China Ignites the Renaissance



In the Middle Ages, sea traffic between Egypt and Europe was determined by the geography of the Mediterranean.1 Surrounding the Mediterranean are mountain ranges—in the southwest the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, then moving clockwise, the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain; the Pyrenees; the French, Italian, and Yugoslav Alps; the mountains of Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey; and finally the Anti-Lebanon Range between Lebanon and Syria.

These mountains dictate the Mediterranean climate. Between the September and March equinoxes, a high anticyclone builds over the Azores, allowing Atlantic depressions to rush through the Strait of Gibraltar and then scurry west to east, the length of the Mediterranean. As these warm, wet winds reach the cold mountains on the coast, they create blustery winds and rain. The mistral in France is perhaps the best-known, but every Mediterranean region has gusty wet squalls in winter that make sea voyages hazardous.

The whole Mediterranean shares a common climate; wet winter is followed by calm, hot summer. As regular as clockwork, the sun moves north each year, carrying with it the anticyclone over the Azores until it stops opposite the Strait of Gibraltar. The wet Atlantic winds are now shut out of the Mediterranean, and the air is still. By July, the whole sea is flat as glass, without a breath of wind. Dry Saharan air marches north, the skies clear to infinity, and searing hot summer winds—typically the terral in southern Spain—blow across the coast. The three major seafaring powers of Europe—Aragon, Genoa, and Venice, exploited this geography to conduct trade with the east through Alexandria and Cairo. Venice and Genoa were entirely dependent on trade for their huge wealth. The Venetian ceremony of La Sensa, which takes place on Ascension Day, suggests just how passionately Venice embraced the sea.2

The doge embarks at Saint Mark’s in his great gilded ship, the Bucintoro. Perched on a golden throne, he sits high above a crew of 150 oarsmen, who row across the lagoon to the Lido. The doge’s golden robes are embroidered with the Lion of Saint Mark’s and he wears a diamond-studded cap, la renza—the same hat worn by Chinese admirals in the early Ming. Silk standards flutter above his head. After a short service, the doge casts a golden ring into the lagoon. As it sinks through the azure sea he proclaims: “Mare, noi ti sposiano in segne del nostro vero perpetua dominio” (O Sea, we wed thee in sign of our true and everlasting dominion).

By 1434, the marriage ritual was already more than four hundred years old. It originated when Pope Alexander III gave the doge a ring and told him: “Receive this ring as the symbol of your empire over the sea…. You and your successors be married to her each year, so that succeeding generations may know that the sea is yours, and belongeth to you as a spouse to a husband.”3

Venice’s wealth was rooted in her capture of Byzantium. In 1204 a Crusade had been launched to take Jerusalem. Financing for the Crusade was hard to come by until the Doge Dandolo offered support—provided the Crusaders would capture Zara (contemporary Zadar in Croatia) on their way south. The Crusaders agreed, becoming mercenaries in the process.

The temptation to capture Byzantium for Venice, as well, proved irresistible to the Crusaders, who initiated the sack of the Orthodox Christian capital by another Christian state.4 When Byzantium fell, her empire was divided amongst the victors. Venetian spoils, exemplified by the four bronze horses and marble on the façade of Saint Mark’s Basilica, included Byzantine islands and ports from the Black Sea through the Aegean to the Ionian Sea. Venetian galleys thus had friendly harbors all the way to Byzantium and Alexandria.

Venice now controlled the Adriatic. In 1396, six years after she had defeated Genoa and fourteen years after the Cretan revolt, she acquired Corfu. To Venetians, Corfu was of vital importance due to its strategic location. Corfu became the fortified base from which Venetian galleys policed the strait leading to the Adriatic.

Venice built lovely colonial towns on these Adriatic islands. Her ports, modeled in her own image, each with its campanile, cathedral, piazza, and evening promenade, line the Dalmatian coast. From Ulcinj in the south to Piran in the north, the ports of Bar, Dubrovnik, Korcula, Hvar, Split, Zadar, Rab, Krk, Pula, and Porec are sublime legacies of Venetian architecture. By 1433 they were havens for the armadas carrying ceramics, silk, and spices from Alexandria and Cairo to the warehouses of Venice. While the Slavic chants of Orthodox churches resound in the mountains, on the coast Sundays are punctuated by bells summoning Catholics to mass.5 Saint Jacob’s in Sibenik, Saint Mark’s in Piran, Saint Laurence’s in Trogir, and Our Lady’s in Rijeca are superb by any standard. They are among the sights that greeted Zheng He’s ships on their passage from Alexandria to Venice. Even with fifteen men to each oar it would have been a ten-day slog from Alexandria to Crete across an airless sea. Once in the Adriatic they would have picked up a light evening breeze blowing on shore. What a relief that would have been!

