Showing posts with label Biblioteca Marciana. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Biblioteca Marciana. Show all posts

9 January 2024

Marco Polo - merchant and explorer

Venetian trader who described travels in China 

A 19th century portrait in mosaic of Marco Polo at Palazzo Tursi in Genoa
A 19th century portrait in mosaic of
Marco Polo at Palazzo Tursi in Genoa
The Italian explorer Marco Polo, who achieved a place in history as the first European to write in extensive detail about life in China, is thought by many historians to have died on or close to this day in 1324 in his home city of Venice.

Accounts of his final days say he had been confined to bed with an illness and that his doctor was concerned on January 8 that he was close to death. Indeed, so worried were those around his bedside that they sent for a local priest to witness his last will and testament, which Polo dictated in the presence of his wife, Donata, and their three daughters, who were appointed executors.

The supposition has been that he died on the same evening. The will document was preserved and is kept by the Biblioteca Marciana, the historic public library of Venice just across the Piazzetta San Marco from St Mark’s Basilica. It shows the date of the witnessing of Polo’s testament as January 9, although it should be noted that under Venetian law at the time, the change of date occurred at sunset rather than midnight.

Confusingly, the document recorded his death as occurring in June 1324 and the witnessing of the will on January 9, 1323. The consensus among historians, however, is that he reached his end in January, 1324.

Born in 1254 - again the specific date is unknown - Marco Polo was best known for his travels to Asia in the company of his father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo.

Having left Venice in 1271, when Marco was 16 or 17, they are said to have reached China in 1275 and remained there for 17 years. Marco wrote about the trip in a book that was originally titled Book of the Marvels of the World but is today known as The Travels of Marco Polo. It is considered a classic of travel literature.

A map showing the journeys said to have been  made by Marco Polo on his travels to China
A map showing the journeys said to have been 
made by Marco Polo on his travels to China
The book, which was written in prison after he had been captured during a war between the rival republics of Venice and Genoa upon returning to Italy, describes his experiences in China in terms of first-hand accounts. Sceptical experts have suggested some of the stories might have been appropriated from other explorers and merchants and passed off by Polo as his own. Yet although some of his descriptions of the exotic animals he ecountered seem somewhat fantastical, the accuracy of much of what he described has generally been confirmed in subsequent years.

The book, which Polo dictated to Rustichello da Pisa, a fellow prisoner of the Genoese who happened to be a writer, introduced European audiences to the mysteries of the Eastern world, including the wealth and sheer size of the Mongol Empire and China, providing descriptions of China, Persia, India, Japan and other Asian cities and countries.

Polo’s father and uncle had traded with the Middle East for many years and had become wealthy in the process. They had visited the western territories of the Mongol Empire on a previous expedition, established strong trading links and visited Shangdu, about 200 miles (320km) north of modern Beijing, where Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty, had an opulent summer palace, and which was immortalised by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as Xanadu.

Their journey with Marco originally took them to Acre in present-day Israel, where - at the request of Kublai Khan - they secured some holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They continued to the Persian port city of Hormuz and thereafter followed overland routes that later became known as the Silk Road.

Travelling through largely rough terrain, the journey to Shangdu took the best part of three years.  Marco Polo’s long stay owed itself partly to Kublai Khan taking him into his court and sending him on various official missions.  In that capacity, he extended his travels to include what is now the city of Hangzhou and may have crossed the border into India and what is now Myanmar.

A painting of unknown origin of Marco Polo's father and uncle presenting a gift to Kublai Khan
A painting of unknown origin of Marco Polo's
father and uncle presenting a gift to Kublai Khan
The Polos left China in around 1291 or 1292, given the responsibility to escort a young princess to Persia, where she was to marry the Mongol ruler. Their route from Persia took through parts of what is now Turkey, to Constantinople, and then north along the Adriatic to Venice.  They arrived home in 1295.

It was during the second of four wars between Venice and their trading rival Genoa that Marco Polo was captured.  He remained a prisoner until 1299, when a peace treaty allowed for his release.  Thereafter, he continued his life as a merchant, achieving prosperity, but rarely left Venice or its territories again until his death.

His book, known to Italians under the title Il Milione after Polo’s own nickname, introduced the West to many aspects of Chinese culture and customs and described such things as porcelain, gunpowder, paper money and eyeglasses, which were previously unknown in Europe. Contrary to some stories, his discoveries did not include pasta, which was once held widely to have been imported by Marco Polo but is thought actually to have existed in the Italy of the Etruscans in the 4th century BC. 

Christopher Columbus and other explorers are said to have been inspired by Marco Polo to begin their own adventures, Columbus discovering the Americas effectively by accident after setting sail across the Atlantic in the expectation of reaching the eastern coast of Asia.

