from Korcula, Marko Polo, was taken prisoner. His imprisonment and his stay in a Genoese prison are significant events in the life of that citizen of the world.

Already in the 11th century, the power of Genoa, a free commune on the coast of the Ligurian Sea, was representing a threat to the business trade of the Venetian Republic, both on land and on the islands of the Levant - Eastern Mediterranean. Genoa was becoming stronger and stronger and their seamen ever more enterprising. They were already sailing on the Atlantic in the 13th century, in an effort to reach by sea the promised lands of the Far East.

In the middle of the 13th century the conflict between the two Mediterranean powers culminated in open war for the prize of Constantinople and other towns of the newly created Byzantine empire. The armistice of 1269 did not hold, and a new war began in 1293. The climax of that war came when the Venetian admirals, Ruggiero Morosini Malabranca and Giovanni Soranzo sailed towards the port of Constantinople with the intent of destroying the Genoese ward Pere, which they did. Morosini in the Golden Horn, lowered his anchor demonstratively in front of the imperial palace. They ravaged and burned down the important Genoese plant of alaun on the Anatolian coasts. Thus they endangered the significant trade of alaun, important for the production of colours and they broke the chains of the slave trade, and endangered the Genoese sea routes. The Genoese and the Greeks replied by massacring the Venetians in Constantinople, and they even killed the president of the Genoese colony, "bailo" Marco Bembo throwing him down from the roof of his house. The hatred between the Venetians and Genoese was made into verses of ridicule, intolerance and vengeance, which echoed on board both fleets. The final endeavour for settling of accounts between these two strong powers was at hand.

Both parties had strong well-built ships, skilful sailors and ready commanders, as well as experience in great sea battles. So, the Genoese, under the command of Oberto Doria, in the battle of Melori, in 1284, completely defeated the Pisan fleet and took control over all shipping on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The galleys - traditional vessels of the Mediterranean - were the basis of both fleets. At the time of the battle in front of Korcula, they were already equipped with a modern rudder in the middle of the stern. That technical invention made them quick and mobile in manoeuvring, and the Genoese were the better masters of that technique. The galleys were moved both by rowing and sailing. They were 40 to 60 metres long, and they were distinguished, first by the number and arrangement of oars - from one-oar galley, "zenzila" to mighty three-oar and four-oar galleys - as well as by the number of rowing "galliots", which numbered between 50 and 120. The lateen sails were raised on two masts, and one could sail down-wind only. On the elevated "scafs" - castles - on the prow and on the stern, there were devices by means of which lances, arrows, stones and other projectiles could be thrown on to enemy boats. The "beak" for piercing another boat was already fading out in the 13th century, and there was a prolongation - "proboscis" on the prow of the boat instead of the beak. The soldiers and sailors would rush across it and board the enemy boat in the procedure of "abordaza" and occupy it. The defence of the "boarded" boat consisted of the close battle at the barricades set in advance from the prow to the stern of the threatened ship.

The commander of the galley was a "sopracomito" with the aid of one or more officers, "comiti". Military officers were in charge of the battle and commanded both soldiers and gunmen - "bombardieri", and sopracomito, while officers ran the boat with sailors and rowers - galliots.

The admiral or "captain general" was issuing battle commands to other boats by means of signals; he used flags and a trumpet for the commencement of the battle and gave other commands with a cone hanging on the mast during the day, and with lamps during the night. He also had at his disposal smaller but quicker reconnaissance boats.

The Venetians equipped their war galleys using contributions from trading families depending on their ability to pay, and their credits were then transformed into a public debt with interest. Soldiers and sailors were recruited from various regions - "contradas" - between the age of 20 and 60 years in the following way: dice were cast in the group of twelve recruited and this determined the priority of entering the service. A person who was alloted by the die to enter the service received five liras a month from the state, and one lira from each of the group who stayed at home. The communes under Venetian rule on the Adriatic Sea or in other seas of the Eastern Mediterranean, were required to produce one or more equipped ships for the fleet, which was quite a significant expense for them. This was one of the heavier obligations of the Korcula commune during its history.

The usual tactical arrangement at the commencement of battle was the formation of ships arranged like a sickle or crescent; the aim being to incite confusion in the enemy ranks. The commanders always tried to use the advantage of open sea in this so that they had a greater choice of movement, while those on the windward side gained absolute advantage.

