Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2493

Article abstract: Through his Asian travels and his book recording them, Marco Polo encouraged a medieval period of intercultural communication, Western knowledge of other lands, and eventually the Western period of exploration and expansion.

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Early Life

Despite his enduring fame, very little is known about the personal life of Marco Polo. It is known that he was born into a leading Venetian family of merchants. He also lived during a propitious time in world history, when the height of Venice’s influence as a city-state coincided with the greatest extent of Mongol conquest of Asia. Ruled by Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire stretched all the way from China to Russia and the Levant. The Mongol hordes also threatened other parts of Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, inspiring fear everywhere by their bloodthirsty advances. Yet their ruthless methods brought a measure of stability to the lands they controlled, opening up trade routes such as the famous Silk Road. Eventually, the Mongols discovered that it was more profitable to collect tribute from people than to kill them outright, and this policy too stimulated trade.

Into this favorable atmosphere a number of European traders ventured, including the family of Marco Polo. The Polos had long-established ties in the Levant and around the Black Sea; for example, they owned property in Constantinople, and Marco’s uncle, for whom he was named, had a home in Sudak in the Crimea. From Sudak, around 1260, another uncle, Maffeo, and Marco’s father, Niccolò, made a trading visit into Mongol territory, the land of the Golden Horde (Russia), ruled by Berke Khan. While they were there, a war broke out between Berke and the khan of the Levant, blocking their return home. Thus Niccolò and Maffeo traveled deeper into Mongol territory, moving southeastward to Bukhara, which was ruled by a third khan. While waiting there, they met an emissary traveling farther eastward who invited them to accompany him to the court of the great khan, Kublai, in Cathay (modern China). In Cathay, Kublai Khan gave the Polos a friendly reception, appointed them his emissaries to the pope, and ensured their safe travel back to Europe: They were to return to Cathay with one hundred learned men who could instruct the Mongols in the Christian religion and the liberal arts.

In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo finally arrived back in Venice, where Niccolò found that his wife had died during his absence. Their son, Marco, then about fifteen years old, had been only six or younger when his father left home; thus Marco was reared primarily by his mother and the extended Polo family—and the streets of Venice. After his mother’s death, Marco had probably begun to think of himself as something of a orphan. Then his father and uncle suddenly reappeared, as if from the dead, after nine years of travel in far-off, romantic lands. These experiences were the formative influences on young Marco, and one can see their effects mirrored in his character: a combination of sensitivity and toughness, independence and loyalty, motivated by an eagerness for adventure, a love of stories, and a desire to please or impress.

Life’s Work

In 1268, Pope Clement IV died, and a two- or three-year delay while another pope was being elected gave young Marco time to mature and to absorb the tales of his father and uncle. Marco was seventeen years old when he, his father, and his uncle finally set out for the court of Kublai Khan. They were accompanied not by one hundred wise men but by two Dominican friars, and the two good friars turned back at the first sign of adversity, another local war in the Levant. Aside from the pope’s messages, the only spiritual gift Europe was able to furnish the great Kublai Khan was oil from the lamp burning at Jesus Christ’s supposed tomb in Jerusalem. Yet, in a sense, young Marco, the only new person in the Polos’ party, was himself a fitting representative of the spirit of European civilization on the eve of the Renaissance, and the lack of one hundred learned Europeans guaranteed that he would catch the eye of the khan, who was curious about “Latins.”

On the way to the khan’s court, Marco had the opportunity to complete his education. The journey took three and a half years by horseback through some of the world’s most rugged terrain, including snowy mountain ranges, such as the Pamirs, and parching deserts, such as the Gobi. Marco and his party encountered such hazards as wild beasts and brigands; they also met with beautiful women, in whom young Marco took a special interest. The group traveled through numerous countries and cultures, noting the food, dress, and religions unique to each. In particular, under the khan’s protection the Polos were able to observe a large portion of the Islamic world at close range, as few if any European Christians had. (Unfortunately, Marco’s anti-Muslim prejudices, a European legacy of the Crusades, marred his observations.) By the time they reached the khan’s court in Khanbalik (modern Peking), Marco had become a hardened traveler. He had also received a unique education and had been initiated into manhood.

