Marco Polo

Marco Polo
Marco Polo

Marco Polo 1254 – January 8–9, 1324) was an Italian merchant, explorer, and writer, born in the Republic of Venice. His travels are recorded in Livre des Merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300), a book that described to Europeans the wealth and great size of China, it’s capital Peking, and other Asian cities and countries.

Marco Polo
Marco Polo

Marco learned the mercantile trade from his father and his uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who traveled through Asia and 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 in Venice.

Though he was not the first European to reach China (see Europeans in Medieval China), Marco Polo was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience. This book inspired Christopher Columbus and many other travelers. There is substantial literature based on Polo’s writings; he also influenced European cartography, leading to the introduction of the Fra Mauro map.


Family origin of Marco Polo

Marco Polo was born in 1254 in the Republic of Venice, though the exact date and place of birth are archivally unknown. Marco Polo’s birthplace is generally considered to be Venice, but some also claimed Constantinople and the island of Korčula as his birthplace. There is a dispute as to whether the Polo family is of Venetian origin, as Venetian historical sources considered them to be of Dalmatian origin. The lack of evidence makes the Korčula theory (probably under Ramusio influence) as a specific birthplace strongly disputed, and even some Croatian scholars consider it merely invented

In 1168, his great-uncle, Marco Polo, borrowed money and commanded a ship in Constantinople. His grandfather, Andrea Polo of the parish of San Felice, had three sons, Maffeo, yet another Marco, and the traveler’s father Niccolò. This genealogy, described by Ramusio, is not universally accepted as there is no additional evidence to support it.

His father, Niccolò Polo, a merchant, traded with the Near East, becoming wealthy and achieving great prestige. Niccolò and his brother Maffeo set off on a trading voyage before Marco’s birth. In 1260, Niccolò and Maffeo, while residing in Constantinople, then the capital of the Latin Empire, 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 Kublai Khan, a Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan dynasty. Their decision to leave Constantinople proved timely. In 1261 Michael VIII Palaiologos, the ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, took Constantinople, promptly burned the Venetian quarter and re-established 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.

Almost nothing is known about the childhood of Marco Polo until he was fifteen years old, excepting that he probably spent part of his childhood in Venice. Meanwhile, Marco Polo’s mother died, and an aunt and uncle raised him. He received a good education, learning mercantile subjects including foreign currency, appraising, and the handling of cargo ships; he learned little or no Latin. His father later married Floradise Polo (née Trevisan).

In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice, meeting young Marco for the first time. In 1271, during the rule of DeLorenzo 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. 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 into gemstones. At 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 Genoans 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. The latter 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 in the meantime had purchased a large palazzo in the zone named Contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo (Corte del Milion). For such a venture, the Polo family probably invested profits from trading, and even many gemstones 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. 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.

In 1305 he is mentioned in a Venetian document among local sea captains regarding the payment of taxes. His relation with a certain Marco Polo, who in 1300 was mentioned with riots against the aristocratic government, and escaped the death penalty, as well as riots from 1310 led by Bajamonte Tiepolo (by mother side grandson of Trogir count Stjepko Šubić) and Marco Querini, among whose rebels were Jacobello and Francesco Polo from another family branch, is unclear. Polo is clearly mentioned again after 1305 in Maffeo’s testament from 1309–1310, in a 1319 document according to which he became the owner of some estates of his deceased father, and in 1321, when he bought part of the family property of his wife Donata.

Death of Marco Polo

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 Peter, a Tartar servant, who may have accompanied him from Asia, and to whom Polo bequeathed 100 lire of Venetian denari.

