Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Marco Polo 1254-1324

Italian merchant and traveller.

A Venetian merchant, Polo was among the first travellers to the East to provide an account of that region in a Western language. His narrative, The Travels of Marco Polo, met with skepticism and disbelief upon its circulation, as the region had only previously been written about in legends such as those of Alexander the Great, and by William of Rubrouck, a French Franciscan friar who wrote a missionary's account of his trip to Mongolia upon his return to France in 1255. Many of Polo's previously unsubstantiated observations and claims were, however, confirmed by later travellers and his work is now regarded by most scholars as the first accurate description of Asia by a European.

Biographical Information

Polo was born in Venice in 1254 while his father Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo were away on a trading voyage during which they first met Kublai Khan, the Emperor of Mongolia; they did not return to Italy until Polo was about fifteen years old. The elder Polos had been instructed by the Khan to solicit the Pope for Christian missionaries to be escorted back to the Emperor's court. The Polos were forced to wait until 1270 for a new pope, Gregory X, to be elected due to the failure of the cardinals to name a successor to Pope Clement IV following his death in 1268. Polo, now about seventeen years old, accompanied his father and uncle to Mongolia following the trio's presentation of the Khan's request to Pope Gregory X. After reaching the Khan's court and being employed in his service for a number of years, the Polos desired to return to Italy. The Khan was unwilling to release the merchants from his service, but complied with their request when they agreed to travel to Persia to escort a princess betrothed to the Khan's grand-nephew. The Polos completed their mission and then began their journey home, arriving in Venice in 1295 after a twenty-four-year absence. Soon after his return, Polo was appointed to command a ship in the war between the city-states of Venice and Genoa. His fleet was defeated and he arrived in Genoa as a political prisoner on October 16, 1298. Polo was released from prison in July of 1299. He lived in Venice until his death at the age of seventy.

Textual History

While he was in prison, Polo had dictated his account of his travels to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello. Scholars believe that Polo's original manuscript was translated, copied, and widely circulated following his release from prison in 1299. The language of the original manuscript is unknown and a topic of much debate. In 1320, Pipino made a Latin translation of Polo's Travels from a version written in an Italian dialect, implying that this dialect version was Polo's original. Giovanni Battista Ramusio, an Italian geographer whose edition of Polo's work was published in 1559 in a collection of travel accounts known as Navigationi et viaggi, believed that the original manuscript was written in Latin. Others have maintained that Polo's work was written in French or Franco-Italian. Another source of contention among critics regards the role played by Rustichello in the writing of Travels. Some critics argue that Rustichello copied a draft already completed by Polo, or transcribed the work as Polo dictated it. Others believe that Rustichello served as a collaborator and editor, rewording Polo's phrasing and adding commentary of his own. The manuscript regarded by many critics as the most complete is a French version known as fir. 1116, published by the French Geographic Society in 1824. Some critics have contended that fr. 1116 is a true transcript of Polo's dictation to Rustichello, but other scholars such as N. M. Penzer have argued that it does not represent a direct copy of Polo's work, asserting that another manuscript (referred to by Polian scholars as Z) may antedate fr. 1116. Other groups of Polian manuscripts studied for their authenticity and their relation to the original manuscript include the Grégoire version, which critics have suggested is perhaps an elaborated version of fr. 1116; the Tuscan Recension, an early fourteenth-century Tuscan translation of a Franco-Italian version of the original manuscript; and the Venetian Recension, a group of over eighty manuscripts which have been translated into the Venetian dialect. Travels was first translated into English by John Frampton in 1579. In the nineteenth century, scholars such as William Marsden, Henry Yule, and Luigi Benedetto began to publish revisions of the work that utilized information from several manuscripts to produce a more comprehensive edition of Travels. Since the original manuscript of Travels has never been recovered, the search for the version most directly descended from it continues.

Major Works

Polo's The Travels of Marco Polo, his first and only known work, provides readers with a detailed description of late thirteenth-century Asia. The work includes an account of Nicolo's and Maffeo's first journey to the residence of Kublai Khan; geographical descriptions of the countries between the Black Sea, the China Sea, and the Indian Ocean; and historical narratives about the Mongolian Empire's rise and expansion. Polo's Travels also relates the author's personal adventures and his association with Kublai Khan. Polo's tone throughout the narration is that of a commercial traveller reporting what he has seen and heard. He employs the same straightforward style in discussing his own experiences as he does when he relates hearsay, which he identifies as such. Polo focused his observations on aspects such as trade, political and military structures, religious customs relating to marriage and burial of the dead, and the architecture and layout of cities. His matter-of-fact tone in the narrative emphasizes the presentation of facts over the discussion of theories or ideas.

Critical Reception

Polo's first critics, the friends and relatives to whom he verbally related his journey, refused to believe what they considered to be outrageous exaggerations or pure fiction. Yet Polo's story was appealing for its entertainment value and was rapidly copied and distributed following its initial transcription. His account did not gain credibility until after his death, when further exploration proved many of his claims. Some modern critics have faulted Polo for omitting certain subjects from the narrative: for example, Polo never mentioned tea, the practice of binding women's feet, or the Great Wall, all of which were unheard of in Europe. Polo's defenders have countered that since the merchant had lived in Mongolia for twenty-four years, subjects that would seem strange or exotic to Europeans had become commonplace in Polo's life. Others have contended that such omissions could also have been made consciously or accidentally by translators of the work. Travels is often criticized on stylistic grounds as well, for instance for shifting back and forth between first and third person narration, but scholars attribute many such faults to the numerous times the work has been translated and copied. Although many critics assess Travels as simply a merchant's pragmatic account of his stay in the East, some, like Mary Campbell, maintain that the work offers the authority of first-hand experience and argue that its value extends beyond providing enjoyment through vicarious experience in that it transforms the myth of the East into reality.