Readers are invited to watch the above video, and see if you can tell in which city it was filmed. Here’s a clue: it’s not a city where a taxi driver is likely to say ‘mamma mia’.
I bring this up by way of an introduction. A minor nationalist tantrum recently erupted in Italy after former Croatian President Stjepan Mesic was invited to attend the opening of a museum, dedicated to the famous medieval explorer Marco Polo, in the Chinese city of Yangzhou. At the ceremony, Mesic was quoted as describing Marco Polo as a ‘Croatian-born world traveller who opened China to Europe’. Polo was, according to some (disputed) accounts, born on the Dalmatian island of Korcula, which was populated by Croats, in the town of the same name. The island was possessed by various different medieval states and rulers, including Croatia, but was ultimately conquered, along with other Dalmatian territories, by the Venetians, who ruled it for hundreds of years until the Venetian Republic was destroyed in the French Revolutionary Wars at the end of the nineteenth century.
The Italian daily Corriere della Sera responded to the ceremony at Yangzhou by accusing Croatia of having ‘kidnapped’ Marco Polo, and added a little nationalist rant about how ‘the island that Croatians now call “Korčula” was culturally Venetian, as is obvious from the old town, the Marcian Lions over the doors and the cathedral of St Mark’, adding for good measure a reference to the expulsion of ethnic Italians from Dalmatia and Istria by the Croatian Partisans following World War II, as well as a further complaint about the late Pope John Paul II’s reference to the medieval Croatian Christian heritage of Split – Croatia’s second city, which was also under Venetian rule. Corriere della Sera asked rhetorically ‘How is it possible that the Italian government and diplomatic service allowed someone as incredibly famous among the Chinese as the author of Il Milione to slip through their fingers, to the possible detriment of friendly relations, commerce and tourism?’
It should not need stating – again – that modern national identities cannot simply be projected back only ancient or medieval territories or individuals. That the actual identities of ancient and medieval – and indeed modern – territories were complex, nuanced and multifaceted. That modern nations have ethnically and culturally diverse roots; roots that should be celebrated, not denied in the name of crude nationalist models of homogeneity. Just look at the ethnic range of individuals who play a key part in English and British national history: the Norman-French William the Conqueror; the Dutch William of Orange; the Irish Duke of Wellington; the half-American Winston Churchill; and so on and so forth. The British royal family was originally German; its name was change from ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ in 1917. Think of the diverse ethnic backgrounds of leading British politicians today: Labour leader Ed Miliband (Polish Jewish); Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (Dutch, Russian); London mayor Boris Johnson (Turkish); former Conservative leader Michael Howard (Romanian Jewish); former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind (Lithuanian Jewish) – and that list is, of course, both incomplete and itself an oversimplification. Etc. etc. etc.
Arguments between nationalists over the possession of ancient or medieval historical figures of the ‘He’s ours ! No, he’s ours !’ variety have all the seriousness of primary school children fighting over possession of a particular lego brick or action man. But as with children’s toys, so with ancient and medieval historical figures, the best policy is to share. So the Duke of Wellington belongs to both Britain and Ireland; Charlemagne belongs to both France and Germany; Alexander the Great belongs to Greece, the Republic of Macedonia, Albania and others; Mother Theresa belongs to India, Albania and Macedonia; and so on.
Marco Polo, or Marko Polo, likewise belongs to both Italy and Croatia. The origins of his family are disputed, but I have never seen any evidence that he identified himself as either Italian or Croatian by nationality. The Venetian Republic of Marco Polo’s time was not an Italian national state; it ruled a far-flung multinational empire that stretched at times all the way into the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean – for example, Cyprus was under Venetian rule for nearly a century, and the Venetian influence can be seen prominently in the walls that surround the old town in Nicosia, still known as the ‘Venetian walls’.
Of course, Venetian rule in Korcula and other Dalmatian and Istrian territories was the rule of a colonial master, but that is no reason for Croats today to deny the strong Venetian influence on their culture – any more than Indians and Pakistanis should stop loving cricket; a sport bequeathed to them by British imperialism. Any more than Italians should deny the influence on their own culture of those who occupied parts of Italy over the course of hundreds of years: Normans, Arabs, Spanish, French, Austrians and others helped to shape the Italian nation that we have today. Any more than Croats should deny the influence on their culture of Serbs, Hungarians, Austrians and others. Culture doesn’t divide neatly along national lines.
The question arises, therefore, of why a supposedly respectable Italian newspaper should throw its rattle out of its pram just because a Croatian rather than an Italian politician was invited to attend the inauguration of a museum in China dedicated to Marco Polo. This may be put down in part to the legacy of Italian irredentism, and of the trauma of its defeat, with regard to the Croatian (and Slovene) Mediterranean coastal territories, following attempts to conquer them in both World War I and, under Mussolini and the Fascists, in World War II. Despite the enormous brutality inflicted by Fascist Italy on the inhabitants of these territories, the Italian attempt was ultimately defeated almost completely. By 1945, the Yugoslav Partisans had liberated all South-Slav-inhabited territories that had been annexed by Italy since 1918. So far as the Croat inhabitants of Dalmatia and other Croatian coastal territories were concerned, the Partisan struggle was above all a Croatian war of national liberation from the traditional Italian enemy. Apart from the great port of Trieste (which would have gone to Slovenia had the Western Allies not insisted it be returned to Italy), the Yugoslavs were, thanks to their military victory, able to keep all these territories after the war, so Dalmatia and most of Istria were reunited with Croatia, while the rest of Istria and other Slovene-inhabited territories were reunited with Slovenia.
Although the lands in question had overwhelming ethnic-Croat and ethnic-Slovene majorities, yet nationalistic Italians – not just Fascists – experienced this as a grievous loss of Italian national territory – particularly as regards Istria and the port of Rijeka, which had been annexed by Italy between 1918 and 1924. Italian resentment was undoubtedly exacerbated by the killings and expulsions of ethnic Italians in the territories in question by the victorious Partisans and the confiscations of their property, yet there is no equivalent degree of enduring German nationalist bitterness against Poland and the Czech Republic, where the post-war ethnic cleansing of Germans occurred on an incomparably larger scale. Italian nationalists simply disregard the actual ethnic composition of the terriories and the history of Italian Fascist expansion there, and view them through the prism of Italian victimhood and loss. Hardly surprising, therefore, that an Italian insistence that Marco Polo be considered Italian should slip effortlessly into an angry restatement of the traditional nationalist claim of coastal Croatia’s ‘Italian’ character.
Which brings us back to the advert at the start of this post. The Italians and Dalmatian Croats are close to one another in their culture and heritage; close enough that a Croatian city can plausibly be passed off as Italian-speaking in an advert for an international audience; and close enough also for many Italians not to appreciate the distinction. But the Dalmatian view is different. In Marco Polo’s alleged birthplace of Korcula town, a Partisan war-memorial depicts a Partisan with a sword slaughtering a Venetian lion. A peculiar product, it could be said, of a cultural symbiosis between two neighbouring peoples that stretches back to the time of Marco Polo and beyond, and of which the famous explorer may himself have been a product.
PS As an aside, those familiar with the city in question will note that it’s impossible for the hero to be standing beside that particular statue and to see the angels walking towards him across the piazza. But the makers of the advert can be forgiven for wanting to make the most of the scenery…
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