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The legacy of Marco Polo, a Venetian trader who was one of the earliest Europeans to travel to China on the Silk Roads, includes one of the best-known travelogues in history. He did not write The Travels of Marco Polo himself, however, but rather dictated it to a fellow prisoner of war who may have embellished (or omitted) some of what he heard.
In 1271, at the age of seventeen, the Venetian Marco Polo (1254–1324) set out with his father, Niccolo, and his uncle Maffeo on a journey to the Mongol Empire of Khubilai Khan. Marco spent almost the next two decades traveling throughout Asia, trading and working as an official within the Khan’s administration. After his return to Venice, Marco Polo was captured in 1298 by the Genoese navy while serving as the “Gentleman-Commander” of a Venetian galley during a war between the Italian city-states. While imprisoned in Genoa, Marco recounted his adventures to his cellmate, Rusticello of Pisa, a writer of romance stories, who had served at the court of Edward I of England. Rusticello’s account of Polo’s trip, titled the Travels of Marco Polo, was one of the first depictions of Asia to appear in the West. Translated into many languages, the Travels circulated widely throughout Europe in handwritten manuscript form before the appearance of the printing press. Marco Polo’s Travels influenced European perceptions of Asia from the late medieval period through to the Age of Discovery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1492 Christopher Columbus carried a copy of the book with him on his voyage west across the Atlantic during his attempt to find a new route to the riches of Marco Polo’s Cathay (as anglicized alternative to the name China, especially popular in Europe after Polo used it in his book).
In 1260 the merchants Niccolo and Maffeo Polo joined a Venetian trading mission to the city of Bukhara, located on the famed Silk Roads network in modern-day Uzbekistan. From there they joined a Mongolian embassy and traveled to the court of Khubilai Khan at Kanbalu (Beijing). The elder Polos spent the next several years trading in China until they were ordered by the Khan to return to Venice as his emissaries. When they returned home, Nicollo and Maffeo were instructed to gather a letter from the pope, one hundred Christian scholars as well as a flask of oil from the lamp from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and then to return to Kanbalu. When the Polo brothers finally arrived back in Europe in 1269, however, they discovered that Pope Clement IV had died the previous year and had yet to be replaced. Unable to secure the required papal letter or ecclesiastic scholars until a new pope was named, Nicollo and Maffeo left Rome and returned to Venice, where they spent two years awaiting the election of a new head of the Church. Unable to wait any longer and fearing that Khubilai would be angered by their lengthy delay, the Polos, this time accompanied by young Marco, set out on a return voyage to the court of the Mongol ruler. After a brief interruption following the eventual election of Pope Gregory X, the Polos, along with a flask of holy oil and a mere two Christian missionaries left the safety of the Mediterranean world in 1271 to begin their journey across Central Asia.
Although the missionaries abandoned the party in Armenia, the Polos did return to Khubilai’s summer palace at Shandu after a difficult journey through Persia, Afghanistan, Turkistan, and eventually Tibet and the western reaches of China. The Khan was impressed by young Marco and over the course of the next twenty years appointed him to several official positions within his government, including the post of governor of the city of Yangzhou between 1282 and 1285. While in China Marco also visited the southern regions of Khubilai’s empire along the Burmese border and much of southern China; he also had a lengthy stay in Hangzhou (Kinsai), the former capital of the Southern Song dynasty. During their time in China, the Polos prospered, but by the late 1280s, they were eager to return home and petitioned the Khan for permission to leave. In the Travels Marco claimed that Khubilai had become attached to his Venetian advisors and at first refused their request. At last an opportunity arose that provided the Polos with a reason to serve Khubilai one last time. The Khan of Persia had lost his wife and had requested that another princess from the same Mongol family be sent to marry him. Since the overland route was extremely dangerous, the Polos volunteered to serve as ships pilots and to escort the princess to Persia by sea. Reluctantly, Khubilai agreed and allowed the Polos to depart, asking that they deliver messages of friendship to the pope and the kings of Europe. Departing in 1292 from the port of Xiamen (Amoy), the Polos traveled past the islands of Sumatra, Java, and along the coast of India before reaching Persia two years later. The following year, they finally arrived back in Venice after being away from home for almost twenty years.
In early 1298, just three years after his return to Venice, Marco Polo found himself serving as a “Gentleman-Commander” or advisor aboard a war galley in his city’s navy. At this time Venice was engaged in a war with its rival Genoa over trading rights in the eastern Mediterranean. On 7 September 1298, Marco Polo was captured, along with the entire Venetian fleet, by the Genoese navy. He was then imprisoned in a Genoese jail where he spent the next several months regaling his fellow prisoner, Rusticello, with his tales of adventure and the riches of the Khan’s empire. Within a year the war between Venice and Genoa was concluded, and Marco Polo returned home a second time.
Back in Venice, Marco married a woman named Donata, with whom he would have three daughters: Fantina, Bellala, and Moreta. Little else is known of his life from this point on, except that he continued to engage in trade and that he presented a French nobleman with a copy of his Travels in 1307. Marco’s fame as a traveler spread during his lifetime, although not many people believed his accounts of the riches of China, the sophistication of Asian culture and technology, or the size of the Khan’s empire. Most Europeans simply could not believe his tales of paper money, burning black rocks (coal), or cities with populations the size of Western nations. So incredible were the details in the Travels that Marco Polo was often referred to as “Marco of the Millions,” in reference to the number of lies he must have been telling.
In a controversial book published in 1996, the historian Frances Wood argues that Marco Polo was indeed lying and that it is doubtful that he traveled anywhere near China. Along with other critics of Polo’s account, Wood notes that Marco failed to mention the Great Wall, tea drinking, the Chinese written script, or the bound feet of Chinese gentry women in his tale. Perhaps these omissions, as well as the more fanciful elements in the Travels involving cannibalism and bizarre sexual behavior, can be blamed not on Marco Polo, but on the chronicler of his adventures, Rusticello. In the end, whether or not Marco Polo ever did make it to the Khan’s capital or serve as a Mongol official, is not as important as the fact that his Travels inspired generations of Europeans to look beyond their borders and to eventually search for routes to the riches he described.
- Gernet, J. (1962). Daily life in China on the eve of the Mongol invasion, 1250–1276. (H. M. Wright, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Hart, H. H. (1967). Marco Polo: Venetian adventurer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Humble, R. (1975). Marco Polo. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
- Marsden, W. (Trans.). (1997). Marco Polo: The travels. Ware, Hertsfordshire, U.K.: Wordsworth Editions. (Original work published 1818)
- Moule, A. C., & Pelliot, P. (1976). Marco Polo: The description of the world (Vols. 1–2). New York: AMS Press.
- Olschki, L. (1960). Marco Polo’s Asia: An introduction to his description of the world called ‘Il Milione’. (J. A. Scott, Trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Pelliot, P. (1959). Notes of Marco Polo (Vols. 1–2). Paris: Impression Nationale.
- Rossabi, M. (1988). Khubilai Khan: His life and times. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Wood, F. (1996). Did Marco Polo go to China? Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Yule, H. (Trans. & Ed.). (1921). The book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian concerning the kingdoms and marvels of the East (Vols. 1–2). London: John Murray.
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