Marco Polo and the Million translated into Latin-Venetian by the preachers of San Giovanni and Paolo

14 October 2021

Sometimes discoveries are made at random, or perhaps assisted by luck. Or maybe just by lifting a hem of a parchment that reveals one of the most evoked Venetian names in the world. Marco Polo with his Million, a historical and geographical treatise, A Travel Book, is still considered a masterpiece of Italian literature for its relevance. Marco Polo’s million has come a long way, and still will, because there are so many curiosities that scholars have not finished investigating. A recent discovery by Ca’Foscari University scholars opens new scenarios on the clos relationship between the Venetian Marco Polo and the Friars Dominicans of the Basilica of San Giovanni and Paolo. In the initiatives that the friars have organized on the occasion of the 1600 years of Venice, Marco Polo therefore will be a real protagonist. From Friday 11 June, at 15:00, weekly guided tours will be organized to know the most famous people whose remains are kept inside the Basilica. It will be an opportunity to talk about the Dominicans, who translated from the vulgar to Latin “The Million” to facilitate its spread and make it a kind of guide for the evangelization of the East. It all starts from the discovery, by Marcello Bolognari, in the first year of Ca’Foscari doctorate in Italian studies, of a document hitherto unpublished and unknown that shows the presence, and the role, of Marco in the Dominican Convent of Venice after his return from captivity in Genoa. 

The discovery of the parchment with the quote poliana dated 31 march 1323 basically has two triggers: a direct and indirect – explains Bolognari – the indirect one was the communication of the testament of Marco Polo, by Attilio Bartoli of Angels in 2019, that returned to the historical truth in the name of one of the two Dominican friars, mentioned by Marco in his last will. The direct fuse was instead the happy intuition of Antonio Montefusco of the Ca’Foscari University, who suggested the importance that would have had the research in the State Archive of Venice, and the Fund of the Santi Giovanni e Paolo, of other documents that attest to the presence of these two friars, called Benevenuto e Cetorio o Centurio”.

The parchment is in Latin, written by a Paduan notary and essentially certifies the acceptance by the Dominican friers, gathered in the chapter, of a huge bequest by a rich and probably Venetian merchant of the Santa Trinità called Giovanni Dalle Boccole, who had died in 1321. This legacy, as the attestator himself specifies, was intended “all’amplificazione” of the Church of Santi Giovanni and Paolo. The discovery of the parchment is important because it leaves no doubt on the actual existence of a close exchange between the merchant and the preachers, that he did as a translation of “Z” of the book, i.e., Latin, venetian, and among the signatories gathered a chapter in the convent, appears the name of “Marco Paulo de confinio Sancti Iohannis Grisostomi”. 

“The parchment in question attests to the presense of Marco Polo, in the chapter of the friars preachers of Santi Giovanni e Paolo di Venezia – continuous Bolognari – This term is particulary important for two reasons: the first is that we have an assessment of the life of Marco Polo once he has returned from travel in China, in 1295, and thus servers to illuminate a new stage in the journey of Marco. The theory that is almost confirmed by these documents is that Marco Polo, once returned to Venice from the Genoese captivity ended in 1299, had revised a new version of his work together with the preachers of the Santi Giovanni e Paolo, then the Venetian Friars”.

One of the curiosities of this story concerns its random discovery. “It is large – says the scholar – and the most curious thing is that Marco’s name was under a fold. We didn’t notice until we just lifted that flap”. 

The relationship between the venetian traveller and the friars should be also considered in the scenario, between 1200 and 1300, sees a missionary impulse in the East: Marco Polo, was evidently a person of full confidence of the Order, within the chapter of the venetian convent, and his book was a fundamental tool for the evangelization due to the information and knowledge anthropological Oriental customs. 

“The curious aspect of the Million of is that there is a version of the original Franco-Italian written to Genoa with Rustichello da Pisa during the captivity, but the success of this work was so immediate and overwhelming that substantially of the original version, we have only one manuscript, while it has been translated many times in Catalan, in the vernacular Venetian, Emilian, in Latin several times – ends Bolognari – So let’s say that the Million is known because it is multilingual and non-original language: primarily latinizzazioni (Latinization) are very much tied to the Dominican Order. This particular version nicknamed “Z” by scholars has additions compared to the Franco-Italian version that are said to be original. So, it was not clear how it was possible that this Latin version had more details than the Franco-Italian version. The idea we got is that Marco Polo, once back in Venice, has dedicated himself to add other pieces to his work, maybe after a few talks. So, this “Z” version has additional details, which we believe were made by Marco with the Friars”.


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