Kublai Khan greeted the Polos warmly and invited them to stay on in his court. Here, if Marco’s account is to be believed, the Polos became great favorites of the khan, and Kublai eventually made Marco one of his most trusted emissaries. On these points Marco has been accused of gross exaggeration, and the actual status of the Polos at the court of the khan is much disputed. If at first it appears unlikely that Kublai would make young Marco an emissary, upon examination this seems quite reasonable. For political reasons, the khan was in the habit of appointing foreigners to administer conquered lands, particularly China, where the tenacity of the Chinese bureaucracy was legendary (and eventually contributed to the breakup of the Mongol Empire). The khan could also observe for himself that young Marco was a good candidate: eager, sturdy, knowledgeable, well traveled, and apt (Marco quickly assimilated Mongol culture and became proficient in four languages, of which three were probably Mongol, Turkish, and Persian). Finally, Marco reported back so successfully from his first mission—informing the khan not only on business details but also on colorful customs and other interesting trivia—that his further appointment was confirmed. The journeys specifically mentioned in Marco’s book, involving travel across China and a sea voyage to India, suggest that the khan did indeed trust him with some of the most difficult missions.

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The Polos stayed on for seventeen years, another indication of how valued they were in the khan’s court. Marco, his father, and his uncle not only survived—itself an achievement amid the political hazards of the time—but also prospered. Apparently, the elder Polos carried on their trading while Marco was performing his missions; yet seventeen years is a long time to trade without returning home to family and friends. According to Marco, because the khan held them in such high regard, he would not let them return home, but as the khan aged the Polos began to fear what would happen after his death. Finally an opportunity to leave presented itself when trusted emissaries were needed to accompany a Mongol princess on a wedding voyage by sea to Persia, where she was promised to the local khan. The Polos sailed from Cathay with a fleet of fourteen ships and a wedding party of six hundred people, not counting the sailors. Only a few members of the wedding entourage survived the journey of almost two years, but luckily the survivors included the Polos and the princess. Fortunately, too, the Polos duly delivered the princess not to the old khan of Persia, who had meanwhile died, but to his son.

From Persia, the Polos made their way back to Venice. They were robbed as soon as they got into Christian territory, but they still managed to reach home, in 1295, with plenty of rich goods. According to Giovanni Battista Ramusio, one of the early editors of Marco’s book, the Polos strode into Venice looking like ragged Mongols. Having thought them dead, their relatives at first did not recognize them, then were astounded, and then were disgusted by their shabby appearance. Yet, according to Ramusio, the scorn changed to delight when the returned travelers invited everyone to a homecoming banquet, ripped apart their old clothes, and let all the hidden jewels clatter to the table.

The rest of the world might have learned little about the Polos’ travels if fate had not intervened in Marco’s life. In his early forties, Marco was not yet ready to settle down. Perhaps he was restless for further adventure, or perhaps he felt obliged to fulfill his civic duties to his native city-state. In any event, he became involved in naval warfare between the Venetians and their trading rivals, the Genoese, and was captured. In 1298, the great traveler across Asia and emissary of the khan found himself rotting in a prison in Genoa—an experience that could have ended tragically but instead took a lucky turn. In prison Marco met a man named Rustichello (or Rusticiano), from Pisa, who was a writer of romances. To pass the time, Marco dictated his observations about Asia to Rustichello, who, in writing them down, probably employed the Italianized Old French that was the language of his romances. (Old French had gained currency as the language of medieval romances during the Crusades.)