I know those islands well following a visit in 1966. In December 1965 I had met Marcella; we became engaged in June and decided to take a holiday traveling through the Dalmatian islands to Montenegro and Serbia. In the four years before meeting Marcella I had been navigating officer of HMS Narwhal, a submarine. It was the eve of the cold war and our patrols were spent in the North. Winters were drab and cold; the sun shone for an only hour or so, at midday; most of the time one looked at ice, sea, and sky in everlasting shades of gray.

In August 1966, Marcella, my uncle Edward, and I boarded a ferry in Venice bound for Dubrovnik, en route wending through the Dalmatian archipelago. We passed Marco Polo’s home on Korcula, Diocletian’s vast palace at Split, and honey-colored Hvar. The searing colors of azure sea and sky emphasized by the brilliant white Karst of the coastline, the red campanile towers, and the russet and gold of drying tobacco are etched on my brain and will remain with me all my life.

We slept on the upper deck under the stars, swam off remote beaches watched only by seagulls, and feasted on local seafish washed down by Dingaz, a rough, full-bodied, almost black wine.

The same idyllic scene would have greeted Zheng He’s sailors and female slaves as his junks rowed slowly up the coast. They would have seen the outlines of these mini “Venices” from miles out to sea, dotted along the coast all the way from Dubrovnik to Trieste to Venice itself. They would have noticed Diocletian’s enormous palace, Hvar’s spectacular harbor, and the glistening white fortress walls of Dubrovnik, and would have surely called at some of those ports.

So in my view we should find evidence of Zheng He’s fleets’ visits in museums along the Dalmatian coast. Over the years, Marcella and I have visited the most likely museums—the old maritime school at Perast, the Matko family museum at Orebic, the Seamans’ Guild (Museum) in the Gulf of Kotor, Ivo Vizin’s Museum at Prcanj, and the Maritime Museum in Kotor itself. We found nothing.

However, my interest was renewed and sharpened in 2004 after meeting Dr. Gunnar Thompson in Seattle. He had brought Albertin di Virga’s world map to my attention. This map had been found in a secondhand bookshop at Srebrenica near the Dalmatian coast. It was dated to between 1410 and 1419 and showed the world from Greenland to Australia, including Africa, accurately drawn decades before Europeans knew Africa’s shape and centuries before they knew the shape and relative positions of China, Japan, and Australia. The map had been authenticated by Professor Franz Von Wieser, the leading cartographer of his day. It must have been copied from a non-European map, and in the opinion of Dr. Thompson and me, it could only be a copy of a Chinese map that had been published before 1419. Moreover, Dr. Thompson had found evidence that ships from the Dalmatian coast had sailed to North America in the 1440s and settled near the Roanoke River in Virginia—the famous “Croatans.” 6 In my view, Dalmatian ships would not have visited America fifty years before Columbus unless they had maps showing the way—once again pointing to Zheng He’s fleets having visited Dalmatia and leaving maps. By 2005 we had sold Serbo-Croat literary rights to 1421, which I hoped would lead to new evidence of Chinese visits along the coast, but alas, none emerged.

Then out of the blue on October 21, 2007, I received two e-mails from Dr. A. Z. Lovric, a geneticist whose old family name was Yoshamya (names were forcibly changed after the Ottoman invasions in the sixteenth century). Dr. Lovric told me that his distinguished predecessor Professor Mitjel Yoshamya had published a lengthy paper (of nearly twelve hundred pages) claiming that a Dalmatian admiral, Harvatye Mariakyr, had sailed the world before Ottoman invasions. He had done so having received world maps from a Chinese admiral who had visited the Dalmatian coast. Copies of the e-mails are included on the 1434 website.

Here is a summary of the points made in Dr. Lovric’s e-mail:

1.     A legend persists among island people off the Adriatic that prior to the Ottoman invasions (prior to 1522) foreign sailing ships manned by “Oblique-eyed yellow Easterners” (in old Dalmatic: pashoglavi zihodane) visited the Adriatic.

2.     After the oriental naval visits the medieval Dalmatian admiral Harvatye Mariakyr with seven Adriatic ships reciprocated the visit by sailing through the Indian Ocean (Khulap-Yndran) to the Far East to Zihodane in Khitay (Cathay).

3.     On his return from the Far East, Admiral Mariakyr, having learned of a new land in the West, decided to sail there with his fleet to Semeraye (South America); he lost his life in medieval Parané (Patagonia). This voyage was recorded in medieval Glagolitic script.

