Marco Polo Essay - Critical Essays

Marco Polo


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.

Principal English Translations

The Travels of Marco Polo (translated by John Frampton) 1579

The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian (translated and edited by William Marsden) 1818

The Book of Ser Marco Polo (translated and edited by Henry Yule) 1871

The Travels of Marco Polo (translated by Aldo Ricci from the Italian edition by L. F. Benedetto) 1931

Marco Polo: The Description of the World (translated and edited by A. C. Moule and P. Pelliot) 1938

The Adventures of Marco Polo (translated by Richard J. Walsh) 1948

The Travels of Marco Polo (translated by Robert Latham) 1958

The Travels of Marco Polo (translated by Teresa Waugh from the Italian edition by Maria Bellonci) 1984


John Frampton (essay date 1579)

SOURCE: "The Epistle Dedicatorie," in The Travels of Marco Polo, edited by N. M. Penzer, translated by John Frampton, The Argonaut Press, 1929, pp. 1-2.

[In the following dedication to his 1579 translation of The Travels of Marco Polo, Frampton states his reasons for committing the manuscript to print in English.]

To the right worshipfull Mr. Edward Dyar Esquire, Iohn Frampton wisheth prosperous health and felicitie.

Having lying by mee in my chamber (righte Worshipful) a translation of the great voiage & lõg trauels of Paulus Venetus the Venetian, manye Merchauntes, Pilots, and Marriners, and others of dyuers degrees,...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

The Quarterly Review (review date 1819)

SOURCE: "Marsden's Marco Polo," in The Quarterly Review, Vol. XXI, No. XLI, January-April, 1819, pp. 177-96.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic praises Marsden's edition of Polo's book, provides an overview of the author's life, and comments on the accuracy of the narrative.]

'It might have been expected,' Mr. Marsden says, 'that in ages past, a less tardy progress would have been made in doing justice to the intrinsic merits of a work (whatever were its defects as a composition) that first conveyed to Europeans a distinct idea of the empire of China, and, by shewing its situation together with that of Japan (before entirely unknown) in respect to the great...

(The entire section is 8911 words.)

Thomas Wright (essay date 1854)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, edited by Thomas Wright, translated by William Marsden, George Bell & Sons, 1890, pp. ix-xx-viii.

[In Wright's 1854 introduction to his revision of William Marsden's translation of The Travels of Marco Polo, Wright offers an overview of Polo's travels and discusses the history of Polo's manuscript.]

So much has been written on the subject of the celebrated Venetian traveller of the middle ages, Marco Polo, and the authenticity and credibility of his relation have been so well established, that it is now quite unnecessary to enter into this part of the question; but the reader of the...

(The entire section is 6944 words.)

Henry Rawlinson (review date 1872)

SOURCE: "Yule's Edition of Marco Polo," in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. CXXXV, No. CCLXXV, January, 1872, pp. 1-36.

[In the following excerpt, Rawlinson praises Yule's translation of Polo's book, noting that he blends several earlier texts in his edition in order to best present "what the author said, or would have desired to say."]

The publication of Colonel Yule's Marco Polo is an epoch in geographical literature. Never before, perhaps, did a book of travels appear under such exceptionally favourable auspices; an editor of a fine taste and ripe experience, and possessed with a passion for curious medieval research, having found a publisher willing to gratify that...

(The entire section is 1562 words.)

George P. Marsh (essay date 1875)

SOURCE: "The Book of Marco Polo," in The Nation, New York, Vol. XXI, No. 530, August 26, 1875, pp. 135-37, 152-53.

[In the essay that follows, Marsh discusses Yule's edition of Polo's book and comments on the traveler's "reputation for veracity" as well as his collaboration with his fellow prisoner Rustichello, here called Rusticiano.]

When Marsden published his learned edition of the Travels of Marco Polo in 1818, it was supposed that he had so nearly exhausted all the possible sources of illustration of his author that future editors would find little or no matter for new commentaries. And when in 1865 Pauthier gave to the world a substantially authentic text for the...

