Search This Blog

Friday, 31 March 2017

Marco Polo


Marco Polo was born in 1254 in Venice Republic. His exact date and place of birth are archivally unknown.

His father, Niccolò Polo, a merchant, traded with the Near East, becoming wealthy and achieving great prestige. He was descended from a Dalmatian family which had settled on the Grand Canal in 900.

Niccolò and his brother Maffeo set off on a trading voyage before Marco's birth. They passed through much of Asia, and met with Kublai Khan, a Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan dynasty.

Almost nothing is known about the childhood of Marco Polo until he was fifteen years old, excepting that he probably spent part of his childhood in Venice and his mother died young, so an aunt and uncle raised him.

Marco received a good education, learning mercantile subjects including foreign currency, appraising, and the handling of cargo ships.

In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice, meeting young Marco for the first time.

Mosaic of Marco Polo displayed in the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, in Genoa, Italy


Niccolò and Maffeo set off again for China from the town of Layas, near Iskenderum, South East Turkey in 1271, with young Marco. Kublai Khan had been fascinated by what the Venetians had told him about the Christian message and he gave them a letter asking that the brothers to return to his palace with 100 Christian teachers and oil from a holy lamp in Jerusalem. However, all the pope gave them was two friars preachers along with the oil.

They planned to make their way overland to Ormuz, then sail to China but due to bad weather and sickness they had to travel by foot and horse all the way via Persia, Mongolia and North West China.

The journey was eased by the short term opening of continent wide trade routes. However they still went through a great deal of physical hardship travelling on horseback among many tribes, through extremes of hot and cold across deserts and mountains unknown to westerners.

While going through Armenia, they fell amid troops of the Mameluke Sultan Bibara the Arbelester, the two friars refused to go further, and the Venetians continued their journey alone.

In 1275 Marco Polo and his father and uncle arrived at the Khan's court in Cambulu without the Christian missionaries he had requested but with gifts including sacred oil from the sepulchre in Jerusalem. Kublai Khan thus had to rely on the limited theological knowledge of Marco and his family. The discouraged Khan turned instead to Buddhism.

Marco was introduced to the Khan by his father as "my son and your servant." The young Venetian readily adopted the Tatar custom and soon learned the four languages as well as the four writings of which they made use (probably Mongolian, Chinese, Persian, and Uighur).

A miniature from The travels of Marco Polo

Kublai took a likening to Marco and sent him on a mission six months' journey from his residence (probably to Annam). The information he brought back with regard to the countries met the ruler's approval.

For three years Marco was governor of the city of Yang-chow (Janguy), on which twenty-seven cities were dependent. Kublai also sent him to on many imperial visits to China's southern and eastern provinces, the far south and Burma.

His travels also brought him farther to the Bay of Bengal, and the island of Sri Lanka where their aim was to seize the tooth of Buddha, one of Buddhism’s most holy relics. Though the expedition was unsuccessful - Sri Lanka was not one to give up its treasures easily - Marco Polo was entranced by the land. He deemed Sri Lanka “the finest island of its size in all the world”.

One of the oddities which strike Marco Polo most forcibly was a marvellous black stone, useless for building with, which the Chinese dug up and burned. (It was one of the earliest references to coal).

The three Venetians returned home by way of SE Asia and South India carrying with them a fortune in gemstones.

Map of Marco Polo's travels. Wikipedia Commons


Marco Polo brought back with him a recipe for making sorbets (fruit flavored water ice) by running a mixture of water and potassium nitrate over containers filled with the substance to be cooled.

Marco Polo observed in China that whilst the poor have to be content with meat steeped in garlic juice, the wealthier people ate meat that had been preserved in several of their spices.

While visiting Java and Nicobar, Marco Polo was the first European to encounter the coconut. He called it "the Pharaoh's nut", describing it as a fruit full of flavor, sweet as sugar, and white as milk.

Marco Polo told of the Asian nomads who boiled mare's milk, skimming the cream from the top, and then expose the milk to the hot sun until it dried. When it was ready to be used, they added water, and while riding their horses, this powdered milk mixture got violently shaken, producing a thick porridge for dinner.


Marco Polo returned to Venice with his father and uncle in 1295 after /25 years of adventures in China. His relatives failed at first to recognize the strangely clad, ragged folk in their tartar crimson satin robes, who told wild tales about numerous jewels and treasures.

Polo wearing a Tatar outfit, date of print unknown

The Polos became a sensation and attracted crowds of listeners, who had difficulties in believing their reports of distant China. Marco Polo was called "Messr Marco Milione" by his contemporaries for his tendency to exaggerate.

The Polos invited some of these doubters to a banquet. They entered dressed in their satin robes, discarded these for damask then for velvet. Finally they slit open their garments and out fell precious Chinese stones, which they presented to their guests.

Marco claimed to have broken the siege at Xiangyang but it is thought this was a case of "Marco Milione."

Marco Polo bought back the idea of Venetian blinds to Europe. From Venice, they then spread worldwide and hence they are now known by the name of that city.

His account of wild sheep in central Asia with mammoth horns were not believed by many. However when it was proved that these did exist they were named "Ouis Poli " in his honor.

Marco Polo became a commander of a war vessel against the Genoese traders. His galley was captured and Marco was taken to Genoa as a prisoner.


Captured by the Genoese and languishing in a jail, Marco Polo met a writer from Pisa called Rusticiano, who insisted his yarns be written down. So Marco dictated his tales to the Pisa scribe.
His tales of the brilliance at Kublai Khan's court are told in a vivid style. They were originally written in rough French and were published in German in 1477.

A page from the Travels of Marco Polo from a manuscript believed to date between 1298–1299.

There are a number of gaping holes in Marco's account such as failing to mention the Great Wall of China or the cruel Chinese custom of foot binding for women.

Although the Polos were by no means the first Europeans to reach China overland (see for example Giovanni da Pian del Carpini), thanks to Marco's book their trip was the first to be widely known, and the best-documented until then.

The Travels of Marco Polo became the basis of one of the first accurate maps of China.

The Travels of Marco Polo was one of the first works of major journalism though not many editors would wait over 25 years for a piece to be submitted.


By the age of 60 Marco Polo was living in luxury in a Venetian palace with his family.

By 1323, Polo was confined to bed, due to illness. Despite physicians' efforts, he died on January 8, 1324. His last words were " I have not told half of what I saw."

He was buried in the San Lorenzo church in the sestiere of Castello (Venice).

San Lorenzo church.. The photo shows the church as is today, after the 1592 rebuilding. By Didier Descouens

In the 1938 Hollywood movie Adventures of Marco Polo, the title character is played by that typical Italian, Gary Cooper.

Source Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

No comments:

Post a Comment