Marco Polo (1254-1324), Venetian traveler and author, whose account of his travels and experiences in China offered Europeans a firsthand view of Asian lands and stimulated interest in Asian trade.
Marco Polo was born in Venice, one of the most prominent centers of trade in medieval Europe, into a merchant family. Venetian merchants of the day traded regularly throughout the Mediterranean region. They also maintained trading posts in port cities on the Black Sea, where they obtained silk, porcelain, and other goods that came from China over the Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking China with Rome. Little is known about Marco Polo’s early life, because his own account of his travels, published later in his life, is the primary source of biographical material about him. Polo probably received a fairly typical education for children of merchants at that time, learning how to read, write, and calculate.
Marco Polo’s account is also the primary source of information about the travels of his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, who were jewel merchants. They left Venice in 1260 on a commercial venture to the Black Sea ports of Constantinople (now İstanbul, Turkey) and Soldaia (now Sudak, Ukraine). From Soldaia they continued farther east to trading cities on the Volga River in present-day Russia. In 1262 a war broke out behind them and prevented them from returning home, so they proceeded farther east to the great Central Asian trading city of Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan). After three years there they joined a diplomatic mission going to the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China. The khan received them warmly and expressed a desire to learn more about Christianity. He asked the Polo brothers to return to Europe and persuade the pope to send Christian scholars who could explain the religion to him. Niccolò and Maffeo journeyed back to Europe in 1269 to satisfy the khan’s request.
The pope appointed two missionaries to accompany the Polos on their return to the Mongol court. The party set out in 1271, this time with Niccolò’s son Marco. Soon after their departure from Acre (now ‘Akko, Israel) the missionaries became concerned about hazardous conditions along the route and abandoned the embassy. The three Polos continued the journey. Judging from Marco’s account, they most likely traveled overland through Armenia and Persia (now Iran) to Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, north through Persia to the Oxus River (now Amu Darya) in Central Asia, up the Oxus to the Pamirs, across the mountains and around the southern edge of the Takla Makan Desert to Lop Nur (in present-day Xinjiang Uygur (Uighur) Autonomous Region in western China), and across the Gobi Desert. In 1275 they reached the summer court of Kublai Khan at Shangdu (about 300 km/about 200 mi north of present-day Beijing). Marco’s account records that the khan warmly welcomed the party and arranged accommodations for them.
The Polos spent the next 17 years in China. Kublai Khan took an immediate liking to Marco, who was an engaging storyteller and conversationalist, and sent him on numerous diplomatic missions throughout his empire. Marco not only carried out his diplomatic assignments but also regaled the khan with interesting stories and observations about the lands he visited. His missions took him to Sichuan Province in southern China and Yunnan Province in the southwest, as well as northern Burma (now Myanmar). 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. Most modern scholars doubt this claim, but it is possible that Marco held some sort of post at Yangzhou, because the Mongol rulers of China routinely appointed foreign administrators to oversee the affairs of their Chinese subjects.
According to Marco’s travel account, the Polos asked several times for permission to return to Europe, but Kublai Khan appreciated the visitors so much that he would not agree to their departure. In 1292, however, the khan relented and permitted the Polos to return if they would serve as escorts for a Mongol princess traveling by sea to marry the Mongol ruler of Persia. The party departed from the southern Chinese port city of Quanzhou (in present-day Fujian Province) and sailed to Sumatra, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), southern India, and the Persian Gulf. After seeing the princess safely to Iran, the three Polos traveled overland through Tabrīz to Trebizond (now Trabzon, Turkey), where they took a ship to Constantinople and then to Venice, arriving home in 1295.
Contemporary accounts hold that when Marco Polo returned, the youth of Venice flocked to his home to hear his stories about the lands he had visited. Marco himself became known as il milione (“the man with a million stories”) and Marco milione (“Marco Millions”), and the courtyard of his home became known as the corte del milione (“court of il milione”).
Marco soon became involved in a naval conflict between Venice and its commercial rival Genoa. In 1298 he fell captive, along with 7000 of his compatriots, when the Genoese navy defeated a Venetian fleet in which Marco was an honorary commander. During his year of imprisonment he passed the time by telling stories. His tales attracted the attention of a romance writer from Pisa named Rustichello, who had written two popular romances about King Arthur. Rustichello recognized Marco’s stories as fascinating material. He prepared an account of Marco’s travels in a literary dialect of French, the most commonly used language for works of adventure and romance.
Rustichello frequently embellished Marco’s story. For instance, his description of the Polos’ arrival at Kublai Khan’s court strongly resembles a scene in one of his Arthurian romances, and his description of battles also followed formulas that he had used in earlier works. Nevertheless, the book was extremely popular, and translations soon became available in Latin, Italian, Venetian dialect, English, and other languages. The English translation of the original title of the book was The Description of the World. Later editions and translations of Marco’s travel account have appeared under several different titles, including Il milione, The Book of Marvels, The Book of Marco Polo, and The Travels of Marco Polo. After his release from prison Marco returned to Venice, where he died in 1324.
Marco Polo’s account of his travels exercised deep influence on European readers. Cartographers looked to it for information about Asian lands, and merchants drew inspiration from it when they planned commercial ventures. Portuguese mariners studied it when they decided to seek a sea route to India in the 15th century. Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus owned a Latin translation of the work, which he read carefully. His copy still survives, along with his handwritten annotations in the margins. Columbus relied heavily on Marco Polo’s geography when planning his own voyage to reach Asian markets by sailing west from Europe.
In the 20th century some scholars have raised questions about the accuracy of Marco Polo’s account. Some have even suggested that he did not actually travel to China but rather told stories that he heard from others who did go there. Doubts have arisen largely from the fact that Marco’s work does not mention several distinctive characteristics of Chinese society. Such omissions include the use of chopsticks as eating utensils; the drinking of tea; the use in written language of ideograms—that is, characters representing things or ideas without expressing pronunciation; the binding of girls’ feet to prevent normal growth (tiny feet were considered to enhance women’s beauty); and the existence of the Great Wall, a fortification running along the northern and northwestern frontiers of China.
In response to the critics, other scholars have pointed out that Marco lived among Mongol rulers rather than Chinese subjects and therefore would have had little or no exposure to chopsticks, tea, foot-binding, or Chinese written language. As for the Great Wall, it did not exist in its present form until the 16th century, long after Marco’s death. Furthermore, many of the ambiguities in Marco’s account are attributable to Rustichello, who cast the work in a form that he thought would be popular. Finally, Marco’s account recorded many aspects of Mongol and Chinese society in convincing detail. These features include the Mongols’ road and postal system, the careers of Mongol administrators in China, Kublai Khan’s personality, Mongol court life, and descriptions of important cities such as Shangdu, Khanbaliq, Hangzhou, and Quanzhou.