Marco Polo (September 15, 1254 – January 9, 1324 at earliest but no
later than June 1325) was a Venetian trader and explorer who gained fame for
his worldwide travels, recorded in the book Il Milione ("The Million" or The
Travels of Marco Polo).
Marco Polo (September 15, 1254 –
January 9, 1324 at earliest but no later than June 1325) was a Venetian
trader and explorer who gained fame for his worldwide travels, recorded in the
book Il Milione ("The Million" or The Travels of Marco Polo).
Polo, together with his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo, was one of the
first Westerners to travel the Silk Road to China (which he called Cathay, after
the Khitan) and visit the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan (grandson
of Genghis Khan).
Voyage of Niccolò and Maffeo Polo
Niccolò and Maffeo Polo leaving Constantinople for the east, in 1259.The Polo
name originally did not belong to a family of explorers, but to a family of
traders. Marco Polo's father, Niccolò (also Nicolò in Venetian) and his uncle,
Maffeo (also Maffio), were prosperous merchants who traded with the East. They
were partners with a third brother, named Marco il vecchio (the Elder).
In 1252, Niccolò and Maffeo left Venice for Constantinople, where they resided
for several years. The two brothers lived in the Venetian quarter of
Constantinople, where they enjoyed political chances and tax relief because of
their country's role in establishing the Latin Empire in the Fourth Crusade of
1204. But the family judged the political situation of the city precarious, so
they decided to transfer their business northeast to Soldaia, a city in Crimea,
and left Constantinople in 1259. 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. 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.
As their new home on the north rim of the Black Sea, Soldaia had been frequented
by Venetian traders since the 12th century. The Mongol army sacked it in 1223,
but the city had never been definitively conquered until 1239, when it became a
part of the newly formed Mongol state known as the Golden Horde. Searching for
better profits, the Polos continued their journey to Sarai, where the court of
Berke Khan, the ruler of the Golden Horde, was located. At that time, the city
of Sarai — already visited by William of Rubruck a few years earlier — was no
more than a huge encampment, and the Polos stayed for about a year. Finally,
they decided to avoid Crimea, because of a civil war between Berke and his
cousin Hulagu or perhaps because of the bad relationship between Berke Khan and
the Byzantine Empire. Instead, they moved further east to Bukhara, in modern day
Uzbekistan, where the family lived and traded for three years.
Nicolò and Maffeo in Bukhara, where they stayed for three years. They were
invited by an envoy of Hulagu (right) to travel east to visit the Great Khan
Kubilai.In 1264, Nicolò and Maffio joined up with an embassy sent by the Ilkhan
Hulagu to his brother, the Grand Khan Kublai. In 1266, they reached the seat of
the Grand Khan in the Mongol capital Khanbaliq, present day Beijing, China.
In his book, Il Milione, Marco explains how Kublai Khan officially received the
Polos and sent them back — with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to the
Pope. They brought with them a letter from the Khan requesting 100 educated
people to come and teach Christianity and Western customs to his people and oil
from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The letter also contained the paiza, a
golden tablet a foot long and three inches wide, authorizing the holder to
require and obtain lodging, horses and food throughout the Great Khan's
dominion. Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to
travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city,
they sailed to Saint Jean d'Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Niccolo and Maffeo Polo remitting a letter from Kubilai to Pope Gregory X in
1271.The long sede vacante — between the death of Pope Clement IV, in 1268, and
the election of Pope Gregory X, in 1271 — prevented the Polos from fulfilling
Kublai’s request. As suggested by Theobald Visconti, papal legate for the realm
of Egypt, in Acre for the Ninth Crusade, the two brothers returned to Venice in
1269 or 1270, waiting for the nomination of the new Pope.
Journey to Cathay and service to the Khan
The Polo family arrives in a Chinese cityAs soon as he was elected in 1271, Pope
Gregory X received the letter from Kublai Khan, remitted by Niccolo and Maffeo.