4.     Recent DNA studies have confirmed that in some Adriatic islands (Hvar, Korcula) and on the adjacent coasts (Makarska) certain families have East Asian genotype.

5.     Up until the twentieth century some of these Adriatic islanders had surnames of non-Slavic and non-European origin, for example, Yoshamya, Yenda, Uresha, Shamana, Sayana, Sarana, and Hayana. In 1918 when the Austro-Hungarians were defeated, the islanders were obliged to Slavicize such foreign surnames, but they persist to this day in nicknames and aliases.

6.     Medieval Dalmatian-colored symbols for maps were the same as those used by the Chinese: black = north, white = west, red = south, blue and green = east.

7.     Adriatic islanders have until recently used a non-European nomenclature for America and the Far East based on translations of Chinese nomenclature.

8.     American cactuses (chiefly Opuntia) in medieval Dalmatia, at Dubrovnik and elsewhere, were said to have been brought by early ships from the Far East.

Dr. Lovric’s e-mail referred to Professor Mitjel Yoshamya’s research in Croatian, published in Zagreb in 2004. The lengthy paper covers the spread of old Dalmatian names across the Pacific before the Spanish explorers; Sion-Kulap (Pacific): Skopye-Kulapne (Philippines), Sadritye-Polnebne (Melanesia), Sadritye-Zihodne (Micronesia), Skopye-Zihodne (Japan), Artazihod (Korea), and Velapolneb (New Zealand). Goa was the main Dalmatian base for Far East trade. (These old Dalmatian names were used on German maps of the Pacific until Germany was defeated in World War II, after which they were expunged and replaced by Spanish, French, and Portuguese names). I hope that young scholars will translate the whole of Professor Yoshamya’s manuscript into English, since only excerpts have yet been translated.

As will be seen when we reach Venice, tens of thousands of Asian slave girls and women were brought to Venice. Doubtless many of these would have escaped as the fleets berthed at the islands en route to Venice, and this will be shown up in the mitochondrial DNA.

The first step in setting up a DNA research program for Venetian and Dalmatian people was to see what existing DNA research had already been carried out. Dr. Lovric, who works in the Department of Molecular Genetics, kindly provided me with the information. There were a dozen local DNA reports of people on Adriatic islands, which were all summarized in Lovorka Bara, Marijana Perii et al., “Y Chromosomal Heritage of Croatian Population and its Island Isolates.”7 As may be seen in the abstract, Professor Bara et al. state: “In one of the Southern Island (Hvar) populations, we found a relatively high frequency (14%) of lineages belonging to P* (xM 173) cluster, which is unusual for European populations. Interestingly, the same population also harboured mitochondrial haplogroup F that is virtually absent in European populations—indicating a connection with central Asian populations, possibly the Avars.”

Then at paragraph 3 on of their report:

Worthy of note is the finding of considerable frequency haplogroup P* (xM 173) in the population of the island of Hvar. According to Wells et al (44—see footnotes) this lineage displays a maximum in central Asia while being rare in Europe, Middle East and East Asia. Its presence in Hvar recapitulates our finding of MtDNA haplogroup F on the island of Hvar and in mainland Croatian population that is virtually absent in Europe but, again, common in populations from central and Eastern Asia (51—see footnotes). There are several possibilities for the occurrence of the ancestral lineage of M 173. One is the well documented alliance of Avars (a Mongol people) and Slavs (Croatians) that followed Avar arrival to the Eastern Adriatic in 6th Century AD. The other is the expansion of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th to 18th Century AD when refugees from the Western Balkans frequently immigrated to the islands. Lastly, the ancient Silk Road linking China with Western Asia and Europe could be a possible path of P(xM 173) lineage too. Any of these migratory patterns could have introduced the mutation to the investigated population.

As may be seen, the distinguished professors do not include a fourth possibility: that the inheritance of Chinese and Asian (Mongol) genes came by sea from sailors on ships sailing from Alexandria to Venice. Looking at a map reveals this is by far the most likely method. The Avars settled near the Drava River on the Hungarian border—why should they then decide to migrate westward across some of the most rugged mountains on the planet to reach Hvar? Why choose the most extreme island, the farthest out in the ocean, on which to settle?

Second, if they had followed this bizarre route, their genes would be seen in the populations between where they settled on the Drava and Hvar; they are not. The same could be said for the Ottoman invasions down the Danube. Why should they choose a remote place out at sea to settle when they had the fertile Danube plain? The amount of Asian DNA, 14 percent, is remarkable; well-documented Danish invasions of Britain reveal a comparable 7 percent. Also, in my view, the fact that both Asian men (Y chromosome) and women (mitochondrial) settled on Hvar means men and women from Asia arrived together. Mongol armies invading from the East would have taken women where they found them. They would not have brought their wives and concubines along. Quite the opposite prevailed on Chinese junks, where female slaves and sailors lived side by side.

