Marco Polo, based on a painting in the Gallery of Monsignore Badia in Rome. Polo, born to one of Venice’s wealthiest trading families, moved in elite circles during his years in China.

Marco Polo, a Venetian who was one of the earliest Europeans to travel all the way to China on the Silk Roads, left behind what is probably the best-known travelogue in history, The Travels of Marco Polo. He did not write it himself, however, but rather dictated it to a fellow prisoner of war who may have embellished what he heard.

Marco Polo (1254–1324) grew up as a member of a great trading house in Venice, a leading Italian city-state. Taking advantage of the ease of communication afforded by the Mongol empire, his family began trading in the East, and after an initial period of activity, reaching as far as Mongol China, young Marco himself became involved. He remained in China for seventeen years (1275–1292) and seems to have held some unnamed official post but, in any case, moved in elite circles, thus his knowledge of the inner workings of the Mongol East. He also seems to have traveled extensively, apparently on official business, thus the accounts in his well-known travel journal of such relatively remote areas as Mongol Yunnan, the first in European geographical literature. He heard of, but did not visit, Japan, but his notice of the Japanese islands was also the first for Europe.

Polo’s most responsible mission came in 1292 when, returning to Italy by sea—the land route by then cut off due to Mongol warfare—he was asked to deliver a Mongol princess to Ilqanate Iran, then the principal ally of Mongol China. This he did successfully, acquiring substantial information about insular Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, finally returning to Italy in 1295, where he heard of the death of Khubilai Khan, Polo’s major patron in China. Soon thereafter Polo fought for Venice in a war against neighboring Genoa and became a prisoner of war. To pass the time, he dictated a memoir of his travels in Old French, then the international commercial language to a writer of romances.

Several versions of the text exist, differing substantially in detail, including some in languages other than Old French. In any case Polo’s memoirs were an immediate sensation, and in the centuries since few books have been more translated or had a greater impact on the European psyche. Columbus, for example, is said to have taken a copy of Polo along with him when searching for the fabled East as described by the Venetian.

But recently doubts have been cast upon Polo’s veracity. In fact, there is much in The Travels of Marco Polo that is truly fantastic and even legendary but also a great deal that we know to be absolutely accurate from other sources. Criticism has also in part been based on a misunderstanding of the character of Mongol China, its use of a variety of languages alongside Chinese, for example, and a misappraisal of what Polo would actually have seen.

Further Reading

Yule, H., & Cordier, H. (1975). The book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian (3rd ed.). Amsterdam: Philo Press. (Original work published 1903–1920)

Source: Buell, Paul D.. (2009). POLO Marco. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1783–1784. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Map following the journeys of Marco Polo, from 1903 edition of his travels.

POLO Marco (M?k?b?luó ????)|M?k?b?luó ???? (POLO Marco)

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