The Forgotten Legend: Marco Polo
One of the most iconic historical figures
May 11th, 2020 | 4 min read

Marco Polo was born on September 15, 1254, in the Republic of Venice. A merchant by trade, but history reminds him of his name not for his economic activity, but for his accounts of a trip to China in the second half of the 13th century. Marco was only 17 years old when he went on the journey that would mark his whole life. In his accounts, he mentions the year 1271 as the date of departure on the long journey to China. He set off with his father and uncle. Data about Marco Polo’s family, respectively about Niccolo and Maffio Polo, Marco’s father, and uncle, are very few.Map depicting Marco Polo’s JourneyPolo wearing a Tartar outfit, date of print unknownThe book about Marco Polo’s travelsRustichello da Pisa, was an Italian romance writer best known for cowriting Marco Polo’s autobiography

His famous journey

In their journey they have closed crossed the plateau of Anatolia and Armenia, then Kurdistan, descending into the valley of the Tigris River, following the stream, through Mosul and Baghdad, to Basra. From here, the three Venetians headed for Tabriz, crossing Iran to Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.

The initial intention was to go to sea, but giving up this idea, the Venetians returned to the north and, after Iran and the Dashi-Lut desert, along the southern coasts of the Hindukush mountains, reached the foot of the Pamirs, from where they descended to the Kashgar oasis, then bypassed the Takla-Makan desert to the south and reached northwestern Tibet. From here, in the valley of the river Sulehe, they arrived in the port of Ganzu.

After a year-long hiatus, the three pass through the lands of the Tangiers (Tibetan peoples northeast of the plateau) and enter Kai-Ping Fu, the summer residence of the great Kubilai Inn (1214–1294), where they were treated by the grandson of Genghis’ son Han and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1280–1368). This residence is located north of Hanbalâk (Beijing).

There they quickly gained the trust of the Mongol ruler Kubilai Han in whose service they served from 1275 to 1290, being a clerk, then ambassador of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Then Marco Polo and his father and uncle return to Venice by sea, following the sea route that bypassed South Asia, stopping on the island of Sumatra (five months), then the islands of Nicobar and Andaman, Ceylon and the southern shores of Iran, until they reached Hormuz.

Life as a prisoner (making of a best seller)

The causes of his imprisonment are unknown even to this day. There are several hypotheses. One of them is that he took part in the naval battle of September 7, 1298, when, near the Dalmatian coast, the Genoese fleet crushed the Venetian one, taking many prisoners. However, in the book he wrote in prison with the help of his cellmate, the writer Rustichello of Pisa, we find that the work was completed in 1298. In this context, it is hard to believe that the manuscript of his travel stories, known as of ‘Il milione’ would have been completed in less than three months, in the space of a cell, without documents or other notes.

Hence the second theory that Marco arrived in the Genoese prison shortly after returning from his trip, in 1296 or 1297, without knowing the reasons. What is certain is that Marco Polo dictated his stories during the Asian trip to his cellmate, Rusticello in Pisa.

The original manuscript of “Il milione” (Description of the World) is in Old French and was kept at the National Library in Paris, being published only in 1824. Known under several titles: “Diversity of the World”, “Book of Wonders” or “Million”, The work of the Venetian Marco Polo is one of the great travel writings of the Middle Ages and the first to reveal to Western Europe the immense and fabulous world of China and Asia. However, throughout his life, but also in the following centuries, other variants of this manuscript appeared, mostly in Italian. Probably some even dictated by Marco Polo after returning home to the Doge’s fortress.

At present, about 80 such manuscripts (variants) of the work are known, many of them having different details. It must be said that the original document contains a series of stories, legends, and anecdotes, which certainly did not belong to Marco Polo, but also to Rusticello of Pisa, who in turn was a cultured man and, although he had not traveled to China, he knew from his readings all the information he put together with those told by Marco.

Marco Polo was released from prison in 1299 and lived until 1324, when he died at the age of 70. When he was released, he discovered that his travel stories, called “Il milione,” were rapidly spreading. Even to this day, the book is still a best seller in many countries. From the beginning, there were doubts about the authenticity of the stories. Some say that Marco Polo went as far as Constantinople, where the Polo family had relations and business since the beginning of the twelfth century.

The hypothesis that he did not travel to China is based on the fact that his travelogues do not mention defining elements for this civilization at that time: such as: the Great Wall of China, the pattern, and the absence of Chinese and Mongolian names in the opera. it would have been possible for someone to hold high positions with the first emperor of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, but this would have taken many years.



This article was written by Andrei Tapalaga.
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