Kublai Khan was asking for the dispatch of a hundred missionaries, and some oil
from the lamp of Jerusalum. The two Polos (this time accompanied by the 17
year-old Marco Polo) returned to Mongolia, accompanied by two Dominican monks,
Niccolo de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. The two friars did not finish the
voyage due to fear, but the Polos reached Kanbaliq and remitted the presents
from the Pope to Kublai in 1274.
The Tibetan monk and confidant of Kublai Khan, Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235-1280)
mentions in his diaries for 1271 a foreign friend of Kublai Khan, who was quite
possibly one of the elder Polos or even Marco Polo, although, unfortunately, no
name is given.
The Polos spent the next 17 years in China. Kublai Khan took a liking to Marco,
who was an engaging storyteller. They set him on many diplomatic missions
throughout his empire. Marco carried out diplomatic assignments but also
entertained the khan with interesting stories and observations about the lands
Marco reported that apart from entrusting him with diplomatic missions, Kublai
Khan also made him governor for three years of the large commercial city of
Yangzhou. An Italian community would actually reside in Yangzhou throughout
the 14th century, as documented by the findings of the 1342 tombstone of
Return to Europe
According to Marco’s travel account, the Polos asked several times for
permission to return to Europe but the Khan appreciated the visitors so much
that he would not agree to their departure.
Only in 1291 Kublai entrusted Marco with his last duty, to escort the Mongol
princess Koekecin (Cocacin in Il Milione) to her betrothed, the Ilkhan Arghun.
The party traveled by sea, departing from the southern port city of Quanzhou and
sailing to Sumatra, and then to Persia, via Sri Lanka and India (where his
visits included Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey, which he nicknamed Venice of the
East). Marco Polo has been described to utilise the Northern Silk Road although
the possibility of a southern route has been advanced.
In 1293 or 1294 the Polos reached the Ilkhanate, ruled by Gaykhatu after the
death of Arghun, and left Koekecin with the new Ilkhan. Then they moved to
Trebizond and from that city sailed to Venice. Koekecin would become the
principal wife of the Mongol Il-Khan ruler Ghazan.
In terms of the legacy of Marco Polo's travel to China, it was noteworthy as one
of the first European visitors to travel to the East; considerable exposure of
China's culture to the European continent resulted. The trip also showed
Europeans the value of the Silk Road in negotiating this travel; however, even
though this trackway was used since the first millennium BC, the use of the Silk
Road actually declined markedly within about 150 years after Marco Polo's
expedition, due to the opening of sea routes.
A page from a manuscript of Il MilioneMain article: The Travels of Marco Polo
On their return from China in 1295, the family settled in Venice where they
became a sensation and attracted crowds of listeners who had difficulties
believing their reports of distant China. According to a late tradition, since
they did not believe him, Marco Polo invited them all to dinner one night during
which the Polos dressed in the simple clothes of a peasant in China. Shortly
before the crowds ate, the Polos opened their pockets to reveal hundreds of
rubies and other jewels which they had received in Asia. Though they were much
impressed, the people of Venice still doubted the Polos.
Marco Polo was later captured in a minor clash of the war between Venice and
Genoa, or in the naval battle of Curzola, according to a dubious tradition. He
spent the few months of his imprisonment, in 1298, dictating to a fellow
prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa, a detailed account of his travels in the
then-unknown parts of China.
His book, Il Milione (the title comes from either "The Million", then considered
an extremely large number, or from Polo's family nickname Emilione), was written
in Old French, a language Polo did not speak, and entitled Le divisament dou
monde ("The description of the world"). The book was soon translated into many
European languages and is known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo. The
original is lost and there are now several often-conflicting versions of the
translations. The book became an instant success — quite an achievement at a
time when the invention of the printing press was two hundred years away in
Map of the journeyMarco Polo was finally released from captivity in the summer
of 1299, and he returned home to Venice, where his father and uncles had bought
a large house in the central quarter named contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo with
the company's profits.
The company continued its activities, and Marco was now a wealthy merchant.
