The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo (approx. 1254 – 1324) The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo (approx. 1254 – 1324) (as told to Rusticiano da Pisa and edited by Francis R, Gemma; originally titled A DESCRIPTION OF THE WORLD) Type of Work: Autobiographical adventure Settings Venice, Italy and overland to Eastern China (Cathay) Principal Characters Marco Polo, a young nobleman, traveling merchant and adventurer Niccolo Polo, Marco’s father, also a merchant Maffeo Polo, Niccolo’s brother and business partner Kublai Khan, Emperor of China, descendent of Ghenghis Khan Historical Overview Prologue: (The book contains the story of Marco Polo’s life and his travels from his home in Venice, Italy across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia to the court of Khan, located in the area now known as Beijing, China. Marco was much liked by the Emperor, who made him his ambassador. The explorer describes his many adventures during his 26-year absence from home. An introduction outlines the biographical events (each that he himself personally witnessed or “heard tell by persons worthy of faith”), and sets us on our way with Marco en route to China.) Two wealthy Venetian gentleman-merchants, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, sailed eastward from Venice about 1254, leaving Niccolo’s infant son, Marco, in the care of his aunt. The travelers journeyed as far as the court of the great emperor Kublai Khan, where they became highly favored.
After learning a little about the exotic Catholic religion of his guests, the Khan dispatched envoys to return with them to Italy to meet with the Pope. His desire was that the Pope should lend the services of as many as a hundred scholars to come to his court and prove that the Law of Christ was “most agreeable.” If they succeeded, he vowed that he and all his subjects would become Christians. The Polos sailed into Acre, Italy in April of 1269, to the news that Pope Clement had died. Then the brothers journeyed on to Venice to await the anointing of a new pope. But after several years they tired of waiting and began to make their way again to Kubtai’s court, this time accompanied by young Marco.
Again in Acre, after some backtracking, the three finally met up with the newly-named Pope Gregory of Piacenza. He reluctantly agreed to cooperate with the Khan’s commission, but sent only two ambassadors to accompany them. However, these priests soon became discouraged. Unwilling either to endure the privations the journey would require or to sacrifice their lives in the service of pagans, both eventually turned back. Book-by-Book Summary Book I contains Marco’s descriptions of his three-and-a-half year journey to Kublai’s court. It is a fascinating narrative, with vivid renditions not only of geography, natural phenomena and traveling distances and conditions, but of histories, food preparation and production, trade, religious practices, and customs and oral traditions among the many tribes and civilizations they encountered.
Book II tells of life in the court of Kublai Khan. The person of the Khan is admiringly detailed: “He is of a good stature, neither tall nor short, but of a middle height. He has a becoming amount of flesh, and is very shapely in all his limbs. His complexion is white and red, the eyes black and fine, the nose well formed and well set on.” The Khan’s palaces, his vast court, his government and armies are depicted. An account is given of a battle led by great Khan himself.
The narrative reports that “when all were in battle array [one could hear] a sound arise of many instruments of various music, and of the voices of the whole of the two hosts loudly singing. For this is the custom of the Tartars. .” Portrayals of court affairs such as the marking of the calendar, and the celebration of thousands of festivals and hunting trips, are eloquently recorded. Record-keeping was very important to the Chinese. Each household kept near the front door a list of the names of all the home’s inhabitants, and the keepers of hostelries were required to record the names of all travelers and the dates of their visits.
Certain chapters relate some of the wondrous inventions Marco saw while serving the Khan. He writes of such marvels as paper money, a system of express messengers, fine highway systems (remnants of which are still in place), and a “black stone” (coal) used for fuel. For all of these wonders Marco gives full credit to the “Great Khan,” whom he never tires of praising for his wisdom, power, wealth and skill. Now fluent in four different languages, Marco became a valuable ambassador for the Emperor. Book 11 ends with brief descriptions of his separate missions. Book III recounts in great detail the adventurous travels of the Polos on behalf of the Khan through Japan, Indochina, Southern India and “The Coast and Islands of the Indian Sea,” including Ethiopia.