Marco Polo is buried at the church of San Lorenzo
Marco Polo is buried at the
church of San Lorenzo
Travel tip:

One of the wishes Marco Polo expressed on his deathbed was that he be buried in the church of San Lorenzo in the Castello sestiere of Venice, about 850m (930 yards) on foot from Piazza San Marco. The church, whick dates back to the ninth century and was rebuilt in the late 16th century, houses the relics of Saint Paul I of Constantinople as well as Marco Polo’s tomb. Castello is the largest of the six sestieri, stretching east almost from the Rialto Bridge and including the shipyards of Arsenale, once the largest naval complex in Europe, the Giardini della Biennale and the island of Sant’Elena. Unlike its neighbour, San Marco, Castello is a quiet neighbourhood, where tourists can still find deserted squares and empty green spaces.

Arched Byzantine windows thought to have been from the Polo family home
Arched Byzantine windows thought to
have been from the Polo family home
Travel tip: 

The Polo family home in Venice, which was largely destroyed in a fire in 1598, was in the Cannaregio sestiere close to where the Teatro Malibran now stands, in Corte Seconda del Milion, one of two small square that recall Marco Polo’s nickname, Il Milione, which may have been coined as a result of his enthusiasm for the wealth he encountered at the court of Kublai Khan in China or as a result of his being from the Polo Emilioni branch of the family. The Byzantine arches visible in Corte Seconda del Milion are thought to have been part of the Polo house.  The Teatro Malibran was originally inaugurated in 1678 as the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, opening with the premiere of Carlo Pallavicino's opera Vespasiano.  It was renamed Teatro Malibran in 1835 in honour of a famous soprano, Maria Malibran, who was engaged to sing Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula there but was so shocked as the crumbling condition of the theatre that she refused her fee, insisting it be put towards the theatre’s upkeep instead. 

Also on this day:

1878: The death of Victor Emmanuel II, first King of Italy

1878: Umberto I succeeds Victor Emanuel II

1944: The birth of architect Massimiliano Fuksas

2004: The death of political philosopher Norberto Bobbio


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7 August 2018

Vincenzo Scamozzi – architect

Follower of Palladio had his own distinctive style


A portrait of  Vincenzo Scamozzi attributed to Paolo Veronese
A portrait of  Vincenzo Scamozzi
attributed to Paolo Veronese
The architect and writer Vincenzo Scamozzi, whose work in the second half of the 16th century had a profound effect on the landscape of Vicenza and Venice, died on this day in 1616 in Venice.

Scamozzi’s influence was later to spread far beyond Italy as a result of his two-volume work, L’idea dell’Architettura Universale - The idea of a universal architecture - which was one of the last Renaissance works about the theory of architecture.

Trained by his father, Scamozzi went on to study in Venice and Rome and also travelled in Europe.

The classical influence of Andrea Palladio is evident in many of the palaces, villas and churches that Scamozzi designed in Vicenza, Venice and Padua.

His work influenced English neoclassical architects such as Inigo Jones and many others who came after him.

Scamozzi's Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni on the Grand Canal in Venice
Scamozzi's Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni
on the Grand Canal in Venice
Scamozzi was also an important theatre architect and stage set designer. He completed Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza in 1585, adding his own design for a stage set constructed of timber and plaster, using trompe-l'œil techniques to create the appearance of long streets receding to a distant horizon

Scamozzi was invited to Venice to design housing for the procuratorate of San Marco. He continued the end façade of the Sansovino Library, with its arcaded ground floor, adding an upper floor to provide the required accommodation in the Piazzetta.

Between 1569 and 1614, Scamozzi designed villas, palaces and churches throughout the Venetian Republic, often completing and reworking designs by Palladio, such as the one for Villa Capra “La Rotonda” near Vicenza.

In 1601 he continued the work of the architect Andrea Moroni after his death, by designing a new façade for Palazzo del Bò, the main building of Padua University

Scamozzi designed Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni on the Grand Canal in Venice and his final project in 1614 was Palazzo Loredan Vendramin Calergi in Venice.

His seven children had died before him, so Scamozzi left the proceeds of his estate to set up a scholarship to enable poor boys from Vicenza to study architecture.

Scamozzi's stage set at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza
Scamozzi's stage set at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza
Travel tip:

The Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza was the last piece of architecture designed by Andrea Palladio and it was not completed until after his death. It is one of three Renaissance theatres remaining in existence and since 1994 it has been listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. In 1579 Palladio was asked to produce a design for a permanent theatre in Vicenza and he decided to base it on designs of Roman theatres he had studied. After his death, only six months into the project, Vincenzo Scamozzi was called in to complete it. Scamozzi’s original scenery for the theatre, which was meant to represent the streets of Thebes, has miraculously survived to this day. The theatre is still used for plays and musical performance, but audiences are limited to 400 for conservation reasons. The theatre was also used as a location for the films Don Giovanni and Casanova.

