Marco Polo (/ˈmɑrkoʊ ˈpoʊloʊ/; Italian pronunciation: ˈmarko ˈpɔːlo; September 15, 1254 - January 8-9, 1324) was an Italian merchant traveller from Venice whose travels are recorded in Livres des merveilles du monde, a book which did much to introduce Europeans to Central Asia and China. He learned the mercantile trade from his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who travelled through Asia, and apparently met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia, returning after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa; Marco was imprisoned, and dictated his stories to a cellmate. He was released in 1299, became a wealthy merchant, married and had three children. He died in 1324, and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo.
Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China (see Europeans in Medieval China), but he was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience. This book inspired Christopher Columbus and many other travellers. There is a substantial literature based on his writings. Polo influenced European cartography, leading to the introduction of the Fra Mauro map.
Early life and Asian travel:
Marco Polo was born between September 15 and 16, 1254, in Venice, perhaps in the former contrada of San Giovanni Crisostomo, where his house was located. His father Niccolò was a merchant who traded with the Near East, becoming wealthy and achieving great prestige. Niccolò and his brother Maffeo set off on a trading voyage, before Marco was born.
In 1260, Niccolò and Maffeo were residing in Constantinople, then the capital of the Latin Empire, when they foresaw a political change; they liquidated their assets into jewels and moved away. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, they passed through much of Asia, and met with the Kublai Khan. Their decision proved wise. Constantinople was recaptured in 1261 by Michael Palaeologus, the ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, who promptly burned the Venetian quarter and reestablished the Eastern Roman Empire. Captured Venetian citizens were blinded, while many of those who managed to escape perished aboard overloaded refugee ships fleeing to other Venetian colonies in the Aegean Sea.
Meanwhile, Marco Polo's mother died, and he was raised by an aunt and uncle. Polo was well educated, and learned merchant subjects including foreign currency, appraising, and the handling of cargo ships, although he learned little or no Latin.
In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice, meeting young Marco for the first time. In 1271, during the dogado 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 were later documented in Marco's book. They returned to Venice in 1295, 24 years later, with many riches and treasures. They had traveled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).
Genoese captivity and later life:
Marco Polo returned to Venice in 1295 with his fortune converted in gemstones.
In this time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa. Polo armed a galley equipped with a Trebuchet, to join the war. He was probably caught by Genoeses in a skirmish in 1296, off the anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta and not during the battle of Curzola (September 1298), off the Dalmatian coast. This last claim is due to a later tradition (16th Century) recorded by Giovanni Battista Ramusio.
He spent several months of his imprisonment dictating a detailed account of his travels to a fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who incorporated tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China. The book soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form, and became known as The Travels of Marco Polo. It depicts the Polos' journeys throughout Asia, giving Europeans their first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan.
Polo was finally released from captivity in August 1299, and returned home to Venice, where his father and uncle had purchased a large house in the zone named contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo (Corte del Milion). The company continued its activities and Marco soon became a wealthy merchant. Polo financed other expeditions, but never left Venice again. In 1300, he married Donata Badoer, the daughter of Vitale Badoer, a merchant. They had three daughters, Fantina, Bellela and Moreta.
In 1323, Polo was confined to bed, due to illness. On January 8, 1324, despite physicians' efforts to treat him, Polo was on his deathbed. To write and certify the will, his family requested Giovanni Giustiniani, a priest of San Procolo. His wife, Donata, and his three daughters were appointed by him as co-executrices. 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 a "Tartar slave" who may have accompanied him from Asia.
He divided up the rest of his assets, including several properties, between individuals, religious institutions, and every guild and fraternity to which he belonged. He also wrote-off multiple debts including 300 lire that 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. The will, which was not signed by Polo, but was validated by then relevant "signum manus" rule, by which the testator only had to touch the document to make it abide to the rule of law, was dated January 9, 1324. Due to the Venetian law stating that the day ends at sunset, the exact date of Marco Polo's death cannot be determined, but it was between the sunsets of January 8 and 9, 1324.
