Showing posts with label Castello. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Castello. 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


17 October 2018

Giovanni Matteo Mario - operatic tenor

Disgraced nobleman became the toast of London and Paris

Giovanni Matteo Mario became a singer  after fleeing to France
Giovanni Matteo Mario became a singer
after fleeing to France
The operatic tenor Giovanni Matteo Mario, a Sardinian nobleman who deserted from the army and began singing only to earn a living after fleeing to Paris, was born on this day in 1810 in Cagliari.

He was baptised Giovanni Matteo de Candia, born into an aristocratic family belonging to Savoyard-Sardinian nobility. Some of his relatives were members of the Royal Court of Turin. His father, Don Stefano de Candia of Alghero, held the rank of general in the Royal Sardinian Army and was aide-de-camp to the Savoy king Charles Felix of Sardinia.

He became Giovanni Mario or Mario de Candia only after he had begun his stage career at the age of 28. He was entitled to call himself Cavaliere (Knight), Nobile (Nobleman) and Don (Sir) in accordance with his inherited titles, yet on his first professional contract, he signed himself simply ‘Mario’ out of respect for his father, who considered singing a lowly career.

Although he was one of the most celebrated tenors of the 18th century, Italy never heard Mario sing. Instead, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London and the Théâtre Italien in Paris witnessed most of his triumphs.

He often sang with his lifelong partner, the soprano Giulia Grisi, with whom he lived in Paris and London before Mario bought a villa just outside Florence in around 1849.

An illustration showing Giulia Grisi and
Giovanni Mario in Bellini's I puritani
The young De Candia was expected to have a military career. From the age of 12 he attended the Military College of Turin, where his fellow students included the future prime minister of Italy, Camillo Benso di Cavour When he was transferred to Genoa at the age of 19 with the rank of second lieutenant, however, he met the young revolutionaries Giuseppe Mazzini and Jacopo Ruffini and became sympathetic to the republican ideals.

It was not long before his military career abruptly ended. Some stories suggest De Candia was expelled from the army on suspicion of subversive activity, others that he deserted in fear of arrest. Either way, having left Genoa in a fishing boat, he landed in Marseille before moving on to Paris, where he found a growing community of Italian political refugees.

He was drawn towards the city’s musical and literary culture, meeting among others the composers Chopin, Liszt, Rossini and Bellini, as well as the writers Balzac, George Sand, and Dumas father and son.

Yet he was penniless and needed to make a living. He tried giving riding and fencing lessons and at one time attempted to join the British army.

Mario in the role of Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera of the same name
Mario in the role of Don Giovanni in
Mozart's opera of the same name
The chance to sing on stage came after the German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer heard him entertaining friends and persuaded him to take lessons. He made his debut at the Opéra in November 1838 as the hero of Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. He wrote to his mother to explain that he was calling himself Mario and promised he would never perform in Italy.

Mario quickly became a star in demand. In 1839 he made a triumphant debut in London as Gennaro in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia opposite Grisi, and made his debut at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris as Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. For the next 30 years he sang all the important romantic leads in Paris and London, also appearing in St. Petersburg (Russia), New York City, and Madrid.

Nemorino and Gennaro were among his most admired roles, along with Ernesto in Donizetti's Don Pasquale - a part written for him. Later he was acclaimed for his Almaviva in Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia, which he sang more than 100 times in London.

In 1871 he gave his farewell performance as Fernando in Donizetti’s La favorita at Covent Garden in London.

Grisi and Mario married in the late 1840s and, after an amnesty was extended to many sentenced for political crimes, removing Mario’s fear he would be arrested, they returned to Italy to live at the Villa Salviati outside Florence, where they brought up six daughters and regularly entertained guests, including many of the central figures of the Italian Risorgimento, with whom Mario had formed lasting friendships.

The revolutionary activist Giuseppe Mazzini was a lifelong friend of Giovanni Mario
The revolutionary activist Giuseppe Mazzini
was a lifelong friend of Giovanni Mario
In fact, in 1850 Mario had organised a concert to help Italian political refugees following the failed 1848 uprisings. He and Grisi gave shelter to the Venetian patriot Daniele Manin during his exile to Paris and for a time Mazzini co-ordinated his revolutionary activities from Mulgrave House, their home in London. It was there that one of their daughters - Cecilia De Candia - later recalled her parents entertaining several hundred red-shirted English Garibaldians in their garden, giving their voices to patriotic songs.

Tragically, Grisi died in 1869 after the train on which she was travelling to St Petersburg suffered an accident passing through Germany. Mario sold Villa Salviati shortly afterwards.

Following his Covent Garden farewell, Mario embarked on a brief concert tour of the United States before retiring to Rome. A man of extravagant habits, he soon found his fortunes in decline. Friends organised a benefit concert for him in London, which raised enough money - about £4,000 - to provide him with a pension.

He died in Rome in 1883 and was buried in the family mortuary chapel that he had arranged to be built in the Bonaria cemetery in Cagliari. Later a street in Castello - the historic old quarter of the Sardinian capital - was named after him.

Cagliari's medieval old town, Castello
Cagliari's medieval old town, Castello
Travel tip:

Cagliari’s charming historic centre, known as Castello, where Mario bought a house for his mother, is notable for its limestone buildings, which prompted DH Lawrence, whose first view of the city was from the sea as ‘a confusion of domes, palaces and ornamental facades seemingly piled on top of one another’, to call it 'the white Jerusalem'.  This hilltop citadel, once home to the city's aristocracy, is Cagliari’s most iconic image. Inside its walls, the university, cathedral and several museums and palaces - plus many bars and restaurants - are squeezed into a network of narrow alleys.

The Villa Salviati, just outside Florence, was Mario's  home for more than 20 years
The Villa Salviati, just outside Florence, was Mario's
home for more than 20 years
Travel tip:

The Villa Salviati, Mario and Grisi’s spectacular home in Florence, was built on the site of the Castle of Montegonzi about 7km (4.5 miles) north of the centre of the city, by Cardinal Alamanno Salviati, who in turn gave it to Jacopo Salviati, the son-in-law of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent). It changed hands a number of times before being purchased by Mario from an Englishman, Arturo Vansittard.  In 2000 it was bought by the Italian government and now houses the historical archives of the European Union.

(Photo credits: Castello by Martin Kraft; Villa Salviati by Sailko)

More reading:

Giulia Grisi - the officer's daughter who became a star on three continents

Mazzini and the drive for Unification

How Donizetti grew up in a Bergamo basement

Also on this day:

1473: The birth of sculptor Bartolommeo Bandinelli

1797: Venice loses its independence