There is more data about the composition of the fleet, and about the preparations and the very unfolding of battle, on the Genoese side - the side of the winner - where even today there still exist public monuments and inscriptions commemorating the great victory.

Genoa gave the command of the fleet, in the range of "admiral general" to Lamba Doria, younger brother of the legendary Oberto Doria, under whom Lamba served in the afore mentioned battle against the fleet of Pisa by the rock of Melori 14 years earlier. The aims of the campaign were faithfully described by a contemporary poet: to burn down and destroy everything, houses, ships... The poem says that this time Genoa would challenge St. Marco's Lion in his own den. A mighty fleet of 85 war ships gathered in the bay of La Spezia and moved towards the Adriatic. On its way, it put to shore in the Tunisian port of Djerba, and then at Messina, continuing towards Korcula (Curzola). When it passed Gates of Otranto, a stormy wind (the August south wind) scattered the fleet, so that Lamba Doria had to take shelter in the Albanian port of Antivari (present-day Bar) with a fleet of twenty ships. He was joined the following day by 58 vessels and he continued with them, sailing along the Dalmatian coast ravaging and destroying all Venetian property on his way. The 16 boats that lagged behind were to join him later; this was to be crucial for the result of the battle. Doria came to the island of Korcula, "Black Korkyra", whose "main town is a rich and prosperous place" at the beginning of September. Doria started to plunder and pillage on the island and in the town of Korcula, and he burned down some houses. At that moment his messenger reported that the Venetian fleet was in sight.

At the first sign of the Genoese campaign, the Venetians sent to the Adriatic the Admiral Andrea Dandolo with the order to take over the naval squadron of Maffeo Quirini, which was patrolling along the Ionian Sea. Receiving more precise reports about the strength of Doria's ships, Venice quickly equipped and dispatched 32 galleys from Chioggia and from the Dalmatian communes. Ruggerio Zorzi was reigning in Korcula at that time, and the Venetian doge was Pietro Gradenigo, whereas Andrea Dandolo himself was the son of the doge Giovanni Dandolo, who died in 1289. Chroniclers speak about the difficulties of such a quick equipage of the boats: neither military nor ship's crews were up to the level of Venetian reputation. The Sopracomito of the galley, equipped at their own expense, by the Polo family, was the great traveller, Marko Polo himself. This was the biggest war fleet the Venetians had ever sent to sea: 96 galleys and three big ships. The only fleet which could match it was the fleet the Venetians equipped for the Saint League at the battle of Lepanto in 1571.

In the afternoon of September 6 1298, visual contact occurred between the opposing sides. The Venetian fleet was sailing from the west along the south side of the island of Korcula towards the cap of Ra`njic, whereas the Genoese fleet was situated in the sheltered area of cap Ra`njic, in the vicinity of the village of Lumbarda, northeast towards the peninsula of Peljesac (location Mokalo-Postup), the island of Mljet being on its left side. As sunset approached, both fleets showed in their manoeuvres a readiness to postpone battle until the next day, a Sunday. When the Genoese saw the strength of the Venetian fleet they were amazed. However, Doria called a meeting of his commanders and they all voted to attack. The Venetians, on the other hand, considered the Genoese fleet to be a ready prey and they sent out small reconnaissance boats in order to be sure that the Genoese fleet did not escape under the darkness of night.

The battle started early on Sunday September 7th and lasted until the afternoon. The Venetians had the wind (north-west) in their favour but the morning sun was blinding their vision. They took advantage of the wind and captured ten Genoese galleys. However, some Venetian galleys were sunk in a fierce skirmish, and some of them were grounded. The Genoese captured one of them and used it against the Venetians, after they had changed the crew. This produced the confusion among the attackers, and the Genoese changed their order of battle. Lamba Doria ordered the arrangement of a dense row of ships and began attacking the scattered Venetian fleet. The day was coming to an end, when the sixteen Genoese galleys, which had lagged behind at Otranto, appeared from the direction of Mljet. They engaged themselves in the battle readily attacking the tiresome Venetian flank. Maybe that was not only the luck of war but the skilfulness of the Genoese, who used tactical flanking reserves in other battles as well, producing them in battle only at the last moment. Doria's victory was great: all Venetian vessels were captured or destroyed, including Admiral Dandolo's big ship. Only a few Venetian boats managed to escape from the battle site of this historic event, in order to bring the news to Venice of their defeat. The Genoese losses, which occurred at the beginning of the battle, were also significant. Octavian Doria, the older admiral's son was also killed. The proud Genoese poet describes that happening:

