An Italian Hero for China. Reading Marco Polo in the Fascist Era

Laura De Giorgi, University of Venice Ca’ Foscari

In 1881, when the Third Congress of the Italian Geographical Society took place in Venice, visitors had the chance to admire a statue imported from Canton in China, supposedly portraying one of Venice’s most famous personalities, Marco Polo. The statue, currently in Museo Correr in St Mark’s Square, was a copy of the original one kept and used as an object of worship — a westerner among the arhats — in the Hualin Buddhist temple in Canton, known in the West as the Temple of the Five Hundred Gods. While the statue seemed to portray a westerner, it had no specific features proving that it was in fact the Venetian traveller. However, the assumption that Marco Polo was considered a local god in China was appealing to Italian nationalist sentiment. And so the Gazzetta del Regno d’Italia proudly reported the following description from the Gazzetta di Venezia:

Il nostro famoso viaggiatore è vestito alla cinese col manto però e col cappello alla foggia europea. Egli è seduto, ha i mustacchi e la barba a collare, dipinti in bleu scuro, e la sua fisonomia dimostra evidentemente di non avere il carattere mongolo, sebbene l’artista cinese vi abbia naturalmente impresso un tono e un’impronta particolare. Davanti al seggiolone rosso sul quale Marco Polo è seduto, c’è un vaso di porcellana dove si depongono i profumi, perché egli è venerato come un genio tutelare della Cina nel tempio di Canton; e sotto vi è l’iscrizione in lingua cinese (Gazzetta ufficiale del Regno d’Italia 1881).

Nonetheless, its attribution already carried some doubt. As early as the 1870s, western observers in China had reported the information with scepticism. In his Walks in Canton, published in 1875, John Henry Gray, archbishop of Hong Kong, affirmed that this story had been told by a “writer”, but that the information was not grounded on any evidence (Gray 1875, 206). French Orientalists were sceptical as well (Revue de l’Extrême-Orient 1882). In Italy, doubts among experts on China were reported by the press. For example, the Nuova Antologia di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti (Protonari 1882, 380) mentioned the opinion of Samuel Beal, professor of Chinese at the University College of London and expert on the Silk Road. According to Beal, the statue was rather the effigy of Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (Francesco Saverio), who had died on Shangchuan Island, close to Guangdong, in 1552 before managing to touch Chinese soil.

In spite of all these scholarly discussions, in Italy, the idea that Marco Polo was considered a divinity in Canton was echoed in travelogues and reports about China for a long time, with voices in support of this theory reported as evidence (Bollettino della Società Geografica Italiana 1891, 608). Indeed, this notion mirrored the importance symbolically attributed to Polo’s legacy and fame as an auspicious omen for the Italian presence in China and a heroic symbol of Italianness in the East. A few years before the arrival of the statue in Venice, the Italian colonial enterprise had been extended to China, with disappointing results. After the conclusion of a commercial treaty in 1866, Italy’s trade with China had not increased as hoped, and the kingdom’s diplomatic power had remained marginal, as shown by its incapacity to affirm its role in protecting Catholic missions to the Chinese Empire. In addition, at the end of the nineteenth century, Italy’s request for a concession in Sanmen Bay was refused by the Qing Court, marking a great diplomatic defeat.

The perspective was only changed by Italy’s participation in the Boxer Expedition in 1900, when it obtained its only colonial outpost in East Asia, in the Port of Tianjin (Francioni 2004; Samarani and De Giorgi 2011). In the search for an auspicious omen in the midst of these mixed fortunes, the name of the Venetian merchant was inevitably connected to Italy’s enterprise in the East: the first armoured cruiser of the Regia Marina destined for East Asia in the 1890s and launched in 1892 was named “Marco Polo”. The warship served along the Chinese coast for 20 years before being decommissioned in the early 1920s. Similarly, during the Tianjin concession, Marco Polo’s legitimized presence was immediately recalled at the spatial level, as the main street was named after him in the first regulatory plan of 1905. The symbolic importance attributed to Marco Polo in the context of Italy’s expected role in China comes as no surprise. Rather, it is just one facet of the complex spread of his fame in western Europe and Italy after he wrote The Travels. As one of the most iconic books in European cultural history for centuries, Marco Polo’s work had had a profound effect on western geographical knowledge and its approach to the world since the end of the Middle Ages (Larner 1999).

His Travels had helped to establish the European genre of travel writing, with its emphasis on the heroic individual’s ordeals and triumphs (Kennedy 2013, 3). In the age of European imperialism, through the convergence of racial ideologies, colonial policies, Orientalism and the emerging mass culture, Marco Polo was increasingly evoked as a model and precursor of the western modern self ’s relation with the Orient. Part of the afterlife of The Travels is constituted by the Italian discourse on Marco Polo during the Fascist era. The process to make him a fetish of Italy’s primacy and peculiarity in western relations with the “Orient” marked a step towards Marco Polo’s transformation into one of the main and most popular icons in cultural diplomacy between Italy and China.

DOI: 10.36253/978–88–5518–579–0.10

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