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 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 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. Due to the Venetian law stating that the day ends at sunset, the exact date of Marco Polo’s death cannot be determined, but according to some scholars it was between the sunsets of January 8 and 9, 1324. Biblioteca Marciana, which holds the original copy of his testament, dates the testament on January 9, 1323, and gives the date of his death at some time in June 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 another version 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 Devisement 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 the Levant invited them to meet Kublai Khan, who had never met Europeans. In 1266, they reached the seat of 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. The Polos wanted to sail straight into China, but the ships there were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road until reaching Kublai’s summer palace in Shangdu, near present-day Zhangjiakou. In one instance during their trip, the Polos joined a caravan of traveling merchants whom they crossed paths with. Unfortunately, the party was soon attacked by bandits, who used the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The Polos managed to fight and escape through a nearby town, but many members of the caravan were killed or enslaved. Three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos were welcomed by Kublai 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. They were highly respected and sought after in the Mongolian court, and so Kublai Khan decided to decline 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, the 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, traveled north to Sumatra, and sailed west to the Point Pedro port of Jaffna under Savakanmaindan and to Pandyan of Tamilakkam. 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 traveled overland to the port of Trebizond on the Black Sea, the present day Trabzon

Role of Rustichello

The British scholar Ronald Latham has pointed out that The Book of Marvels was, in fact, a collaboration written in 1298–1299 between Polo and a professional writer of romances, Rustichello of Pisa. Latham also argued that Rustichello may have glamorized Polo’s accounts, and added fantastic and romantic elements that made the book a bestseller. The Italian scholar Luigi Foscolo Benedetto had previously demonstrated that the book was written in the same “leisurely, conversational style” that characterized Rustichello’s other works, and that some passages in the book were taken verbatim or with minimal modifications from other writings by Rustichello. For example, the opening introduction in The Book of Marvels to “emperors and kings, dukes and marquises” was lifted straight out of an Arthurian romance Rustichello had written several years earlier, and the account of the second meeting between Polo and Kublai Khan at the latter’s court is almost the same as that of the arrival of Tristan at the court of King Arthur at Camelot in that same book. Latham believed that many elements of the book, such as legends of the Middle East and mentions of exotic marvels, may have been the work of Rustichello who was giving what medieval European readers expected to find in a travel book.

Authenticity and veracity

Since its publication, some have viewed the book with skepticism. Some in the Middle Ages regarded the book simply as a romance or fable, due largely to the sharp difference of its descriptions of a sophisticated civilisation in China to other early accounts by Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and William of Rubruck, who portrayed the Mongols as ‘barbarians’ who appeared to belong to ‘some other world’. Doubts have also been raised in later centuries about Marco Polo’s narrative of his travels in China, for example for his failure to mention the Great Wall of China, and in particular the difficulties in identifying many of the place names he used (the great majority, however, have since been identified). Many have questioned if he had visited the places he mentioned in his itinerary if he had appropriated the accounts of his father and uncle or other travelers, and some doubted if he even reached China, or that if he did, perhaps never went beyond Khanbaliq (Beijing).

It has however been pointed out that Polo’s accounts of China are more accurate and detailed than other travelers’ accounts of the periods. Polo had at times refuted the ‘marvelous’ fables and legends given in other European accounts, and despite some exaggerations and errors, Polo’s accounts have relatively few of the descriptions of irrational marvels. In many cases where present (mostly given in the first part before he reached China, such as mentions of Christian miracles), he made a clear distinction that they are what he had heard rather than what he had seen. It is also largely free of the gross errors found in other accounts such as those given by the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta who had confused the Yellow River with the Grand Canal and other waterways, and believed that porcelain was made from coal.

Modern studies have further shown that details given in Marco Polo’s book, such as the currencies used, salt productions and revenues, are accurate and unique. Such detailed descriptions are not found in other non-Chinese sources, and their accuracy is supported by archaeological evidence as well as Chinese records compiled after Polo had left China. His accounts are therefore unlikely to have been obtained second hand. Other accounts have also been verified; for example, when visiting Zhenjiang in Jiangsu, China, Marco Polo noted that a large number of Christian churches had been built there. His claim is confirmed by a Chinese text of the 14th century explaining how a Sogdian named Mar-Sargis from Samarkand founded six Nestorian Christian churches there in addition to one in Hangzhou during the second half of the 13th century. His story of the princess Kököchin sent from China to Persia to marry the Īl-khān is also confirmed by independent sources in both Persia and China


Further exploration of other lesser-known European explorers had already traveled 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, traveled 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”. Read about Christopher Columbus

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