There are no Dalmatian accounts of Asian people trekking overland across the Dinaric Alps to Hvar, but there are local accounts (collated by Professor Lovric) that prior to the sixteenth century Ottoman invasions, foreign sailing ships manned by “Oblique-eyed yellow Easterners” visited the coast. Hvar, as may be seen from the map, is smack on the direct route from Alexandria (via Corfu) to Venice. In my submission, the DNA results are part of a logical sequence of events. Zheng He’s squadron arrives in the Mediterranean in late 1433 or early 1434. One or more of his ships berths at Hvar when sailors and slave girls jump ship. The other ships proceed to Venice, where they unload the slaves. Officers then travel on to Florence, where they meet the pope in 1434. The squadron returns via Dalmatia in late 1434, when a Dalmatian fleet joins them for passage back through the Red Sea–Nile canal to China. On arrival in China the Chinese fleet is impounded: Admiral Harvatye Mariakyr takes his seven ships into the Pacific and “discovers” thirty Pacific islands, to which he gives Dalmatian names. He brings his fleet back home in the late 1430s/early 1440s with a Chinese map of the Americas and sails for America in the early 1440s. If this scenario is correct, the DNA of Venetians should reflect that of the people of Hvar, as should the DNA of indigenous Native Americans where Admiral Mariakyr’s fleet visited (and left Glagolitic inscriptions recording their voyages around New England and Nova Scotia).

This DNA research will be pursued, and results will be posted on our website. We hope the Glagolitic manuscripts will also be translated.

Now to return to Zheng He’s squadron leaving Hvar for Venice, a few days voyage to the north. Here the Chinese would have found excellent repair yards, which would have been of the greatest importance to them, for their ships had by now been away from their home bases for nearly three years. The Chinese were lucky—Venice had been building and repairing galleys for hundreds of years.

To develop trade between Alexandria, Cairo, and Venice, Venice built galleys and manned them with skilled seamen. The Arsenal, the greatest medieval dockyard of Europe, was the key to Venetian maritime supremacy. By 1434, Venice could put thirty-five large galleys to sea along with three thousand smaller craft manned by 25,000 sailors. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the ship workers’ guild had more than 6,000 members out of a total Venetian population of 170,000. The Senate passed stringent laws to control shipbuilding. The number of galleys built for export was restricted. Any foreigner wishing to place an order first had to obtain authorization from the Great Council.

Galleys were built on a “conveyor belt” on which ships were towed past a succession of stations, where they acquired ropes and sails, armaments and dry provisions.8 When Henry III of France visited Venice, the Arsenal’s shipwrights assembled a galley weighing six thousand pounds in the time it took the doge and his royal visitor to eat their way through a state banquet. Galleys were built to standard specifications so that replacement parts could be stored in Venetian yards down the Adriatic and across the Mediterranean.

Financial incentives were given to shipbuilders and owners to keep the Arsenal productive with experienced shipwrights on the job. Bankers were discouraged from charging exorbitant interest. The public bank had authority to grant soft loans: in the event that it was necessary to accelerate construction, costs could be subsidized. Almost every citizen had a stake in maritime commerce with the East—even the galley oarsmen had the right to trade on their personal accounts. A single voyage to Alexandria or Cairo could enrich a vessel’s entire company.

Venice was equally committed to training her naval officers, pilots, and ratings. The admiral and fleet navigator of Venetian armadas were usually graduates of the Venetian naval college at Perast, a port in the Gulf of Kotor in southern Dalmatia near Hvar. The port had an international reputation9: Czar Peter the Great of Russia sent his first officer cadets there. The armadas’ in-shore navigation was handled by professional pilots, trained at Porec on the north Dalmatia coast. The cream of these mariners, the pedotti grandi, would steer an armada into the lagoon at the end of its journey from Alexandria.

For centuries Dalmatia has been renowned for her seafarers. The names of her illustrious officers crop up time and again in tales of epic battles—from Coromandel to the Spanish Main. Venetian galleys were built almost entirely from Dalmatian wood—pine for planks, resin for caulking, oak for rudders, keels, and straits. Roughly half the crew of each galley would be Dalmatian.

Venice brilliantly exploited her maritime assets. With the acquisition of ports on the Dalmatian coast, she gained abundant timber. Centuries of history and tradition had bred skillful and hardy seamen. Journeying north from Alexandria, Zheng He’s fleets would have found numerous ports, first in Crete, then across the Ionian Sea to the Adriatic. It was an easy journey, even in the calms of summer when the Chinese oarsmen—fifteen to an oar—would eat up the miles. The Chinese could have expected to be guided by experienced local pilots.