(The entire section is 3111 words.)

Helen P. Margesson (essay date 1892)

SOURCE: "Marco Polo's Explorations and Their Influence upon Columbus," in The New England Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 6, August 1892, pp. 803-15.

[In the following excerpt, Margesson briefly comments on the influence Polo's narrative had on Christopher Columbus.]

While Columbus never directly mentions Polo, his hopes and fancies and the deeds of his late years are wholly incomprehensible if he had no acquaintance with the writings of the great Venetian. In a Latin version of Marco Polo, printed at Antwerp about 1485, preserved in the Columbina at Seville, there are marginal notes in the handwriting of Columbus, and he may have become familiar with the work while living in...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

C. Raymond Beazley (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: An introduction to Dawn of Modern Geography: A History of Exploration and Geographical Science, Vol. III, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1906, pp. 1-14.

[In the following excerpt, Beazley provides an overview of the surge in geographic exploration that occurred from the mid-thirteenth to the early years of the fifteenth century—providing context for Polo's explorations.]

Our conquest of the world we live in has a long history; in that history there are many important epochs, eras in which a vital advance was made, wherein the whole course of events was modified; but among such epochs there are few of greater importance, of deeper suggestiveness, and of more...

(The entire section is 3535 words.)

N. M. Penzer (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Travels of Marco Polo, edited by N. M. Penzer, translated by John Frampton, The Argonaut Press, 1929, pp. xi-lx.

[In the following excerpt, Penzer provides a detailed analysis of the history of the Polian manuscripts.]

The existence of an Elizabethan translation of the Travels of Marco Polo will probably come as a surprise to the majority of readers. This is not to be wondered at when we consider that only three copies of the work in question are known to exist, and that it has never been reprinted.

The very rarity of the book would be of itself sufficient excuse for reprinting it, but in the present case there are other...

(The entire section is 6958 words.)

E. Denison Ross (lecture date 1934)

SOURCE: "Marco Polo and His Book," in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. XX, 1934, pp. 181-201.

[In the following excerpt from a lecture delivered before the British Academy, Ross gives a brief account of Polo's journey and his narrative, and introduces several new theories regarding Polo's manuscript.]

The outstanding geographical event of the thirteenth century was the discovery of the overland route to the Far East. The silk of China had long been known to the West, but the route by which it travelled was unknown, for European merchants had not ventured beyond certain Asiatic ports, whither the silk, like other Oriental wares, was conveyed by caravan.


(The entire section is 5409 words.)

J. Homer Herriott (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: "The 'Lost' Toledo Manuscript of Marco Polo," in Speculum, Vol. XII, No. 4, October, 1937, pp. 458-63.

[In the following essay, Herriott discusses the superiority of a fifteenth-century Polian manuscript believed to have been lost.]

In 1559 the first attempt at a critical edition of Marco Polo appeared in Venice in a volume entitled Secondo volume delle Navigation et Viaggi nel quale si contengono l'Historia delle cose de Tartari, et diuersi fatti de loro Imperatori, descritta da M. Marco Polo Gentilhuomo Venetiano, et da Haiton Armeno. The first volume of this collection of travels had been published in 1550, and the third volume in 1556. The editor of the...

(The entire section is 2376 words.)

Eileen Power (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: "The Immortal Marco," in The New Statesman & Nation, Vol. XVI, No. 400, October 22, 1938, pp. 606-07.

[In the following essay, Power discusses Polo's popular and literary reputation, arguing that his work is "a masterpiece of reporting."]

I once knew a master at a famous public school (which shall be nameless) who was under the impression that Marco Polo was a kind of game. I did not question his qualifications for imparting culture to the young, for he had in his day been a noted blue and, as the saying goes, first things come first. But I have been reminded of him by the almost simultaneous appearance of the first two volumes of a magnificent edition of...

(The entire section is 1531 words.)