While he personally financed other expeditions, he would never leave Venice
again. In 1300, he married Donata Badoer, a woman from an old, respected
patrician family. Marco would have three children with her: Fantina, Bellela and
Moreta. All of them later married into noble families.
Between 1310 and 1320, he wrote a new version of his book, Il Milione, in
Italian. The text was lost, but not before a Franciscan friar, named Francesco
Pipino, translated it into Latin. This Latin version was then translated back
into the Italian, creating conflicts between different editions of the book.
Marco Polo died in his home on January 1324, at almost 70 years old. He was
buried in the Church of San Lorenzo.
Historical and cultural impact
Handwritten notes by Christopher Colombus on the Latin edition of Marco Polo's
Le livre des merveilles.
Statue of Marco Polo in Hangzhou, China, near the West LakeAlthough the Polos
were by no means the first Europeans to reach China overland (see, for example,
Giovanni da Pian del Carpine), thanks to Marco's book their trip was the first
to be widely known, and the best-documented until then. Marco Polo's description
of the Far East and its riches inspired Christopher Columbus' decision to try to
reach those lands by a western route. A heavily annotated copy of Polo's book
was among the belongings of Columbus.
The name Marco Polo was also given to a children's game (Marco Polo), a story in
the science fiction series Doctor Who (Marco Polo) and a three-masted clipper
ship built in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1851. The fastest ship of her day,
Marco Polo was the first ship to sail around the world in under six months.
Several ships of the Italian navy were named Marco Polo. The airport in Venice
is named Marco Polo International Airport. See also the Marcopolo satellites.
The travels of Marco Polo are given an extended fantasy treatment in the Irish
writer Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne's Messer Marco Polo, and in Gary Jennings' 1984
novel The Journeyer. He also appears as the pivotal character in Italo Calvino's
novel Invisible Cities.
Marco Polo also inspired the creation of Marco Volo, a character in the
role-playing game Forgotten Realms.
In 1982, Giuliano Montaldo directed an ambitious television miniseries, simply
titled "Marco Polo". The Italian financed project starred Ken Marshall as Marco
Polo and guest-starred a handful of Academy Awards winning actors, like Denholm
Elliott, F. Murray Abraham, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, John Houseman, Burt
Lancaster and also Tony Lo Bianco and Leonard Nimoy. The music was scored by the
famous Italian music composer Ennio Morricone. The miniseries won 2 Emmy Awards
and was nominated for 6 more.
Marco Polo sheep is named for the explorer, who described the species during his
crossing of Pamir (ancient Mount Imeon) in 1271..
The Fra Mauro map.Marco Polo's travels may have had some impact on the
development of European cartography, ultimately leading to the European voyages
of exploration a century later. The 1453 Fra Mauro map is said by Ramusio to
have been an improved copy of 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 Calmoldese monastery
of Santo Michele on 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." Ramusio
Croatia claims to host the real birthplace of Marco Polo on the island of
Korčula (the Venetian "Curzola"), in the Adriatic Sea. The claim is
controversial, since most literature usually connected him to Venice in the
past. However, since no original document is known to record his birthplace,
Venice as his birthplace is somewhat controversial as well.
Some modern historians question the veracity of Marco Polo's account, and wonder
whether he really visited the Mongol empire, or whether Marco Polo was simply
repeating stories that he had heard from other traders. Dr. John Critchley has
pointed out that Marco Polo's stories tend to give more information about minds
of Western Europeans than those in Asia. Doctor Frances Wood
has questioned whether or not Marco Polo was even in China. Dr. Peter
Jackson has pointed out several things that a European traveler probably would
have mentioned, but did not, and that there is no mention of Marco Polo in
Chinese accounts of the period. Jackson also argues that there are several
different versions of Polo's book, and questions whether it even represents
Polo's account at all, but was instead simply written by a romance writer of the
time. Questions have also been raised as to whether Marco Polo, if he did visit
China, was genuinely an ambassador, or if he was simply one of the many
travelers at the time who claimed to be an ambassador.
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