Travels of Marco Polo:
An authoritative version of Marco Polo's book does not and cannot exist, for the early manuscripts differ significantly. The published editions of his book either rely on single manuscripts, blend multiple versions together, or add notes to clarify, for example in the English translation by Henry Yule. The 1938 English translation by A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot is based on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50% longer than other versions. Approximately 150 manuscript copies in various languages are known to exist, and before availability of the printing press discrepancies were inevitably introduced during copying and translation. The popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 by R.E. Latham works several texts together to make a readable whole.
Polo related his memoirs orally to Rustichello da Pisa while both were prisoners of the Genova Republic. Rustichello wrote The Devisament du Monde in Langues d'Oil, a lingua franca of crusaders and western merchants in the orient. The idea probably was to create a handbook for merchants, essentially a text on weights, measures and distances.
The book opens with a preface describing his father and uncle traveling to Bolghar where Prince Berke Khan lived. A year later, they went to Ukek and continued to Bukhara. There, an envoy from Levant invited them to meet Kublai Khan, who had never met Europeans. In 1266, they reached the seat of the Kublai Khan at Dadu, present day Beijing, China. Kublai received the brothers with hospitality and asked them many questions regarding the European legal and political system. He also inquired about the Pope and Church in Rome. After the brothers answered the questions he tasked them with delivering a letter to the Pope, requesting 100 Christians acquainted with the Seven Arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy). Kublai Khan requested that an envoy bring him back oil of the lamp in Jerusalem. The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268 and the election of his successor delayed the Polos in fulfilling Kublai's request. They followed the suggestion of Theobald Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt, and returned to Venice in 1269 or 1270 to await the nomination of the new Pope, which allowed Marco to see his father for the first time, at the age of fifteen or sixteen.
In 1271, Niccolò, Maffeo and Marco Polo embarked on their voyage to fulfill Kublai's request. They sailed to Acre, and then rode on camels to the Persian port of Hormuz. They wanted to sail to China, but the ships there were not seaworthy, so they continued overland until reaching Kublai's summer palace in Shangdu, near present-day Zhangjiakou. Three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, Kublai welcomed the Polos into his palace. The exact date of their arrival is unknown, but scholars estimate it to be between 1271 and 1275. On reaching the Yuan court, the Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to their patron.
Marco knew four languages, and the family had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and experience that was useful to Kublai. It is possible that he became a government official; he wrote about many imperial visits to China's southern and eastern provinces, the far south and Burma.
Kublai Khan declined the Polos' requests to leave China. They became worried about returning home safely, believing that if Kublai died, his enemies might turn against them because of their close involvement with the ruler. In 1292, Kublai's great-nephew, then ruler of Persia, sent representatives to China in search of a potential wife, and they asked the Polos to accompany them, so they were permitted to return to Persia with the wedding party - which left that same year from Zaitun in southern China on a fleet of 14 junks. The party sailed to the port of Singapore, travelled north to Sumatra, sailed west to the Trincomalee port of Jaffna under Savakanmaindan and to Pandyan of Tamilakkam. Describing the Pandyan kingdom under Lord Emperor Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan I as the richest empire in existence, Polo arrived during the reign of Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I, son of Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan I and one of five brother kings on the continent. Eventually Polo crossed the Arabian Sea to Hormuz. The two-year voyage was a perilous one - of the six hundred people (not including the crew) in the convoy only eighteen had survived (including all three Polos). The Polos left the wedding party after reaching Hormuz and travelled overland to the port of Trebizond on the Black Sea, the present day Trabzon.
Some minor sources state that Polo was born in the Venetian island of Curzola (present day Korčula - Croatia). The claim is also supported by the Croatian National Tourist Board, which advertises the country as "Croatia, Homeland of Marco Polo". However there is no proof to this claim, which "can be approached as pure falsification or even as a theft of heritage".
