Marco Polo, (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant, explorer and writer, who travelled through Asia along the Silk Road, between 1271 and 1295. His travels are recorded in “The Travels of Marco Polo” (aka, “Book of the Marvels of the World” and “Il Milione”, written c. 1300).
It described to Europeans of that time, the mysterious culture and inner workings of the Eastern world; including the wealth and great size of the Mongol Empire and China in the Yuan Dynasty.
It gave them beyond their Latin civilisation and culture, the first comprehensive look into what is now China, Persia, India, Japan and other Asian countries.
Marco Polo – Birthplace and family origin
Marco Polo (Left) was born around 1254 in Venice, capital of the Venetian Republic.
Little is known about the childhood of Marco Polo, until he was fifteen years old.
His father Niccolo Polo, a merchant, had his household in Venice and traded with the Near East; becoming wealthy and achieving great prestige. Niccolo left Marco’s mother pregnant in order to travel to Asia, with his brother Maffeo Polo. As a result, he was raised by his extended family, following his mother’s death at a young age.
He received a good education, learning mercantile subjects including foreign currency and the appraisal and handling of cargo ships.
His father later married Floradise Trevisan.
Niccolò and Maffeo first spent about six years in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), which had been under Latin control since the Fourth Crusade of 1204. The two brothers then went to the port city of Soldaia (now Sudak, Ukraine), where they apparently owned a house.
The Byzantine re-conquest of Constantinople in 1261, along with upheavals in the Mongol Empire; may have blocked their way home. Niccolò and Maffeo therefore turned east, in order to trade in such things as silk, gems, furs and spices.
After spending three years in Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan, they were encouraged by a Mongolian embassy to visit Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan; who controlled a huge swath of Asia. Kublai quizzed them on European affairs and decided to send them on a goodwill mission to the pope.
In 1269, the two brothers finally made it back to Venice, where Niccolò and Marco Polo met each other for the first time.
Their return to Venice and their household, is described in the “Travels of Marco Polo” as follows – “they departed from Acre and went to Negropont and from Negropont they continued their voyage to Venice. On their arrival there, Messer Nicolas found that his wife was dead and that she had left behind her a son aged fifteen, named Marco”.
His first known ancestor was a great uncle, Marco Polo (the older) from Venice, who lent some money and commanded a ship in Constantinople. Andrea, Marco’s grandfather, lived in Venice in the “contrada San Felice”. He had three sons – Marco “the older”, Matteo and Niccolò (Marco’s father).
Some old Venetian historical sources, considered Polo’s ancestors to be of possible Dalmatian origin; although this fact is heavily disputed by many.
Early life, the Silk Road and Asian travel
In 1271, during the rule of Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo, Marco Polo (at seventeen years of age), his father, and his uncle set off for Asia on the series of adventures that Marco later documented in his book.
Niccolò and Maffeo, with young Marco at their side, set sail to Acre in present-day Israel.
At the request of Kublai Khan, they secured some holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and then back-tracked to Acre to pick up gifts, papal documents and two friars from newly elected Pope Gregory X. The friars quickly abandoned the expedition, but the Polo’s continued on; possibly by camel to the Persian port city of Hormuz. Failing to find any suitable boats, they instead took a series of overland traders’ routes, that in the 19th century; would become known as the “Silk Road”.
Over the next three years they slowly trekked through deserts, high mountain passes and other rough terrain; meeting people of various religions and cultures along the way. Finally, around 1275 they arrived at the opulent summer palace of Kublai Khan at Shangdu, (Xanadu) in China (formerly known as Cathay); located about 200 miles northwest of his winter quarters, in modern Beijing. Kahn was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty.
Above L: The Polo’s presented to Kublai Khan at the opulent Summer Palace at Shangdu. Above R: Kublai Khan
Polo described the palace’s opulence in a way that must have enthralled his contemporaries – “There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.”
By this time, Marco was 21 years old. Impressed by Marco’s intelligence and humility, Khan appointed him to serve as his foreign emissary to India and Burma. He was sent on many diplomatic missions throughout his empire and in Southeast Asia, (such as in present-day Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam); but also entertained Kublai Kahn, with stories and observations about the lands he saw.
As part of this appointment, Marco travelled extensively inside China, living in the emperor’s lands for 17 years. During this time, it is also believed that he worked as a city governor and as a tax inspector and was personally promoted by Khan to the Privy Council.
Kublai initially refused several times to let the Polos return to Europe, as he appreciated their company and had become useful to him. However, around 1291 he finally granted permission, entrusting the Polos with his last duty: to accompany the Mongol princess Kököchin, who was to become the consort of Arghun Khan, in Persia.
In 1292, the Polos joined a flotilla of 14 boats that set out from Zaitun (now Quanzhou, China), stopped briefly in Sumatra and then landed in Persia 18 months later; only to find out that Arghun Khan had died.
The princess was made to marry Arghun’s son.
The Polos, meanwhile, stayed on with Arghun’s brother for nine months, before heading to Venice via Trebizond (now Trabzon, Turkey), Constantinople and Negrepont (now Euboea, Greece).
They arrived home in 1295, the year after Kublai’s death sent the Mongol Empire into an irrevocable decline, as well as cutting off the route to the East for decades. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km) and had been abroad for 24 years.