The assemblage traveled as far north and west as Ormus (near the Strait of Hormuz). After seventeen years at the Khan’s court, the wealthy Polos, surrounded by envious princes, decided that if they ever wanted to return to Venice, they could most easily do so under the protection and safe conduct of their benefactor before he died. They asked his permission to return home, but were at first refused; the Great Emperor enjoyed their company. After a time, however, he reluctantly granted them leave. Fourteen ships were prepared for the homeward voyage – during which six hundred crew members were lost in storms. En route, the news came of Kublai’s death.
Marco writes of exotic regions visited: Armenia, where Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, and where camel caravans gathered by fountains of oil to haul off the black liquid as an amazing source of heat and light; Iraq’s Saba, where the three Magi first saw the star that led them to Bethlehem; the hot, windy Ormus, filled with mounds of baked corpses from armies smitten by the foul water and intense sun; Karazan, with its huge serpents and crocodiles; the city of Mien, with its two great towers, one of silver, the other of pure gold; the paradisiacal Chinese city of Kin-sai, with twelve thousand bridges spanning its rivers and canals, its stonepaved streets, and its hundreds of beautiful carvings; the mountainous grave of Father Adam located in Ceylon; the magical Lac province, where people commonly lived to the age of 150. Marco also describes strange characters and mystical tribes: a miserly ruler, unwilling to provide for his kingdom’s protection, who was captured and locked in a tower where, surrounded by piles of gold, he starved to death; a robber band which had learned the diabolical art of calling down darkness upon caravans in order to rob them; nursing fathers; an ancient drug dealer who used his hallucinating followers as assassins to do his bidding; and various sorcerers and cannibals. The account includes stories of natives who made their living by selling pickled monkeys – passed off as pygmies – to naive sailors for souvenirs; men with tails; and brutal pirates. On his way home to Venice, Marco also came across tribes who used gold, silver, pearls, diamonds and rubies as common barter and adornment, and who wore rich silks and embroidery for work and play. He saw asbestos, musk-scent and salt all used as money; he became acquainted with sumptuous spices, sugar, curious drugs, and flavorful incense; he came across fascinating animals – a raptor with talons large enough to seize an elephant, hair-covered chickens, and unicorns (actually rhinoceri) “which have hair like that of water buffalo and feet like those of an elephant .. an ugly beast to behold.” When his foreign adventures were over and Marco finally settled again in his homeland, he took up arms in a war against Genoa, Venice’s competitor in sea-going trade.
He was captured, and as a prisoner of war, soon became an attraction, telling of his marvelous travels to distant lands. Finally he decided to save himself the trouble of retelling the same stories over and over, and wrote to his father, requesting his notes be sent. Using these – along with an exceptional memory and power of imagination – he dictated four books to a fellow prisoner and professional storyteller, Rusticiano da Pisa. Following Marco’s release in 1298 and up to the time of his death 26 years later, these were published as one volume under the title A Description of the World, which remained almost the only source of information about the Far East until the late 19th century. Commentary .. Since ..
our first Father Adam .. never hath there been Christian, or Pagan, or Tartar, or Indian or any man of any nation , who in his own person hath had so much knowledge and experience of the divers parts of the World and its Wonders as hath had this Messer Marco! So begins The Travels of Marco Polo. Over the centuries numerous translations have appeared in many languages. The book has been popular since its publication and has served as a guide to various explorers and adventurers. Christopher Columbus, who wouldn’t be sailing to the New World until almost two centuries later, was well acquainted with the text. In Polo’s day, the immensely popular and highly objective, descriptive tales were regarded as fiction.
No one could accept that such fantastic places and people really existed. We must assume in reading the book that there are exaggerations, but the editor’s notes indicate that some of the most fantastic elements are, indeed, based on fact. The journal’s literary style, in keeping with the times, is romanticized. In spite of this, on his deathbed, Marco, pressed to retract some of his stories, replied: “I have not told the half of it.” And as travel to the East increased, more and more of Marco’s claims were verified. In some of the many renditions of the work, editors have chosen to omit repetitive information; therefore, each version varies somewhat in content.
The excitement and adventure, however, do not vary, and the name Marco Polo still conjures up dreams of adventurous Oriental travel and fabulous discoveries.