The inner courtyard at Palazzo del Bò, where Scamozzi designed a new facade
The inner courtyard at Palazzo del Bò, where Scamozzi
designed a new facade
Travel tip:

The main building of Padua University is Palazzo del Bò in Via 8 Febbraio in the centre of Padua. Vincenzo Scamozzi designed a new façade for the palace after the death of the original architect commissioned, Andrea Moroni. The building used to house the medical faculty of the university and visitors can take a guided tour of the palace and see the actual lectern used by Galileo when he taught there between 1592 and 1610.

More reading:

How Andrea Palladio became the world's favourite architect

Jacopo Sansovino - the architect of Piazza San Marco

How Canaletto captured the look of Venice

Also on this day:

1919: The birth of film producer Dino De Laurentiis

1956: The birth of Italy's 'Millionaire' Presenter Gerry Scotti

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25 July 2017

Agostino Steffani – composer

Baroque musician and cleric who features in modern literature


Agostino Steffani, depcited in a 1714
portrait by Gerhard Kappers
A priest and diplomat as well as a singer and composer, Agostino Steffani was born on this day in 1654 in Castelfranco Veneto near Venice.

Details of his life and works have recently been brought to the attention of readers of contemporary crime novels because they were used by the American novelist, Donna Leon, as background for her 2012 mystery The Jewels of Paradise.

Steffani was admitted as a chorister at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice while he was still young and in 1667 the beauty of his voice attracted the attention of Count Georg Ignaz von Tattenbach, who took him to Munich.

Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria, paid for Steffani’s education and granted him a salary, in return for his singing.

In 1673 Steffani was sent to study in Rome, where he composed six motets. The original manuscripts for these are now in a museum in Cambridge.

On his return to Munich Steffani was appointed court organist. He was also ordained a priest and given the title of Abbate of Lepsing. His first opera, Marco Aurelia, was written for the carnival and produced at Munich in 1681.

Part of the score of Duetto da Camera Pria ch'io faccia by
Agostino Steffani, which is in the British Library in London
The only manuscript score of it known to exist is in the Royal Library at Buckingham Palace. He followed this with six more operas written between 1685 and 1688.

Steffani then accepted the post of Kapellmeister at the court of Hanover where he showed great kindness to the young Handel, who was just beginning his career.

He composed an opera called Henrico Leone for the opening of the new opera house, which enhanced his reputation. He composed several more operas for the same theatre and the scores were brought to London by the Elector of Hanover, George Louis, when he became King George I. They are now preserved in Buckingham Palace.

Steffani went on diplomatic missions on behalf of George Louis’s father, Ernest Augustus, when he became Elector of Hanover and this work was recognised by Pope Innocent XI who granted him high honours.

George Louis, later King George I of England
George Louis, later King George I of England
By then a respected cleric, Steffani continued to write operas using the name of his secretary, although one score that has been judged to be his work bears no name.

In 1724 the Academy of Ancient Music in London elected him as honorary president for life and in return he sent them a Stabat Mater and three madrigals, which have been considered to be in advance of the age in which they were written. Steffani also wrote many beautiful cantatas for two voices, the scores for which are now in the British Museum.

The composer visited Italy for the last time in 1727, where he met up with Handel again. Steffani died in 1728 while on diplomatic business in Frankfurt.

In Donna Leon’s novel The Jewels of Paradise, a young musicologist is hired in Venice to find the rightful heirs to fictional treasure that Steffani left in trunks that had not been opened for centuries. Donna Leon’s interest in Baroque opera inspired her to write this story, weaving fact with fiction as she takes details from Steffani’s past and creates a present-day mystery involving two avaricious Venetians who think they are heirs to Steffani’s fortune.

The Cathedral at Castelfranco Veneto
Travel tip:

Castelfranco Veneto, where Steffani was born, is an ancient walled town in the Veneto region of Italy. It is also famous for being the birthplace of Renaissance artist, Giorgione. The Cathedral inside the walls contains one of his finest works, Madonna with St Francis and Liberalis, which was painted in 1504.

The Biblioteca Marciana in Venice
The Biblioteca Marciana in Venice
Travel tip:

In Donna Leon’s novel The Jewels of Paradise, the main character, the musicologist Caterina Pellegrini, carries out a lot of her research into the life of Agostino Steffani at the Biblioteca Marciana, which is an elegant building opposite the Doge’s Palace in the Piazzetta, off St Mark’s Square in Venice.