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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
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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 8–9, 1324) was an Italian merchant, explorer, and writer, born in the Republic of Venice. His travels are recorded in Livre des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300), a book that described to Europeans the wealth and great size of China, its capital Peking, and other Asian cities and countries.

Though he was not the first European to reach China (see Europeans in Medieval China), Marco Polo was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience. This book inspired Christopher Columbus and many other travellers. There is a substantial literature based on Polo's writings; he also influenced European cartography (the practice of drawing maps), leading to the introduction of the Fra Mauro map.

Early life

Marco polo birthhouse
Marco Polo's house

Marco Polo was born in the Republic of Venice, though the exact date and place of birth are unknown. Marco Polo's birthplace is generally considered to be Venice, but some also claimed Constantinople and the island of Korčula as his birth place. There is dispute as to whether the Polo family is of Venetian origin, as Venetian historical sources considered them to be of Dalmatian origin.

His father, Niccolò Polo, a merchant, traded with the Near East, becoming wealthy and achieving great prestige. Niccolò and his brother Maffeo set off on a trading voyage before Marco's birth. In 1260, Niccolò and Maffeo, while residing in Constantinople, then the capital of the Latin Empire, foresaw a political change; they liquidated their assets into jewels and moved away. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, they passed through much of Asia, and met with Kublai Khan, a Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan dynasty.

Their decision to leave Constantinople proved timely. In 1261 Michael VIII Palaiologos, the ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, took Constantinople, promptly burned the Venetian quarter and re-established the Eastern Roman Empire. Captured Venetian citizens were blinded, while many of those who managed to escape perished aboard overloaded refugee ships fleeing to other Venetian colonies in the Aegean Sea.

Memorials to Marco Polo - Casa Polo
The white building was erected on the site Casa Polo, where lived the father, his uncle and Marco Polo in Venice. The Casa Polo was destroyed by a fire in 1598

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 mercantile subjects including foreign currency, appraising, 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. In 1271, during the rule of Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo, Marco Polo (at seventeen years of age), his father, and his uncle set off for Asia on the series of adventures that Marco later documented in his book. They returned to Venice in 1295, 24 years later, with many riches and treasures. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).

Captivity and later life

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

Marco Polo returned to Venice in 1295 with his fortune converted into gemstones. At this time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa. He was probably caught by Genoans in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta in September 1298.

He spent several months of his imprisonment dictating a detailed account of his travels to a fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who incorporated tales of his own as well as other collected stories and current affairs from China. The book soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form, and became known as The Travels of Marco Polo. It depicts the Polos' journeys throughout Asia, giving Europeans their first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan.

Route of Marco Polo
Route of Marco Polo

Polo was finally released from captivity in August 1299, and returned home to Venice, where his father and uncle in the meantime had purchased a large palazzo. The company continued its activities and Marco soon became a wealthy merchant. Marco and his uncle Maffeo financed other expeditions, but likely never left Venetian provinces, nor returned to the Silk Road and Asia.

Sometime before 1300, his father Niccolò died. In 1300, he married Donata Badoèr, the daughter of Vitale Badoèr, a merchant. They had three daughters, Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta.

Death

Chiesa di San Lorenzo
San Lorenzo church in the sestiere of Castello (Venice), where Polo was buried

In 1323, Polo was confined to bed, due to illness. On January 8, 1324, despite physicians' efforts to treat him, Polo was dying. His wife, Donata, and his three daughters were appointed by him as co-executrices. The church was entitled by law to a portion of his estate; he approved of this and ordered that a further sum be paid to the convent of San Lorenzo, the place where he wished to be buried.

He also set free Peter, a Tartar servant, who may have accompanied him from Asia, and to whom Polo bequeathed some money. He divided up the rest of his assets, including several properties, among individuals, religious institutions, and every guild and fraternity to which he belonged.

Due to the Venetian law stating that the day ends at sunset, the exact date of Marco Polo's death cannot be determined, but according to some scholars it was between the sunsets of January 8 and 9, 1324.

Legacy

The book of Ser Marco Polo - the Venetian concerning the kingdoms and marvels of the East (1903) (14582831830)
The book of Marco Polo - the Venetian concerning the kingdoms and marvels of the East 1903

Other lesser-known European explorers had already travelled to China, but Polo's book meant that his journey was the first to be widely known. Christopher Columbus was inspired enough by Polo's description of the Far East to want to visit those lands for himself; a copy of the book was among his belongings, with handwritten notes. Bento de Góis, inspired by Polo's writings of a Christian kingdom in the east, travelled 4,000 miles (6,400 km) in three years across Central Asia. He never found the kingdom but ended his travels at the Great Wall of China in 1605.

Though Marco Polo never produced a map that illustrated his journey, his family drew several maps to the Far East based on the wayward's accounts. These collection of maps were signed by Polo's three daughters. Not only did it contain maps of his journey, but also sea routes to Japan, Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Strait and even to the coastlines of Alaska, centuries before the rediscovery of the Americas by Europeans.

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