Stjepan Mesic, the former president of Croatia, says he was invited by the Chinese to “officially open” the museum
Yangzhou has opened a new Marco Polo Memorial Hall, a museum dedicated to the 13th century explorer, but a minor tussle has already erupted between Croats and Italians.
Stjepan Mesic, the former president of Croatia, says on his blog that he was invited by the Chinese to “officially open” the museum, and that Chinese officials were “so anxious” to have Mesic open the museum that they moved the ceremony by one day to fit his China itinerary. Mesic was also due at the Boao Forum for Asia and to give lectures at the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.
Now why on earth would the former Croatian president be opening a Marco Polo museum, you ask? Isn’t Marco Polo Italian? No, he was Croatian, says the Croats.
While historians remain divided over the exact birthplace of the explorer, some have suggested that he was born in Curzola, or Korčula, in modern day Croatia. Others believe that he was a descendant of a Dalmatian family which had come from Sibenik, Dalmatia, to Venice in the 11th Century. Sibenik also lies in Croatia today. Putting two and two together, modern-day nationalist Croatians say Marco Polo was not Italian but a Croat.
Italian paper Corriere Della Sera slams Croatia’s posturing as a creative “kidnapping” of Marco Polo:
To claim that Marco Polo, or indeed any other resident of Curzola at that time, was Croatian simply because the island is in Croatia today, is to stretch history perilously far. By the same token, the ancient episcopate of Thagaste in Numidia is today called Souk Ahras, and is located in Algeria, so St Augustine was an Algerian philosopher. Septimius Severus, born in Roman Leptis Magna, a short distance from modern-day Al Khums in Tripolitania, would be a Tripolitanian emperor while Justinian was born in what is now Zelenikovo in Macedonia, so he would be Macedonian, or if you like Turkish, since he governed from the present-day Istanbul. To say nothing of the well-known French patriot, Nice-born Giuseppe Garibaldi.
The paper goes on to slam Italian authorities for sleeping on their job and allowing this to happen:
How is it possible that the Italian government and diplomatic service allowed someone as incredibly famous among the Chinese as the author of Il Milione to slip through their fingers, to the possible detriment of friendly relations, commerce and tourism? With all due respect for Stjepan Mesić, can we condone his going to China and thanking his hosts for the honour of inaugurating a museum dedicated “to a Croatian-born world traveller who opened China to Europe, and who with his writings also reawakened Europe’s interest in China”? Let us leave to one side nationalist resentment and rancour over the expulsion of 350,000 Italians from Istra [Istria in Italian – Trans.], Kvarner [Quarnero in Italian – Trans.] and Dalmatia. We have already seen, in the former Yugoslavia, what hate can do if its flames are fanned. That’s how it went. End of story. Yet the Yangzhou snub is merely the latest in a long line of “misappropriations” by Zagreb of a cultural heritage that does not belong to Croatia.
So did the Chinese really invite Stjepan Mesic to officially open the Marco Polo Memorial Hall? Apparently not. Chinese publications that reported on the opening of the new museum have been careful to say that Mesic was only invited to to attend the inauguration ceremony of the museum alongside Yangzhou mayor Xie Zhengyi (谢正义) and party secretary Wang Yanwen (王燕文)
The Yangzhou Daily gives us a very detailed glimpse of Wang’s major talking points at the ceremony:”Wang started by giving Mesic a warm welcome to Yangzhou, and a brief introduction to Yangzhou’s history and economic development. She said that Yangzhou is an ancient city with 2,500 years of history and its prosperity in times past has always been linked to its opening up. Marco Polo was an official in Yangzhou for a period of three years, and hence, Yangzhou has special historical ties with Europe, especially Croatia. The Marco Polo Memorial Hall stands as testimony to the friendly ties between the people of Yangzhou and Europe, which includes Croatia. For a long time, many countries in Europe have expressed a willingness to cooperate with Yangzhou in the areas of tourism, culture, economy, etc. Wang Yanwen expressed hopes that Mesic’s visit will spur the cooperation between Croatia and Yangzhou in tourism, culture and economy. She also expressed hopes that Mesic would spend more time in Yangzhou just walking around, looking around and collecting lasting impressions.”
Did Stjepan Mesic lie outright about his being invited to “officially open” the museum? Or did the Yangzhou officials purposely give Mesic the impression that he was coming to open the Memorial Hall because they were desperate for the attendance of a foreign dignitary? Did they attempt to get in touch with the Italian Consulate-General in Shanghai at all? These are questions we hope will be answered in the days ahead.