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Marco Polo
Marco Polo Mosaic from Palazzo Tursi.jpg
Portrait of Marco Polo, mozaic in the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, in Genoa, Italy
Born 1254
presumably Venice, Republic of Venice
Died 8 January 1324(1324-01-08)
Resting place Church of San Lorenzo
45°26′14″N 12°20′44″E / 45.4373°N 12.3455°E / 45.4373; 12.3455
Nationality Italian
Occupation Merchant, explorer, writer
Known for The Travels of Marco Polo
Spouse(s) Donata Badoer
Children Fantina, Bellela and Moretta
Parent(s)
  • Mother: Nicole Anna Defuseh
  • Father: Niccolò Polo

Marco Polo (1254 - January 8, 1324) was a Venetian trader and explorer who, together with his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo, was one of the first Westerners to travel the Silk Road to China (which he called Cathay) and visited the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan). His travels are written down in Il Milione ("The Million" or The Travels of Marco Polo).

Early life

Marco Polo was born around 1254 in Venice, capital of the Venetian Republic. His father, merchant Niccolò Polo, had his household in Venice and left Marco's mother pregnant in order to travel to Asia with his brother Maffeo Polo.

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. Meanwhile, Marco Polo's mother died, and an aunt and uncle raised him. He received a good education, learning trade subjects including foreign currency, appraisal, and the handling of cargo ships; he learned little or no Latin.

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

The voyage of Niccolò and Maffeo Polo

The Polo name originally didn't belong to a family of explorers but to a family of traders. Marco Polo's father, Niccolò (also Nicolò in Venetian) and his uncle, Maffeo (also Maffio), were prosperous merchants who traded with the East. They were partners with a third brother, named Marco il vecchio (the Elder).

Niccolò and Maffeo Polo set out to Asia in 1255, reached China in 1266, arriving at Khanbaliq near Peking. They returned from China as Kublai Khan's envoys with a letter for the Pope asking to be sent educated people to teach in his empire, to inform the Mongols about their way of life. Kublai Khan was the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and a grandson of Genghis Khan.

Journey to China and service to the Khan

Marco Polo traveling
The Polo family arrives in a Chinese city
Kublai Khan meeting Marco Polo
Kublai Khan meeting Marco Polo

Maffeo and Niccolò Polo set out on a second journey with the Pope's response to Kublai Khan, in 1271. This time Niccolò took his son Marco, along with two friars who did not finish the voyage due to fear.

The Polos spent the next 17 years in China. Impressed by Marco's intelligence and humility, Khan appointed him to serve as his foreign emissary to India and Burma. He was sent on many diplomatic missions throughout his empire and in Southeast Asia (such as in present-day Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam), but also entertained the Khan with stories and observations about the lands he saw. As part of this appointment, Marco traveled extensively inside China, living in the emperor's lands for 17 years.

Kublai initially refused several times to let the Polos return to Europe, as he appreciated their company and they became useful to him. However, around 1291, he finally granted permission, entrusting the Polos with his last duty: accompany the Mongol princess Kököchin, who was to become the wife of Arghun Khan, in Persia. After leaving the princess, the Polos travelled overland to Constantinople. They later decided to return to their home.

They returned to Venice in 1295, after 24 years, with many riches and treasures. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).

Il Milione

Marco Polo, Il Milione, Chapter CXXIII and CXXIV Cropped
A page from a manuscript of "Il Milione"

On their return from China in 1295, the family settled in Venice where they became a sensation and attracted crowds of listeners who had difficulties in believing their reports of distant China. According to a late tradition, since they did not believe him, Marco Polo invited them all to dinner one night during which the Polos dressed in the simple clothes of a peasant in China. Shortly before the crowds ate, the Polos opened their pockets to reveal hundreds of rubies and other jewels which they had received in Asia. Though they were much impressed, the people of Venice still doubted the Polos.

Marco Polo was later captured in a minor clash of the war between Venice and Genoa. He spent the few months of his imprisonment, in 1298, dictating to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa, a detailed account of his travels in the then-unknown parts of the Far East.

His book, Il Milione (the title comes from either "The Million", then considered a gigantic number, or from Polo's family nickname Emilione), was written in Old French and entitled Le divisament dou monde ("The description of the world"). The book was soon translated into many European languages and is known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo. The original is lost and there are now several often-conflicting versions of the translations. The book became an instant success — quite an achievement in a time when printing was not known in Europe.

