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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 January 8, 1324(1324-01-08)
Resting place Church of San Lorenzo
Nationality Italian
Occupation Merchant, explorer, writer
Known for The Travels of Marco Polo
Spouse(s) Donata Badoer
Children Fantina, Bellela, and Moretta

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). He visited the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan). His travels are written in Il Milione (The Million or The Travels of Marco Polo).

The voyage of Niccolò and Maffeo Polo

The Polo name did not originally 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 rich 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 and reached China in 1266, arriving at Khanbaliq near Peking. They returned from China as Kublai Khan's messengers with a letter for the Pope. This letter asked the Pope to send educated people to teach in Kublai Khan's empire and 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.

In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice, meeting 15-year-old Marco for the first time.

Early life

Young Marco Polo
Young Marco Polo

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 pregnant mother 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, except 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 (the expert estimation of an item's worth), and the handling of cargo ships. He learned little or no Latin.

Journey to China and service to the Khan

Marco Polo traveling
The Polo family arrives in a Chinese city
Marco Polo Kubilai Khan
Marco Polo and his brother in the court of Kubilai Khan

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 seventeen years in China. Impressed by Marco's intelligence and humility, Khan appointed him to serve as his foreign emissary to India and Burma. Khan also sent Marco on many diplomatic missions throughout his empire and in Southeast Asia (such as in present-day Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam). When he returned, Marco entertained the Khan with stories and observations about the lands he saw. As part of this appointment, Marco did much traveling inside China.

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

The Polos 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"

Marco Polo was later captured in a minor clash in 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 copy has been lost and there are now several often-conflicting versions of the translations. The book became an instant success, which was quite an achievement, considering that it was written before the invention of the printing press.

Later life

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 financed other expeditions, he would never leave Venice again. In 1300, he married Donata Badoer, a woman from an old, noble family. Marco fathered 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 Italian, creating conflicts between different editions of the book.

Marco Polo died in his home on January 8, 1324, at almost 70 years old. He was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo.

Skepticism of Marco's stories

Route of Marco Polo
Route of Marco Polo's travels

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

According to a famous story, when Marco was on his deathbed, a priest begged him 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 surrounded Marco's tales during his life.

In recent times, while most historians believe Marco Polo did reach China, some have suggested that he did not get that far and only retold information he had heard from others who were traveling along the silk road. 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, even thought he claimed to have served as a special emissary for Kublai Khan. This is puzzling, given the careful record-keeping in China at that time.

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, and 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.

In his defense, there are no known arguments today that disprove any of Marco's written descriptions. 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 have been known by his 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 by land (for example, Radhanites traded and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine explored in Asia), thanks to Marco's book, their trip was best-documented. That is why Marco Polo is the person most people think of when they think of explorers of the Far East.

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. Columbus owned a copy of Polo's book with many markings and comments.

Legend has it that Marco Polo introduced Italy to 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, the 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.

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

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


Marco Polo's travels may have brought about 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.

Marco Polo quotes

  • "I believe it was God's will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world."
  • "I speak and speak, [...] but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. [...] It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear."
  • "Without stones there is no arch."
  • “I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.”

Interesting facts about Marco Polo

  • Marco Polo was not the first European to travel to Asia. Giovanni da Pian del Carpine traveled to China in the 1240s, followed by other missionaries.
  • Marco's father and uncle traveled to Asia and returned when he was fifteen. Marco accompanied them on their second trip in 1271.
  • He documented animals that were unfamiliar to him and thought that some were mythical. He thought the Asian rhinoceros was a unicorn.
  • He traveled about 15,000 miles from the time he was seventeen until he was forty-one.
  • Marco developed a relationship with and worked for Kublai Khan.
  • Paper money began being used in Europe after Marco's return home.
  • Marco Polo dictated his stories to a fellow prisoner and friend, Rustichello de Pisa, while they were in prison in Italy. This resulted in the book The Travels of Marco Polo.
  • Several historians have dismissed some of Marco's stories as lies.

Questions Kids Ask about Marco Polo

Marco Polo portrait
Portrait of Marco Polo in his older years

Why is Marco Polo so famous?
He was a famous merchant who wrote about his travels. The Western world was fascinated by them, especially his travels in Asia.

How old would Marco Polo be today?
Marco would be 769 years old today.

What did Marco Polo discover?
Marco Polo was not the first European to travel to Asia. However, through reading about his travels, Europeans were able to learn about Asia and its people and customs. They were introduced to technology such as the use of coal, paper money, gunpowder, porcelain, and the invention of the compass.

How did Marco Polo change the world?
He opened up trade routes to East India and China.

Did Marco Polo live with the Mongols?
Marco spent over 20 years with the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, who was the grandson of Genghis Khan.

What cities did Marco Polo visit?
Marco Polo visited many cities. Some examples of cities he visited in China are Dadu (where Beijing is located today), Xanadu (Shangdu), Xi'an, and Hangzhou.

Where is Marco Polo buried?
Church of San Lorenzo, Venice, Italy

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