Their book was soon in circulation, since Marco remained in prison only a year or so, very likely gaining his freedom when the Venetians and Genoese made peace in 1299. After his prison experience, Marco was content to lead a quiet life in Venice with his family and bask in his almost instant literary fame. He married Donata Badoer, a member of the Venetian aristocracy, and they had three daughters—Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta—all of whom eventually grew up to marry nobles. Thus Marco seems to have spent the last part of his life moving in Venetian aristocratic circles. After living what was then a long life, Marco died in 1324, roughly seventy years of age. In his will he left most of his modest wealth to his three daughters, a legacy that included goods which he had brought back from Asia. His will also set free a Tartar slave, Peter, who had remained with him since his return from the court of the great khan.

Summary

The book that Marco Polo and Rustichello wrote in prison was titled Divisament dou monde (description of the world), although in Italian it is usually called Il milione (the million), and it is usually translated into English as The Travels of Marco Polo. The original title is more accurate than this English title, which is somewhat deceptive, since after its prologue the book is actually a cultural geography instead of a travelogue or an autobiography.

The book was immediately popular. Numerous copies were made and circulated (this was the age before printing), including translations into other dialects and languages. Some copyists were priests or monks who, threatened by descriptions of other religions and the great khan’s notable religious tolerance, made discreet emendations. These changes may in part account for the emphasis on Christian miracles in the book’s early sections and even for its anti-Muslim sentiments. The numerous manuscripts with their many variants have created a monumental textual problem for modern editors of the work, since Marco and Rustichello’s original manuscript has disappeared.

Modern readers might be surprised by the book’s impact in Marco’s time and for centuries afterward, but to readers of the early fourteenth century descriptions of Asia were as fantastic as descriptions of outer space are today. Unfortunately many people then tended to read it as though it were science fiction or fantasy, perhaps in part because of its romantic style (including Rustichello’s embellishments). The title Il milione, whose origin is obscure, could refer to the number of lies the book supposedly contains. (Some readers considered Marco Polo merely a notorious liar.) Yet, allowing for textual uncertainties, modern commentators have judged the book to be remarkably accurate; thus, it was a valuable source for those readers who took it seriously. For centuries it was the main source of Western information about Asia, and it exercised a tremendous influence on the Western age of exploration (Christopher Columbus carried a well-marked copy with him). It has also continued to influence the Western imagination—inspiring plays, novels, and films, as well as unrestrained scholarly speculation about Marco’s life and travels. In short, Marco Polo has become a symbol of Western man venturing forth.

Yet in large part the meaning of Marco Polo’s experience has been misinterpreted. His sojourn in the East has too often been seen as the first probe of Western man into unknown territory, with Marco as a kind of spy or intelligence gatherer identifying the locations of the richest spoils, the first example of Western man as conquerer (a viewpoint which is shamefully ethnocentric). While he did influence the Western age of exploration, conquest, and colonization, this was hardly his intent. Instead, Marco can best be seen as an exponent of intercultural communication who lived during a period when communication between East and West opened up for a brief time.

Bibliography

Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Translated by William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. Originally published in 1972 as Le città invisibili, this postmodernist novel by one of Italy’s leading writers is a fascinating example of an imaginative work inspired by Marco Polo. Consists of conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan and Marco’s descriptions of imaginary cities.

Li Man Kin. Marco Polo in China. Hong Kong: Kingsway International Publications, 1981. Although poorly written and edited, this volume is a good example of a freely speculative work about Marco from a non-Western point of view. Includes good illustrations, although they are not closely related to text.

Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo’s Asia: An Introduction to His “Description of the World” Called “Il milione.” Translated by John A. Scott. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. The best scholarly introduction to Marco Polo and his book. Discusses in detail the book’s treatment of such topics as nature, politics, religion, Asian history, historical and legendary figures, and medicine.

Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Translated by Ronald Latham. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1958. The best translation into English of Marco’s book. Based on modern textual scholarship. Contains a brief but good introduction by the translator.

Power, Eileen. “Marco Polo: A Venetian Traveler of the Thirteenth Century.” In Medieval People. 10th ed. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1963. A colorfully written account of Marco’s travels, with descriptions of cities and rulers and quotations from other European travelers of the time who visited Asia.

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