"The Genoese are deemed the most valiant men in the world. Such an one was Lamba, of that very Doria family - a man of high courage. For when he was engaged in that sea-fight against the Venetians, and was standing on the poop of his galley, his son, fighting valiantly at the forecastle, was shot by an arrow in the breast, and fell wounded to death; a mishap over which his comrades were sorely shaken, and fear came upon the whole ship's company. But Lamba, hot with the spirit of battle, and more mindful of his country's service and his own glory than of his son, ran forward to the spot, loftily rebuked the agitated crowd, and ordered his son's body to be cast into the deep, telling them for their comfort that the land could never have afforded his boy a nobler tomb. And then, renewing the fight more fiercely than ever, he achieved victory."

The Venetian losses were scarcely to be believed: 18 sunk galleys, 66 captured galleys, which Lamba burned on the Korcula beaches because he could not tow them as far as Genoa; 7,000 soldiers, sailors and rowers killed, and 7,400 captured. The entire galley of the Polos was destroyed - a big ship with a total of 120 oars, a massive catapult at the forward castle, a boat with the ancient oar-rudder, with two masts and lateen sails, on which the flags of the Republic waved on the forward mast, and the flag of the Polos with three crows on the stern mast. Marko Polo himself was imprisoned and his heroism was described in these words: "He was captured because he threw himself and his galley to the front of the battle and because he was fighting for his country with great courage and then injured, in chains, he was taken off to Genoa."

Marko Polo, then a mature man of forty-four years, had at his disposal all the necessary knowledge and skill demanded by a great naval battle. Besides this, he had a great knowledge of people and human nature, and he had the money necessary for equipping the ship. There were other examples of heroism on the Venetian side. Thus the commander of the Ionian squadron, Maffeo Querini, received the order from Dandolo at the end of the lost battle to withdraw. He gathered 14 galleys together and they were the only ones preserved, withdrew them from the battle, and then returned once more with his boat to the site of the skirmish continuing to fight fiercely until his heroic death.

Among the chained Venetians - and all were in chains without regard to rank and position - was the admiral Andrea Dandolo himself. Dandolo, in despair because of the defeat, and even more in despair at the tought of going to the Genoese prison, committed suicide by bashing his head against the oarsmen's bank. According to some sources he was buried in Korcula, and according to others he was buried, with due respect, in Genoa.

Lamba Doria celebrated his victory in the town of Korcula for four days, and then sailed towards Genoa where a magnificent welcome was waiting for him. The victorious fleet sailed into the Genoese port on October 16. Genoa was to remember him as the great victor. An annual feast was established of worshipping at the alter of Our Lady in the church of Saint Mathew every September 8th, on the Day of Our Lady, on the eve of which feast Lamba Doria achieved his historic victory. The admiral was given a splendid palace opposite the church of Saint Mathew as a gift of thanks from the town. The glorious admiral, Lamba Doria died in Savona on October 17th 1323, just a few months before his most famous prisoner, Marko Polo died himself. The youngest son Cesare continued in the family tradition of the Doria family. Besides the afore mentioned heroic death of Octavian, it is worth noting the death of another of Lamba's sons, Tadisi, who took part in the Vivaldi Atlantic campaign towards the Far East in 1291, from which he never returned. We meet The Dorias among Croatian admirals in the 14th and 15th centuries, and in the 16th century the star of the great "condonttiero", Andrea Doria, shone high in the sky.

Marko Polo found himself in prison in Genoa, together with thousands of his comrades. In his uncomfortable prison cell, he started to dictate his memoirs of the magnificent travels to China, to Rustichello the writer from Pisa of romantic tales. If the battle before Korcula had not taken place, the stormy and exciting biography of Marko Polo might never have been written. The masterpiece of adventurous and travel literature left unknown!


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