Later life

Marco-polo-hanbury
Mosaic representing Marco Polo at Villa Hanbury, Ventimiglia, Italy

Marco Polo was finally released from captivity in the summer of 1299, and he returned home to Venice, where his father and uncles had bought a large house in the central quarter named contrada San Giovanni Grisostomo with the company's profits.

The company continued its activities, and Marco was now a wealthy merchant. While he personally financed other expeditions, he would never leave Venice again. In 1300, he married Donata Badoer, a woman from an old, noble family. Marco would have three children with her: Fantina, Bellela and Moreta. All of them later married into noble families.

Between 1310 and 1320, he wrote a new version of his book, Il Milione, in Italian. The text was lost, but not before a Franciscan friar, named Francesco Pipino, translated it into Latin. This Latin version was then translated back into the Italian, creating conflicts between different editions of the book.

Marco Polo died in his home on January 1324, at almost 70 years old. He was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo.

Did the trip really take place?

Route of Marco Polo
Route of Marco Polo's travels

According to a famous story, a priest begged Marco on his deathbed to confess that he had lied in his stories. Marco refused, insisting, "I have not told half of what I saw!". This anecdote is an example of the skepticism that welcomed Marco's tales during his life.

In recent times, while most historians believe Marco Polo did reach China, some have proposed he did not get that far and only retold information he had heard from others. Those skeptics point out that among other omissions, his account fails to mention Chinese writing, chopsticks, tea or the Great Wall (although in the last case this should not be surprising given that the wall was not built at its present location until the Ming Dynasty). Also, Chinese records of the time do not mention him, despite the fact that he claimed to have served as a special emissary for Kublai Khan - which is puzzling, given the careful record-keeping in China at that time.

MarcoPoloStatueInHangzhou
Statue of Marco Polo in Hangzhou, China

On the other hand, Marco describes other aspects of Far Eastern life in much detail: paper money, the Grand Canal, the structure of a Mongol army, tigers, the Imperial postal system. He also refers to Japan by its Chinese name "Zipang" or Cipangu. This is usually considered the first mention of Japan in Western literature. However, it is possible that Marco heard of these things from Arab silk road traders. Trade between the Middle East and Far East was flourishing and travellers are often happy to retell stories of their ventures in great detail.

In his defense, there are no known arguments today to refute any of the descriptions he wrote about. Additionally, Marco gives a detailed account of accompanying an embassy from China to the Khan of Persia and of the delivery of Princess Kököchin for marriage to the Khan. This mission is mentioned both in the Chinese and Persian records including the names of the envoys but Marco provides additional information about the journey which could only reasonably been known by him by being present on the trip.

Marco Polo is also believed to have described a bridge that later was the site of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, a battle that marked the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War.

Historical impact

Marco Polo - costume tartare
Polo wearing a Tatar outfit, date of print unknown

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

Marco Polo's description of the Far East and its riches inspired Christopher Columbus's decision to try to reach those lands by a western route. A heavily annotated copy of Polo's book was among the belongings of Columbus.

Legend has it that Marco Polo introduced to Italy some products from China, including ice cream, the piñata and pasta, especially spaghetti.

The name Marco Polo was also given to a children's game (Marco Polo), a story in the science fiction series Doctor Who (Marco Polo) and a three-masted clipper ship built in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1851. The fastest ship of her day, Marco Polo was the first ship to sail around the world in under six months. Several ships of the Italian navy were named Marco Polo. The airport in Venice is named Marco Polo International Airport. See also the Marcopolo satellites.

The travels of Marco Polo are given an extended fantasy treatment in the Irish writer Donn Byrne's Messer Marco Polo. He also appears as the pivotal character in Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities.

Lire 1000 (Marco Polo)
Italian banknote featuring Marco Polo 1982

The tourism authorities of Korčula advertise it as the home of Marco Polo, based on a later tradition that places the Polo family in the Dalmatian town of Šibenik, later moving to Korčula and then Venice. Some authorities maintain that the Polos lived in Venice since the 11th century. Marco never mentioned his birth place, nor did he write about the history of Polo family. The issue is still being debated.

Marco Polo sheep is named for the explorer, who described the species during his crossing of Pamir (ancient Mount Imeon) in 1271.

Cartography

Marco Polo's travels may have had some impact on the development of European cartography, ultimately leading to the European voyages of exploration a century later. The 1453 Fra Mauro map (famous map of the world) is said to have been an improved copy of the one brought from China by Marco Polo.

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