Cairo’s contact with Europe was through Venice, which had entered a commercial treaty with the Mamluks giving them exclusive trading rights. The two cities were joined by their pursuit of a monopoly on east-west trade.

The link with Cairo opened up additional possibilities of trade with China and new ways of reaching that distant land. A stream of merchants and Franciscan missionaries left Venice for China. Oriental adventures were relayed via chroniclers including the Polos; Giovanni da Pian del Carpine in his Historia Mongalorum (1247); William of Rubruck who wrote Itinerarium (1255); Raban Sauma (1287) and Odoric of Pordenone (1330); and Jordan de Sévérac’s Mirabilia (c. 1329). The Jews had their own traveling merchants, notably Jacob of Ancona prior to Marco Polo. Venice was intimately acquainted with China. Her merchants, the Polos in particular, made fortunes trading exotic Chinese silks and drappi tartareschi. Popes and emperors were buried wrapped in Chinese silk.

Small wonder, given their centuries of trade with China, that Venetians were the first Europeans to obtain world maps from their trading partner. Di Virga’s map of the Eastern Hemisphere was published in 1419, and Pizzigano’s map of the Caribbean appeared in 1424. Today, you can see on the wall of the Doges’ Palace a world map published prior to 1428 that includes North America. As the roundels on the walls testify, this map was created from evidence brought back from China by Marco Polo and Niccolò da Conti. The inscription relating to da Conti says: “ORIENTALIS INDIAS HAC TABULA EXPRESSUS PEREGRATIONIBUS ET SCRIPTIS ILLUSTRAUNT EN NARATIS MERCANTORIAM AD JIUVIERE SAECOLO XV NICOLAUS DE COMITIBUS. EDITO ITENERARIO LUSITANE POST MODUM VERSO NOVAM LUCEM NAUTIS ALLATURO.” My translation: “Oriental India [viz China and the Indies in fifteenth-century terminology] as drawn in this way is clearly a result of the foreign travels and illustrated writings not least the narratives of the merchant of the fifteenth century, Niccolò da Conti. Publication of this itinerary sheds new light on the [travels of] mariners.”

This map was probably completed before 1428 (inauguration of Doges’ Palace) but destroyed by fire in 1486; the original maps (of which a copy was given to Dom Pedro) were hung on the walls. According to Lorenzetti, the map was repainted by Ramusio in 1540 after the fire—the same Ramusio who had said that Fra Mauro’s world map was copied from one in the Camolodensian Monastery on the (current) Island of the Dead in the lagoon. Giovanni Forlani’s map shows Oregon and the Bering Straits before Bering or Vancouver. Zatta’s map shows Vancouver Island also before Cook or Vancouver and places on it “Colonia dei Chinesi” (Chinese Colony).

By 1418 Venice had become the richest state in Europe. The city’s mule caravans could tramp unmolested through Venetian territory to the Brenner Pass.10 As the seaport nearest the heart of Europe, Venice exploited her access to Lake Constance, which was the principal trading center for merchants from France, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Russia.

For more than 150 years before Zheng He appeared, Venetian bankers had been using a cashless giro system, crediting one merchant and debiting another.11 Italian bankers led by the Bardis and Peruzzis pioneered international banking the length and breadth of Europe. Almost every citizen of the Venetian Republic was involved in some aspect of trade12—shopkeepers in retail markets, porters and fish traders in wholesale markets, dockers to load and unload, shipwrights in the Arsenal, oarsmen in the galleys. There were few beggars and hardly any unemployment.

Essential to the Contis, the di Virgas, the Corrers (the family of Pope Eugenius IV’s mother), and the Contarinis were the great oared galleys that left the Rialto for Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo, Flanders, and London. The galley routes to Alexandria and the East resemble the spokes of a vast spider’s web.13 The Magistrates of the Waters issued detailed sailing orders with which merchants were required to comply. The following order, issued to a galley departing for Aigues-Mortes in Provence, underscores the importance of the silk trade.

The galley will load cloths and spices of Venice up to the 13th of January next; she is to leave Venice on the 15th of the same month. These terms may not be extended, suspended or broken under penalty of a fine of 500 ducats. No silken goods may be loaded or shipped on this galley, anywhere in the Gulf of Venice or outside it, apart from veils, taffetas and Saracen cloth. If the master of the galley loads or permits the loading of any silken goods, he will be suspended for a period of five years during which time he may not command any of the galleys of the state or private persons.14

The Magistrate of the Waters tightly controlled the movement of ships and where they were permitted to load and unload. Each type of good had its designated loading wharf—stone barges at the Incurabile, timber ships at the Misericordia and the Fondamente Nuove. Zheng He’s junks from Alexandria would have tied up at the Riva degli Schiavoni. Venetian merchants submitted to this discipline knowing that it benefited all. The dominant families appointed agents in Crete, Alexandria, Cairo, and every important harbor to facilitate their international trade.