Leonardo Olschki (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "The Literary Precursors," in Marco Polo's Precursors, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1943, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Olschki explores the influence of the poetic history of Alexander the Great on Polo's book.]

Until about the middle of the thirteenth century, when the first missionaries set out "ad Tartaros," there prevailed in the Western world a profound and persistent ignorance of Central and Eastern Asia, an ignorance partially mitigated by a few vague and generic notions in which remote reminiscences of distant places and peoples were mingled with old poetic and mythical fables. The Tartar invasion of Eastern and Central Europe in 1241 did not alter or...

(The entire section is 2783 words.)

Richard D. Mallery (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: An introduction to Masterworks of Travel and Exploration: Digests of 13 Great Classics, edited by Richard D. Mallery, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1948, pp. 3-12.

[In the following excerpt, Mallery discusses the appeal of Polo's The Book of Marco Polo in the context of the travel narrative genre.]

Travel narratives, through the ages, reflect the character and predilections of the era in which they are composed. Very often they help to determine the special character of the age. They appeal, of course, primarily to that sense of wonder which is found, to a greater or less extent, in all periods. What we know of the fascination exerted upon young and old...

(The entire section is 2670 words.)

Ronald Latham (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Travels of Marco Polo, translated by Ronald Latham, Penguin Books, 1958, pp. vii-xxix.

[In the following excerpt, Latham examines Rusticello's contribution to Polo's book and asserts that, while Polo's observations in other fields tend to be conservative, his remarks on the "human geography" of the places he visited are outstanding.]

The book most familiar to English readers as The Travels of Marco Polo was called in the prologue that introduced it to the reading public at the end of the thirteenth century a Description of the World (Divisament dou Monde). It was in fact a description of a surprisingly large part of the world—from the...

(The entire section is 3167 words.)

Leonardo Olschki (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Politics and Religion in Marco Polo's Asia," in Marco Polo's Asia: An Introduction to His "Description of the World" Called "Il milione, " University of California Press, 1960, pp. 178-210.

[In the following essay, Olschki analyzes the accuracy of Polo's observations regarding Asian religion and politics in the thirteenth century.]

Marco Polo's intention of conferring upon his journey the character of a religious mission is immediately evident in the first part of his book. Ecclesiastical and pious motives abound, from the moment when the three Venetians procured some oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and departed with the Pope's blessing...

(The entire section is 8614 words.)

Henry H. Hart (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Epilogue," in Marco Polo, Venetian Adventurer, University of Oklahoma Press, 1967, pp. 233-64.

[In the following excerpt, Hart examines the impact of Polo's book on the sciences of geography and cartography.]

Messer Marco Polo's reputation for veracity as an author suffered greatly during his lifetime, for his contemporaries (with very few exceptions) could not and did not accept his book seriously. Their ignorance and bigotry, their belief in and dependence on the ecclesiastical pseudogeography of the day, their preconceived ideas of the unvisited parts of the earth, as well as the inherited legends and utter nonsense to which the medieval mind clung with a...

(The entire section is 1387 words.)

Mary B. Campbell (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Merchant and Missionary Travels," in The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600, Cornell, 1988, pp. 87-121.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell discusses methods of description and narration employed by Polo, suggesting that "the being'' that Polo has given to the East in his book "is the body of the West's desire."]

In the works of Marco Polo and the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck, the experiencing narrator born and bred in the pilgrimage accounts meets the fabulous and relatively unprescribed East of Wonders [of the East] and the Alexander romances. One might expect this encounter between the eyewitness and...

(The entire section is 9223 words.)

Further Reading

Baker, J. N. L. "The Middle Ages." In A History of Geographical Discovery and Exploration, pp. 34-57. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1967.

Discusses the advances made by Polo, his father, and his uncle in the field of geographical exploration.

Brendon, J. A. "Marco Polo." In Great Navigators … Discoverers, pp. 29-38. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1930.

Provides an overview of Polo's life and travels.

Clark, William R. "Explorers of Old." In Explorers of the World, pp. 10-39. London: Aldus Books, 1964.


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