Genoese captivity and later life
According to some sources, a vast amount of the family’s wealth was also taken from them in Turkey; before their arrival back in Venice in 1295. What remained of his fortune, had been converted mainly into gemstones and precious metals.
As a wealthy merchant he was expected to contribute to the war effort, financing the arming of a galley to aid in combat and serving in the fighting himself. During the war, Polo was captured by Genoese forces and imprisoned.
He spent several months of his imprisonment, collaborating with a detailed account of his travels, to a fellow inmate and writer of romances, Rustichello da Pisa; who incorporated tales of his own, as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China.
The irony is that, if it were not for his being captured as a prisoner of war, there might have been the possibility, that we wouldn’t know today of his incredible story and adventures.
To begin with, the book was in manuscript form, with fewer than 200 handmade copies in circulation around the western world.
However, with the advent of the printing press, the story of Marco Polo was to become a bestseller and remained an influence on how Europeans perceived the East and its culture for centuries. It has enjoyed several titles – “The Travels of Marco Polo”, “Il Milioni”, (derived from his nickname) and the “Book of Wonders of the World” (“Livres des Merveilles du Monde”).
A Genoese-Venetian peace treaty signed in 1299, allowed Marco Polo to return home. His father and uncle in the meantime, had purchased a large palazzo in the district named “contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo” (Corte del Milion).
Left: Corte Seconda del Milion, is still named after the nickname of Polo, Il Milion
For such a venture, the Polo family probably invested profits from trading and even many gemstones and precious metals; they brought from the East. The company continued its activities and Marco soon became a wealthy merchant. Marco and his uncle Maffeo, financed other expeditions, but likely never left Venetian provinces; nor returned to the Silk Road and Asia. Sometime before 1300, his father Niccolò died and Marco no doubt benefitted from his father’s estate.
In 1300, he married Donata Badoèr, the daughter of Vitale Badoèr, a merchant. They had three daughters, Fantina (married Marco Bragadin), Bellela (married Bertuccio Querini), and Moreta.
L: San Lorenzo church in the sestiere of Castello (Venice), where Polo was buried. The photo shows the church as is today, after the rebuilding in 1592.
R: Plaque on Teatro Malibran, which was built upon Marco Polo’s house.
In 1323, Polo was confined to bed, due to illness and on January 8, 1324, despite physicians’ efforts to treat him, Polo was on his deathbed. His family requested Giovanni Giustiniani, a priest of San Procolo; to write and certify the will. His wife, Donata and his three daughters, were appointed by him as co-executors. The will was not signed by Polo, but was validated by the then-relevant “signum manus” rule, by which the testator only had to touch the document to make it legally valid.
The division of his estate was fascinating. The church was entitled by law to a portion of his estate; he approved of this and ordered that a further sum be paid to the convent of San Lorenzo, the place where he wished to be buried. He also set free Peter, a Tartar servant, who may have accompanied him from Asia; even bequeathing a small sum to him.
He divided up the rest of his assets, including several properties, among individuals, religious institutions and every guild and fraternity to which he belonged. He also wrote off multiple debts including that which his sister-in-law owed him and others for the convent of San Giovanni, San Paolo of the Order of Preachers and a cleric named Friar Benvenuto. He ordered 220 soldi be paid to Giovanni Giustiniani ,for his work as a notary and his prayers.
Marco Polo’s Book – Truth or Tales of the Imagination?
Though the book was popular, it has been widely reported than many of its early readers did not take Marco Polo’s tall tales seriously and put the book down to an overactive imagination or downright duplicity. Polo however, always stood by his book; reportedly stating on his deathbed – “I have not told half of what I saw.”
But the debate has never quite ceased. Some scholars have pointed to some of the book’s glaring omissions – such as the Great Wall of China, the use of chopsticks, foot-binding and the drinking of tea. This was used as evidence to suggest, that Marco Polo never actually made it to China and that his book is made up of numerous bits of gossip and rumour; accumulated in Western ports, during his days as a trader.
More recent studies however, have sought to cement his reputation and prove that his story is based on fact. Indeed many scholars are convinced by the detailed nature of Marco Polo’s account, which they state; overwhelmingly checks out against available archaeological, historical and geographical records.
Above L: Page of early book manuscript limited to 200 copies R: Fra Mauro’s map
Disputes about the authenticity of his writing, could easily be argued; however, it no longer really matters. The cultural impact of the story of Marco Polo’s travels, eclipses such debates and is undoubtedly one of the most influential tales of all time.
Though he was not the first European to reach China, Marco Polo was the first to explore some parts of Asia and to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience. This account of the Orient, provided the Europeans with a clear picture of the East’s geography and ethnic customs and was the first Western record of porcelain, coal, gunpowder, a form of paper money, some Asian plants, herbs and spices and exotic animals.
His travel book inspired explorers and many other travellers. Two centuries after Polo’s passing, Christopher Columbus set off across the Atlantic in hopes of finding a new route to the Orient. With him was a copy of Polo’s book!
There is substantial literature based on Polo’s writings and he also influenced European cartography, leading to the introduction of the Fra Mauro map (Above Right).
He is featured in books, films, TV programs and even commercial ventures.
Venice’s main airport on the mainland, directly north of the city, is named after him.
L:Italian banknote, issued in 1982, portraying Marco Polo.