Today, the area around Saint Mark’s Basilica still swarms with boats unloading passengers, vegetables, fruit, and wine. I have been to Venice innumerable times since first visiting as a young officer on the HMS Diamond fifty years ago. My most vivid memory was a sultry August evening twenty years ago, after Marcella and I had attended vespers at Saint Mark’s, the finest Byzantine building in the world, the epitome of medieval Christian art, and the symbol of Venice’s trade with Alexandria and the East.

For more than one thousand years this glorious cathedral has been the most important building in Venice. Here Crusades were blessed, including the one financed by the blind old doge Dandolo, who implored Saint Mark to deliver Byzantium to Venice. Here Venetians met to pray for deliverance in times of danger or to thank God in victory. Generation after generation of Venetian merchants have poured their wealth into the city’s fabulous cathedral.15

Built in the shape of a Greek cross, the cathedral overlooks the lagoon, allowing one to enjoy the view from either land or sea, in changing light as the day progresses. The finest artists have endowed the exterior and interior with masterpieces of marble and mosaics. The west façade is a blaze of green, purple, gold, and blue marble collected from across the Venetian empire.

Within, worshippers see the residue of wealth in the gold ceilings. The basilica is at its best by candlelight at vespers, from a pew beneath the central dome. From here Jesus appears to ascend to heaven, carried by four angels surrounded by the apostles and the Virgin. Every inch of the vast ceiling, walls, and floors is encased in mosaics. Treasures lie sprawled before one. An altar of solid gold is studded with rubies and emeralds. Panels depict scenes from the lives of Christ and Saint Mark. Chinese silk and ceramics, Byzantine reliquaries, cut Persian glass, crystal goblets, and silver swords from Tartary fill the museum. All of this resulted from centuries of seaborne trade.

The wealth of fifteenth-century Venice is captured in the speech delivered by the dying doge Tommaso Mocenigo:

This city now stands out in the way of business to different parts of the world. Ten millions of ducats were earned yearly by ships and galleys and the profit is not less than two million ducats a year. In this city there are three thousand vessels of one, two hundred amafore with seventeen thousand seamen. There are three hundred large ships with eight thousand sailors. Every year there go to sea forty-five galleys with eleven thousand sailors and there are three thousand ship carpenters and three thousand caulkers. There are three thousand weavers of silk and sixteen thousand weavers of common cloth. Houses are estimated to be worth seven million five hundred thousand ducats. The rents are five hundred thousand ducats. There are one thousand noblemen whose income is from seven hundred to four thousand ducats.16

Venice prided herself on wealth but also on a republican government enshrined in a written constitution replete with complex checks and balances. Although the doge was head of state, he was constrained by various committees and councils. When Genoa was defeated in 1380, the Italian city-states of Verona, Vicenza, and Mantua willingly accepted the Pax Venetica. Their governing bodies were added to the Great Council. By 1418, Venice had outmaneuvered the Holy Roman Emperor and expanded her territories southward. Representatives of Istria, Friuli, and Dalmatia further swelled the Great Council. Gentile da Fabriano, Antonio Veneziano, and Jacobeló del Fiore were retained by the procurators of Saint Mark to adorn the walls of the Great Council Chamber with paintings of the glorious history of the Serenissima. Roberti carved his wonderful marble capitals, which adorn the façade. In 1419, Pisanello’s frescoes were unveiled.

The Doges’ Palace was designed for different functions. At the front, overlooking the lagoon, is the Great Council Chamber. At the far end, next to Saint Mark’s, the doge’s quarters are linked to the legislative areas by golden staircases. At the heart of the Doges’ Palace is the map room—the biggest in his quarters.

The map room might well be described as the heart of the Venetian Empire. Here the doge would receive visiting heads of state, including Chinese delegations. The two long walls of the room are covered with eleven painted maps of the world. Facing the visitor is a map of the Venetian Empire in the eastern Mediterranean showing the route to China and the East. To the left is the Venetian Empire in the western Mediterranean. Neither of these maps shows latitude or longitude. They cover the same area as maps on the opposite wall showing the rest of the world. The Venetian Empire is thus shown far larger than it was.