Skeptics have wondered if Marco Polo actually went to China or if he perhaps wrote his book based on hearsay. While Polo describes paper money and the burning of coal, he fails to mention the Great Wall of China, Chinese characters, chopsticks, or footbinding. Yet, if the purpose of Polo's tales was to impress others with tales of his high esteem for an advanced civilization, then it is possible that Polo shrewdly would omit those details that would cause his listeners to scoff at the Chinese with a sense of European superiority. Besides, Marco lived among the Mongol elite. Foot binding was rare even among Chinese during Polo's time and almost unknown among the Mongols. The Great Walls were built to keep out northern invaders, whereas the ruling dynasty during Marco Polo's visit were those very northern invaders. Researchers note that the Great Wall familiar to us today is a Ming structure built some two centuries after Marco Polo's travels. The Mongol rulers whom Polo served controlled territories both north and south of today's wall, and would have no reasons to maintain any fortifications that may have remained there from the earlier dynasties. Other Europeans who traveled to Khanbaliq during the Yuan Dynasty, such as Giovanni de' Marignolli and Odoric of Pordenone, said nothing about the wall either.
Supporters of the book's basic accuracy have replied in even greater force. University of Tübingen sinologist and historian Hans Ulrich Vogel argued that Polo's description of paper money and salt production supported his presence in China because he included details which he could not have gotten otherwise. Economic historian Mark Elvin, in his preface to Vogel's 2013 monograph, concludes that Vogel "demonstrates by specific example after specific example the ultimately overwhelming probability of the broad authenticity" of Polo's account. Many problems were caused by the oral transmission of the original text and the proliferation of significantly different hand-copied manuscripts. For instance, did Polo exert "political authority" (seignora) in Yangzhou or merely "sojourn" (sejourna) there. Elvin concludes that "those who doubted, although mistaken, were not always being casual or foolish," but "the case as a whole had now been closed": the book is, "in essence, authentic, and, when used with care, in broad terms to be trusted as a serious though obviously not always final, witness."
Other lesser-known European explorers had already travelled to China, such as Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, but Polo's book meant that his journey was the first to be widely known. Christopher Columbus was inspired enough by Polo's description of the Far East to want to visit those lands for himself; a copy of the book was among his belongings, with handwritten annotations.Bento de Góis, inspired by Polo's writings of a Christian kingdom in the east, travelled 4,000 miles (6,400 km) in three years across Central Asia. He never found the kingdom, but ended his travels at the Great Wall of China in 1605, proving that Cathay was what Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) called "China".
The Marco Polo sheep, a subspecies of Ovis aries, is named after the explorer, who described it during his crossing of Pamir (ancient Mount Imeon) in 1271. In 1851, a three-masted Clipper built in Saint John, New Brunswick also took his name; the Marco Polo was the first ship to sail around the world in under six months. The airport in Venice is named Venice Marco Polo Airport, and the frequent flyer program of Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific is known as the "Marco Polo Club". The travels of Marco Polo are fictionalised in Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne's Messer Marco Polo and Gary Jennings' 1984 novel The Journeyer. Polo also appears as the pivotal character in Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities. The 1982 television miniseries, Marco Polo, directed by Giuliano Montaldo and depicting Polo's travels, won two Emmy Awards and was nominated for six more. He appears as a Great Explorer in the 2008 strategy video game Civilization Revolution.
Marco Polo's travels may have had some influence on the development of European cartography, ultimately leading to the European voyages of exploration a century later. The 1453 Fra Mauro map was said by Giovanni Battista Ramusio to have been partially based on the one brought from Cathay by Marco Polo:
That fine illuminated world map on parchment, which can still be seen in a large cabinet alongside the choir of their monastery (the Camaldolese monastery of San Michele di Murano) was by one of the brothers of the monastery, who took great delight in the study of cosmography, diligently drawn and copied from a most beautiful and very old nautical map and a world map that had been brought from Cathay by the most honourable Messer Marco Polo and his father.
--Giovanni Battista Ramusio