Image by Marco Secchi
|Niccolò & Maffeo Polo with|
Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan
|Photo at Amazing Tourism|
On their first visit to Kublai Khan's court back in 1266, Niccolò and Maffeo had been asked by the Emperor to be his Papal ambassadors. Kublai Khan -- who had converted to Tibetan Buddhism -- had requested that the pope, who was then the Frenchman Pope Clement IV, send him 100 Christians acquainted with the Seven Arts -- grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy -- and the holy oil.
Pope Clement IV died in 1268; it took almost three years of squabbling before the next pope, the Italian Gregory X was appointed. (We can only imagine the scene: Wait a minute. Isn't Theobaldo Visconti already in Jerusalem? Let's make him the Pope! Then we've got our guy there, right on the scene. Then we send the Polo boys in Venice on a trip over the Silk Road; they stop off in Jerusalem; Visconti gives them some sacred oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Kublai Khan; they zip over to China, and give it to the Emperor. Yeah! That works.) While they were waiting for a new pope to pop up, the Polo brothers had returned to Venice where Niccolò met his teenage son, Marco, for the very first time.
On their return visit to Kubali Khan in 1271, the Polo brothers decided to bring the kid, Marco, with them. They stopped off in Acre in Palestine where the freshly-elected Pope Gregory X was attending to the Ninth Crusade. Pope Gregory did not provide the 100 Christians, but he did give the Polos the sacred lamp oil to present to Kublai Khan, and back to China they went. The Polos were not the first Europeans to visit the Far East, but because of Marco's book, II Millione, or The Travels of Marco Polo, they are the ones we remember best.
You can click HERE to watch a National Geographic video about Marco Polo's journey. If you do, you will see the handwriting of Christopher Columbus in the margins of his own copy of Marco Polo's book, which is said to have inspired Columbus on his own fateful journey.
|Santa Sofia, Istanbul|
|St. Mark's, Venice|
...the city is where East and West met, mostly amicably, in both commerce and art, and where multiculturalism was an unselfconscious, everyday reality, embraced by almost all its inhabitants, rather than a political slogan of ethnic minorities. For the city's most resonant message today is surely this: that a civilization flourishes most when it is open to external influences, when it ceases to be a fortress and lets itself become a crossroads, a place of chance encounters and unexpected minglings.
Centuries later, Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) was one of Venice's most famous playwrights. I thought it was fitting that the Jiangsu Province Kunqu Opera House performed at the theater in Venice named after him, since, in a way, the Chinese production numbers reminded me of a Goldoni play. Kunqu is one of the most ancient forms of opera in China, with a history of more than six hundred years. As in the Commedia dell'arte, there are stock characters: martial, clown, old man, old woman young female lead, young male lead, painted face, etc. From Wintergreen Kunqu Society:
|Luo Chenxue & makeup artist|
Image by Marco Secchi
The first piece, "Descending the Mountain" from the opera, "Ocean of Sin," was surprisingly bawdy and poignant, much like Goldoni's plays. A Buddhist monk, Ben Wu (played by Li Hongliang), whose name translates to "Matter-is-Nothing," escapes from his monastery. He runs into a Buddhist nun, Se Kong (played by Luo Chenxue), who name translates to "Desires-are-Empty" and who, in turn, has escaped from her nunnery. Both of them are tired of living a life governed by religious dogma, but fib to each other about why they are outside their convents -- Ben Wu says he is getting food for his sick master, and Se Kong says she is going to visit her sick mother. They fall head over heels in love, and, looking forward to finally experiencing physical pleasure, they confess the truth, and decide to get married to make it legit. A runaway monk and nun getting married so they can have sex reminded me of Giacomo Casanova's (1725-1798) antics back in the Venice of the 18th century, about the same time that Goldoni was writing his plays.
Image by Marco Secchi
The bambo flute, drums and twangy Asian musical instruments sounded spicy and melodic, and the audience seemed fascinated by the exotic mix. Again, from Wintergreen Kunqu Society:
Each Kunqu performance is accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble, generally consisting of between 6 to 10 musicians. This ensemble is divided into two sections, named wen-chang, the section composed of wind and string instruments, and wu-chang, the percussion section. The primary function of wen-chang is to accompany singing, led by the dizi, a horizontal bamboo flute. Depending on the play, it might also include a San-hsian (a three-stringed lute), erhu (a two-stringed fiddle), zheng (a bamboo wind organ or Pan's pipe), and zither, The Wu-chang section consists of a Chinese xiqudrum, ban (wooden clappers), xiaoluo (small gong), daluo (big gong), and naobo (cymbals). It is led by a drummer who performs with a small drum and a pair of wooden clappers to set the pace of the play, while the gongs and cymbals are used to punctuate the action and emotion. The drummer is also the conductor of the orchestra.
Kunqu Opera was a welcome treat for Venice, a cultural exchange between East and West of highest order.
Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog
You can find more of Marco Secchi's images at http://www.marcosecchi.com