Authors: Marco Polo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Venetian explorer

Author Works


Divisament dou monde, fourteenth century (The Travels of Marco Polo, 1579)


Much of Marco Polo’s early life is still in question, including the place and date of his birth. Marco Polo’s father was one of three Venetian brothers who had formed a business partnership as merchants. Nicolo Polo, Marco’s father, and Maffeo Polo are known to have been at the court of Kublai Khan in the 1260’s. The khan apparently became interested enough in religion to send the two men to request that the pope send Christian missionaries to his land. When the Polos arrived home in 1269, they found that Pope Clement IV had died the year before. They waited for the election of a new pope before setting off once again for China, taking with them young Marco Polo and letters explaining the cause for their delay. They were followed some months later by two Dominican monks, but these missionaries never reached their destination.{$I[AN]9810000446}{$I[A]Polo, Marco}{$I[geo]ITALY;Polo, Marco}{$I[tim]1254;Polo, Marco}

According to Marco Polo’s account, his father and uncle hoped to journey to China by sea, taking ship on the Persian Gulf. Finding that plan to be infeasible, they traveled overland to the court of Kublai Khan, passing on their way through lands explored by no other Europeans until the nineteenth century and arriving at their destination in 1275, when Marco Polo was about twenty or twenty-one years old. Kublai Khan, pleased to see the Venetians, made them welcome at his court. Young Marco studied the languages of Kublai Khan’s dominions and entered the service of that great ruler. Traveling for the khan took Marco Polo to much of Asia: into the Chinese provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Yunnan, and into the areas now known as Myanmar and Tibet. Marco Polo, finding that the khan took great interest in all phases of life, took many notes on his travels and reported in great detail and in person to the ruler, who seems to have esteemed the young Venetian. Apparently Marco Polo for a time served as the governor of the province of Yangzhou, while the two elder Polos served Kublai Khan in the capacity of military advisers.

So important and rich did the three Europeans become that they grew fearful of what jealous courtiers or a new ruler might do to them in the event of Kublai Khan’s death. Fearing the worst, they petitioned for permission to return to their homeland; their wish was not at first granted. However, an opportunity presented itself in 1286 when the khan of Persia, a relative of Kublai Khan, sent a delegation to request a Mongol bride for their ruler; the envoys who presented the request asked that the three Venetians might accompany them back to Persia. In 1292 the party set out by sea for Persia. Two years later they arrived at the court of Arghan Khan and were given permission to continue on to Venice. They arrived in their home city in 1295, twenty-four years–almost a quarter of a century–after their departure. Marco Polo had left Venice a young man; he returned a mature and experienced man of about forty.

During 1298 a war broke out between Venice and Genoa. The Genoese assembled a fleet to attack Venice, and the latter city prepared to defend itself. A Venetian naval force under Andrea Dandolo set out to meet and destroy the attacking Genoese vessels; aboard one of the Venetian galleys, as its commander, was Marco Polo. The Venetians were defeated, and among those who found themselves prisoners of war was Marco Polo, who remained a captive in Genoa for almost a year before he was freed in the summer of 1299. During this imprisonment Marco Polo dictated the narrative of his travels and adventures to a fellow prisoner, one Rusticiano of Pisa, who took down The Travels of Marco Polo in French.

Little is known of Marco Polo’s life after his release from Genoese imprisonment. By his will, made on January 8, 1324, the day he died in Venice, it is known that he left a wife and three daughters, but other information is scanty. Indeed, aside from information in his own account, little is known of his life. However, Marco Polo was influential for more than two centuries as a result of the detailed account of his adventures that he left behind. Many of the maps of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were based on his information; even Christopher Columbus owned a Latin translation of The Travels of Marco Polo, to which he added notes of his own.

The Travels of Marco Polo is in two parts. The first part is the actual narrative, whereas the second part consists of passages describing various places and parts of Asia, particularly portions of the empire of Kublai Khan. The earliest manuscript, perhaps the original, is believed to be one in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Altogether there are some eighty manuscripts in existence; various ones differ considerably. While the book is important as a historical document, it is of negligible literary value.

Throughout the centuries, various historians have doubted the accuracy of Marco Polo’s book. The doubts have ranged from scholarly questioning of Polo’s accounts of what he had seen to complete denial that Marco Polo ever went to China. One theory is that he never went farther east than Constantinople (now Istanbul) and subsequently gathered information for his book from other sources; there is, however, no solid historical proof to support that belief. On the contrary, Polo’s maps and accounts of the activities of Kublai Khan, including his wars against the Japanese, appear too accurate to have been obtained secondhand, particularly given Europeans’ limited knowledge of Asia in the thirteenth century.

Bibliography“Chinese Puzzle: Marco Polo.” The Economist 337, no. 7940 (November 11, 1995): 88-96. Reviews Frances Wood’s Did Marco Polo Go to China? (below), which disputes that Marco Polo was ever in China.Hall, B. “Marco Polo’s World.” Travel-Holiday 175, no. 4 (May, 1992): 64-75. A light, personal account, which claims that Polo was more accurate in his reports than was Christopher Columbus.Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo’s Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. Describes Polo’s travels; includes illustrations and maps.Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo’s Precursors. 1943. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1972. A narrative of East-West relations before Marco Polo.Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Attempts to prove that Marco Polo never traveled to China.
Categories: Authors