Marco Polo

Marco Polo
(ca. 1254–1324)
   Medieval Europe’s greatest explorer and travel writer, Marco Polo, probably was born in Venice about 1254. He may have been about six years old when his father, Niccolò, and his uncle Maffeo traveled to the East, where they became the first Europeans to reach China, or as they called it, Cathay. They returned to Venice in 1269, with a request from the great khan, Kublai, written in Turkish and addressed to the pope, expressing the khan’s interest in Christianity and inviting 100 learned men to visit his empire and provide instruction in Western religion and science. In 1271 the 17-year-old Marco set out with his father and uncle on their return trip to China, though instead of 100, they were able to convince only two Dominican friars to make the arduous trek across Asia with them. The timid friars quickly deserted the expedition, but the three Polos pressed on, reaching China in three and a half years after a 6,000-mile journey through Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan, and along the trade route known as the “Silk Road” into China. In May of 1275 they reached the khan’s summer palace in his original capital of Chengdu.Marco was quite taken by the luxury and splendor of the palace, and his description of it in his memoirs as the greatest palace ever constructed later inspired Coleridge to write his poem about Xanadu (i.e., Chengdu). The newly built capital, called Khanbalig or Cambalic, “The City of the Khan” (modern Beijing), Marco described as the greatest city in the world. Kublai, who adopted the Polos as favorites in his court, was particularly fond of Marco, and employed him as a diplomat. Sent on missions to Burma, India, and remote parts of China, Marco witnessed and wrote about places that no Westerner would see again until the 19th century. In 1292, the Polos left the elderly khan in order to escort a Mongol princess to Persia, and while there, received news that Kublai had died. Realizing that in the struggle for power in the wake of the khan’s death his close advisers may be in a very dangerous position, the Polos decided the time had come for them to return to Venice. After a difficult trip home, they arrived in Venice in 1295, after a journey of 24 years.
   Three years after returning home, Marco commanded a galley in a Venetian sea-battle with rival Genoa. Captured and imprisoned in Pisa, Marco met a Pisan writer of romances named Rusticiano. At the urging of Rusticiano, Marco sent to Venice for his papers, and worked with the Pisan writer to produce the memoirs of his journey, known to his contemporaries as The Travels of Marco Polo or The Description of the World. The text quickly became one of the most popular books in Europe— hundreds of manuscripts of the Travels appeared throughout the West within a century of its first publication, and Marco’s adventures exerted a powerful influence on the European imagination. Released from prison after a year, Marco returned to Venice, married, and had three children. He seems to have lived contentedly with his business affairs in Venice until his death in 1324. He was famous, though most readers considered the wonders described in his book as mere fabrications, traveler’s tall tales, of the sort made famous by writers like John MANDEVILLE. His Travels became popularly known as Il Milione, “The Million Lies.” It is said that on his deathbed, his friends called upon him to revise his book and remove the sections he had made up, to which he angrily responded “I did not tell half of what I saw!”
   Still, parts of the Travels—a section in which giant birds drop elephants from the sky, for example— must indeed have been products of Marco’s imagination. Other questions have arisen about the authenticity of the Travels: Marco never mentions the Great Wall, for instance. Nor does he speak of things like women’s foot binding, which must have seemed remarkable to a European visitor. These things, plus the fact that the Polos are never mentioned in the Annals of the Yuan (Mongol) Empire recorded during Kublai’s reign, have led some to doubt that Marco ever actually visited China at all.
   Still,much of what Marco wrote was confirmed by travelers during the 18th and 19th centuries, and his geographical descriptions have been shown to be remarkably accurate. His accounts of some important events of Kublai’s reign are more detailed than extant Chinese accounts. Though it may be difficult at times to separate with absolute certainty fact from fiction in the Travels, the text has been remarkably influential and fascinating in its rich, detailed pictures of parts of Asia through the eyes of the first European to see them.
   ■ Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.
   ■ Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Edited by Manuel Komroff. New York: Norton, 2002.
   ■ Power, Eileen.Medieval People. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.
   ■ Spence, Jonathan D. The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds. New York: Norton, 1998.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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