The opposite wall is divided by the door into the Sala del Filosofi. To the left of the door is a map of central Asia from Crete to Tibet—the former trading empire of Byzantium. To the right is a map of the world from Arabia across the Pacific to California. India and the Indies, China, Japan, the Pacific, and North America from Alaska to California are depicted with general accuracy. Other maps show the Northeast Passage from the Faeroes to the rivers of Siberia; North and South America; the Red Sea and Arabia; the Atlantic coast of North America to 55° N, and central Asia. The whole world is there save for southern Australia.

Of greatest interest is the world map showing the Pacific and North America. There are two roundels on this map: one describes the part that Marco Polo played in gathering the information; the other recounts the role played by Niccolò da Conti. These are the world maps that Dom Pedro was given during his state visit to Venice between the fifth and twenty-second of April 1428. A host of Venetian records describes that visit: Les Chronique Venetienne: The Diaries of Antonio Morosone from 14161433; the manuscript Zorsi delfine. An extensive bibliography exists in F. M. Rogers’s marvelous book The Travels of the Infante, Dom Pedro of Portugal.

There are no material differences among the various accounts, which Professor Rogers summarizes: “In March of 1428, Mario Dandolo, the Venetian Ambassador to the King of Hungary, reported that the Infante Don Pedro had left for Venice. The Doge (Francesco Foscari) and the Council decided to receive the Portuguese prince and his companions in regal fashion as their guests and at their expense…. the Doge received Dom Pedro on board the Bucintoro (royal barge).”

Of the gifts bestowed upon Dom Pedro during his visit to Venice, Professor Rogers cites several accounts,17 the first by the celebrated historian Antonio Galvão:

In the year 1428 it is written that Dom Peter [Pedro], the King of Portugal’s eldest son, was a great traveller. He went into England, France, Alamaine, from thence into the Holy Land and to other places; and came home by Italy, taking Rome and Venice in his way; from whence he brought a map of the world which had all the parts of the world and earth described. The streight [sic] of Magellan was called in it the Dragon’s Tail; the Cape of Bona SperanÇa [Good Hope], the forefront of Afrike and so forth of other places; by which map, Dom Henry, the King’s third sonne was much helped and furthered into his discoveries….

It was told me by Francis de Souza Tavares that in the year 1528 Dom Fernando, the King’s son and heir, did show him a map which was found in the study of the Alcobaza which had been made one hundred and twenty years before [1408] which map did set forth all the navigation of the East Indies with the Cape of Boa Esperanza as our later maps have described it; whereby it appeareth that in ancient times there was as much or more discovered than now there is. (Tratado Dos Diversos e Desayados Caminhos, Lisbon, 1563).

Further corroboration is provided by Professor Rogers: “In early 1502 in Lisbon the famous German printer Valentin Fernandes published a beautiful volume of the Indies of the East [China]…. He included Portuguese translations of the Indies based on information gathered in Florence from Nicolo da Conti and delegates to the Council [presided over by Eugenius IV] and included in Book IV of his treatise De Variaetate Fortunae.” Later Professor Rogers writes:

In the second part of his lengthy introduction to Marco Polo, Valentin Fernandes makes the following statement pregnant with meaning from several points of view: “Concerning this matter I heard…that the Venetians had hidden the present book for many years in their Treasure House. And at the time that the Infante Don Pedro of glorious memory, your uncle, arrived in Venice [1428]…offered him as a worthy gift the said book about Marco Polo that he might be guided by it since he was desirous of seeing and travelling through the world. They say this book is in the Torre de Tombo.”

Professor Rogers also summarized Marco Polo’s and da Conti’s contributions to world maps:

With the Cape [Good Hope] rounded, the all-water route to India lay revealed. Valentin Fernandes could think of no greater service to his monarch than the publication in Portuguese translation the three best available descriptions of the world over which King Manuel now assumed dominion. One was that of Marco Polo; another was the description of the Indies (viz China) written by Pogio the Florentine, based on the information supplied to him by the delegates to the Council of Florence and by Nicolo da Conti.”

It seems to me beyond argument that the world map on display today in the Doges’ Palace is, as the Venetians claim, based on information that reached Venice from Marco Polo and Niccolò da Conti and that this was the same world map taken to Portugal by Dom Pedro in 1428. Consequently, both the Venetians and the Portuguese knew the contours of the whole world before the Portuguese voyages of exploration even started. We know that da Conti was in Calicut the same time as Zheng He’s fleets, for he describes the junks and his description tallies with those of Ma Huan, Zheng He’s historian, who was in Calicut in 1419.18


A sketch of Mongol faces by the Veronese artist Pisanello, 1430s.

