A friend recently wrote to me asking about Marco Polo’s house. Apparently, there is a lot of information (and possibly misinformation) about what is left of the Polo family house in Venice. I’m writing from my home in California, so I can’t walk down the street to check these facts right now, but I consulted a few sources (listed at the bottom) and found these details.
The original Polo house was located in the Corte Sabbionera in San Giovanni Grisostomo (or Crisostomo). Marco Polo, his father and uncle returned from their trip along the Silk Road through Asia in 1295. Upon returning home, the story goes that their family and neighbors didn’t believe it was really them (or maybe the family just wanted to keep the house to themselves!). Laurence Bergreen retells this homecoming in wonderful detail in his book Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. As Marco recounted the seemingly impossible tales of all they had done and seen, punctuated by stories of the millions in gold that they amassed, people nicknamed him “Marco Milioni.” Soon the Corte Sabbionera became known as the Corte del Milione. You’ll also see a nearby calle and sotoportico by the same name, plus the Corte Secondo del Milione, which is actually closer to the “Polo house” that people point to.
According to Curiosita Veneziane by Giuseppe Tassini, a “gravissimo incendio” or really big fire destroyed the property in 1597. The plot later passed into the hands of Stefano Vecchia and then Giovanni Carlo Grimani, who built the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo on the site. It’s now the Teatro Malibran.
There are a few details remaining from Polo’s era, though it’s not part of the original building or house. A nearby archway has carvings “di arabo stile” according to Tassini–Arabic or Byzantine style. If one of you readers out there is in Venice or knows the exact site (such as which archway out of which corte) please add your comment and let us know. (I bet I could find it if I spent some time searching from home, but I’m also guessing that it might be fun for someone else to write in with this detail.)
My friend who wrote with the original question that prompted this topic asked if there is still a fancy facade that faces the canal that runs alongside the house. Nope. The large side wall of the theater is quite plain. In Polo’s day, there was probably a water entrance, as all palaces had. I consulted a couple old maps–Barbaro from 1500 and Ughi from 1729–but of course they’re not actually old enough to show the house in Polo’s time. I couldn’t find an enlarged section of Barbaro that included S. Giovanni Grisostomo. The Ughi map, interestingly, shows no little bridge (Ponte Marco Polo) that now crosses the Rio di San Lio.
If you want a poignant Polo story, check out Alberto Toso Fei’s book Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories. He includes one about Polo’s wife, who he brought back from his travels, and who was said to be so lonely that she threw herself from the palace window into the San Lio canal. (And whoever borrowed my copy of this book, please return it!)
Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen, p. 360-61
Curiosita Veneziane by Giuseppe Tassini, p. 564-65.
Calli, Campielli e Canali, map 30
Casanova: La Passion de la Liberte, Exhibition Catalogue, map by Lodovico Ughi, p. 6-7
This photo was sent in by Albert. See the carved archway, second from the right, into the Sotoportego del Teatro. Thanks for sharing your photo and your knowledge!