Thalassocracies, Naval Battles and Marco Polo

9 September 1298 - off the Dalmatian coast at Curzola, Marco Polo was captured during a naval battle between Genoa and Venice, the last two Italian maritime republics.

"Not many months after the arrival of the travellers at Venice, news came that LAMPA DORIA, Captain of the Genoese Fleet, had advanced with 70 galleys to the Island of Curzola, upon which orders were issued by the Prince of the Most Illustrious Signory for the arming of 90 galleys with all the expedition possible, and Messer Marco Polo for his valour was put in charge of one of these. So he with the others, under the command of the Most Illustrious MESSER ANDREA DANDOLO, Procurator of St. Mark's, as Captain General, a very brave and worthy gentleman, set out in search of the Genoese Fleet. They fought on the September feast of Our Lady, and, as is the common hazard of war, our fleet was beaten, and Polo was made prisoner. For, having pressed on in the vanguard of the attack, and fighting with high and worthy courage in defence of his country and his kindred, he did not receive due support, and being wounded, he was taken, along with Dandolo, and immediately put in irons and sent to Genoa." (Marco Polo, “"Il Milione" - the "Books of the Marvels of the World")

A 19th century’s imagination of a Venetian war galley (Encyclopedia Britannica) 

It was not exactly a happy homecoming Marco Polo had after he returned to his native Venice after 24 years of travelling in the Far East. Not only was he met with general disbelief – his hometown was at war as well. Not that war between the great thalassocracies, Italy’s maritime republics, were something out of the ordinary for the last 300 years, but at the end of the 13th century, only two worth mentioning were left and a climax seemed to culminate. Lampa d’Oria, ancestor of the famous condottiere and admiral Andrea Doria who became a talking point during the 15th and 16th century, drew the Venetian fleet towards the coast of Dalmatia and while Admiral Dandolo tried to swoop down on the Genoese as soon as the enemy was in sight, d’Oria took his time, withdrew, studied his enemy, the currents and wind conditions and made his move on the morning of September 8th. Advancing with well-ordered lines, taking advantage of the easterly wind, he brought the Venetian centre to battle and broke their back by a timely commitment of his reserves – like he did at Meloria when he annihilated the fleet of Pisa 15 years before. Allegedly, Admiral Dandolo committed suicide out of shame by beating his head against the mast of the Genoese flagship.

Spinello Aretino (1350 - 1410): Close combat aboard war galleys - here: Venetians fighting the Holy Roman Empire off Sicily (around 1408) 

The best know Venetian prisoner of the Battle of Curzola was Marco Polo. While imprisoned in Genoa, Marco Polo and two of his French mates composed one of most the famous travel writings ever: "Il Milione" - the "Books of the Marvels of the World". As it was quite customary at the end of the 13th century in Northern Italy, they wrote in French in the style of the Breton epic poetry and romances, dictating the text to a third inmate, Rustichello da Pisa. "Il Milione" was received by Polo's contemporaries exactly as such, epic poetry, until, a century later, when the Age of Exploration began, fellow travellers found it to be much, much more than a tall tale. Cartographers used the quite exact indications of distances to draw their maps and even Columbus used his copy of “Il Milione” to calculate the sea route to Cathay and India - with the well known outcome.

An ageing Marco Polo, according to a 19th century imagination

Marco Polo was released a year later, returned to Venice, married, had three daughters and became a wealthy merchant. He died 25 years later in 1324. The history of Venice proceeded not quite as peaceful and domestic in line with expectations. After having lost the command of the sea in the Adriatic to Genoa, a range of revolts and the outbreak of the Black Death epidemic between 1348 – 50 shook the republic even more and it took Venice more than 100 years to reassert herself from the crisis of the 14th century and took on the dominant role it played during the 15th and early 16th century, tipping the scales in the conflicts of the major powers along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, while the Republic of Genoa was finally worn down in the conflict with Venice and later Spain and France in Italy.

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