Friday, September 15, 2006
Marco Polo Born In Venice, September 15, 1254
Today in 1254, Marco Polo was born in Venice, which is today part of Italy. Marco, his father Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo, while not the first Europeans to visit the area we now call China, had such a storied journey to the Far East that its telling helped shape European journeys of discovery for hundreds of years.
The Polo family were merchants, which in the Venice of the 13th century often meant travel to remote locations in order to secure sought-after items. Niccolo Polo and his brother Maffeo were successful traders and spent a large portion of their careers in the area around the Black Sea and as far east as modern day Uzbekistan. In 1264, the two met the brother of the Grand Khan Kublai. He was headed to the Mongol capital of Khanbaliq, which today is Beijing, China. After a journey of two years, the brothers and the traveling party reached Khanbaliq and received a gracious welcome and an audience with the Khan.
The Khan sent the men back home with precious cargo: a man who was to be the Mongol ambassador to the Pope, a letter from the Khan asking for teachers to be sent east to instruct his people about Christianity and Western life, and a small golden tablet that granted them safe passage anywhere within the Khan's lands. The ambassador left the brothers near the halfway point of the journey, but they continued on with their letter to His Holiness.
They eventually delivered the letter and were given a reply from the Pope that was to be delivered to the Khan. The brothers set out again for Cathay (their word for China) in 1271, but this time they took other travelers: Nicolo's son Marco, who was 17, and two friars. The route, which would become known as the Silk Road, contained its share of danger and disease. Marco fell ill on the way and the group had to stop in Badakhshan for a year in order for him to recover.
The Polo's journey to the Far East took several years, but they arrived safely and were granted another audience with Kublai Khan. According to Marco, he became a court favorite, so much so that the Khan gave him a job at the court as a sort of personal ambassador in his kingdom. During his 17 years of employment, Marco traveled far and wide in China, Burma and India on special missions. He became an excellent speaker who could converse in at least four languages.
In 1291, the Khan sent Marco on one final mission. He was ordered to escort a Mongol princess to her wedding. The trip took over two years, after which Marco, his father and his uncle were released from their obligations at the court and allowed to begin their trip home to Venice.
The Polos became celebrities in Venice. In an age when most people rarely if ever traveled away from the town in which they were born, tales of the Far East seemed like stories of another planet. Despite repeated tellings of the famous stories, it is doubtful that anything about the Polos would've been written down had it not been for a war between Venice and Genoa in 1298. Although the details are lost, Marco ended up in prison for several months. During that time, he dictated the story of his journeys to another prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa. When Marco was released in 1299, he had his book published with the title Il Milione, or "The Million". It was an enormous success, no easy feat in the days before the printing press.
Some historians doubt that Marco Polo and his family ever made the journey to Kublai Khan's court. As with so many stories from the Middle Ages, there is no way to know exactly what happened. Marco's book was translated to Latin and then to Italian, although it is thought to have been written in Old French. Translators of the day could be fairly liberal with their interpretations, so it is possible that the book contains inaccuracies. Regardless of it's accuracy, the book obviously inspired at least one great explorer, Christopher Columbus. Among Columbus's belongings was a copy of "The Million" with detailed notes written in the margins of almost every page.
After Marco Polo returned to Venice, his days of travel were over. He married and had three daughters, all of whom married into nobility. He died at his home at the age of 69 in January, 1324.