As noted, in 1419, Pisanello (1395–1455) had painted murals in the Doges’ Palace. Pisanello came from Verona, which by then had joined the Pax Venetica—her grandees were elected to the Great Council of Venice. In about 1436 Pisanello painted another fresco in the church of Saint Anastasia at Verona entitled Saint George and the Princess of Trebizond. In the left-hand section is a group of horsemen. Seated on a richly caparisoned horse is a Mongol general with facial features, clothes, and hat very similar to the carvings of Zhu Di’s generals that line the road that leads to Zheng He’s tomb north of Beijing. The Mongol dignitary wears rich silk clothes. Pisanello’s sketches of the hard, powerful Mongol face can be seen separately in the Louvre in Paris. The sketch and painting are so vivid that its seems to me inescapable that Pisanello painted what he saw in the late 1430s—a Mongolian general in Venice or Verona, a captain or admiral of one of the Chinese junks.19 (See note 20 for Pisanello’s other sketches of Chinese visitors to Venice in the 1430s). In my view Pisanello’s sketches depict the Chinese Admiral and his senior Mandarin advisor in their formal dress when they met the Doge. As captain of HMS Rorqual I would wear my ceremonial sword when calling on local dignitaries at the start of an official visit. The Chinese admiral would have carried his ceremonial bow.

The Chinese junks berthed at the Riva degli Schiavoni, or Quay of Slaves, would have created little fuss—Chinese and Arab ships were there as a matter of course. The ambassador and the captains would have presented their credentials to the doge in his palace a few hundred yards away, together with the Shoushi astronomical calendar giving details of the Xuan De emperor’s conception and birth. Ceremonial gifts of silk and blue-and-white imperial porcelain would have followed, and finally maps of the voyage from China. The barbarians would now be able to return tribute.

Fresh meat, fruit, fish, vegetables, and water would be embarked, paid for partly in Venetian ducats (which the Chinese would have acquired in Cairo) and partly in rice. Zheng He’s fleets would have disposed of the poor concubines and slaves who had not died in transit or been given away at a previous port, dispatching them to the slave market or shipping them on to Florence.

A date would have been set for a regulation to fix the price for the sale of the ceramics that crammed the holds. Tampions would have been placed on the guns; then the sailors could begin their shore leave. We can imagine Chinese sailors preparing to go ashore in a manner very similar to that of my fellow sailors fifty years ago when the HMS Diamond berthed opposite the Riva degli Schiavoni: we trimmed our beards, cut our long hair, gave ourselves a good wash. For the Chinese, perhaps first a swim in the Lido before donning their best clothes, having a drink, and collecting presents to give out to the girls. In 1434 these were likely to have been children’s toys or miniature carts, junks or whirligigs, or perhaps one of the pocket encyclopedias such as the Nung Shu, showing how to design farm machinery.

Once ashore, the Chinese sailors could have been excused if they thought they were back in Quanzhou—their Mongolian counterparts were everywhere. Venice was the gateway to Tuscany and the funnel through which slaves reached Europe. Lazari writes: “Many of the slave girls described in the Registro degli Schiavi, mostly in their teens were sold in a state of pregnancy and later used as nurses…. In this way a large influx of Asiatic blood penetrated into the Tuscan population.”

Lynn White quotes Lazari: “Lazari, who has studied most carefully the records of these unfortunates in Venice, assures us that the largest number came from the regions bordering Tibet and China in the north. ‘As they came in their thousands and were rapidly absorbed by the indigenous population, a certain Mongolian strain could not have been rare in Tuscan homes and streets.’”20

Iris Origo paints a vivid picture of the slaves who reached Florence from Venice:

A traveller arriving in Tuscany at this time might well have been startled by the appearance of the serving-maids and grooms of the Florentine ladies. Mostly small and squat, with yellow skins, black hair, high cheek-bones and dark slanting eyes…they certainly seemed to belong to a different race from the Florentine…and if the traveller had friends in one of the Florentine palazzi and went to call, he found several other exotic figures there too: swarthy or yellow little girls of eleven or twelve…acting as nursemaids or playmates for the little Florentine merchant-princes.

All these were slaves: most of them Tartars….

Even a notary’s wife, or a small shopkeeper’s, would have at least one, and it was far from uncommon to find one among the possessions of a priest or nun. And a glimpse of them—perhaps slightly romanticised—even appears in a popular song describing little slaves shaking the carpets out of the windows on the Lungarno:

“La schiavette amorose Scotendo le robe la mattina Fresche e giorose come fior di spina”*

[*“The charming little slave-girls—shaking out the clothes in the morning—as fresh and joyful as hawthorn buds.”]21

Now let us follow the rich Chinese ambassador and the poor slave girls across the wooded plains of Tuscany to Florence.

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