Born: c. 1254
Birthplace: Venice, Italy
Location of death: Venice, Italy
Cause of death: unspecified
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Travels of Marco Polo
The Venetian, greatest of medieval travelers. Venetian genealogies and traditions of uncertain value trace the Polo family to Sebenico in Dalmatia, and before the end of the 11th century one Domenico Polo is found in the great council of the republic (1094). But the ascertained line of the traveller begins only with his grandfather. Andrea Polo of S. Felice was the father of three sons, Marco, Nicolo and Maffeo, of whom the second was Marco's father. They were presumably noble, belonging to the families who had seats in the great council, and were enrolled in the Libro d'Oro; for we know that Marco the traveller is officially so styled (nobilis vir). The three brothers were engaged in commerce; the elder Marco, resident apparently in Constantinople and in the Crimea (especially at Sudak), suggests, by his celebrated will, a long business partnership with Nicolo and Maffeo.
About 1260, and even perhaps as early as 1250, we find Nicolo and Maffeo at Constantinople. Nicolo was married and had left his wife there. The two brothers went on a speculation to the Crimea, whence a succession of chances and openings carried them to the court of Barka Khan at Sarai, further north up to Bolghar (Kazan), and eventually across the steppes to Bokhara. Here they fell in with certain envoys who had been on a mission from the great Khan Kublai to his brother Hulagu in Persia, and by them were persuaded to make the journey to Cathay in their company. In the last half of the 13th century and first half of the 14th Asia was thrown open to Western travellers to a degree unknown before and since, until the 19th century. Thus began the medieval period of intercourse between China and catholic Europe. Kublai, when the Polos reached his court, was either at Cambaluc (Khanbaligh, the Khans city), now Peking, which he had just rebuilt, or at his summer seat at Shangtu in the country north of the Great Wall. It was the first time that the khan, a man full of energy and intelligence, had fallen in with European gentlemen. He was delighted with the Venetian brothers, listened eagerly to all they had to tell of the Latin world, and decided to send them back as his envoys to the Pope, with letters requesting the despatch of a large body of educated men to instruct his people in Christianity and the liberal arts. With Kublai, as with his predecessors, religion was chiefly a political engine. Kublai, the first of his house to rise above the essential barbarism of the Mongols, had perhaps discerned that the Christian Church could afford the aid he desired in taming his countrymen. It was only when Rome had failed to meet his advance that he fell back upon Buddhism as his chief civilizing instrument.
The brothers arrived at Acre in April 1269. They learned that Pope Clement IV had died the year before, and no new pope had yet been chosen. So they took counsel with an eminent churchman, Tebaldo, archdeacon of Liege and papal legate for the whole realm of Egypt, and, being advised by him to wait patiently, went home to Venice, where they found that Nicolo's wife was dead, but had left a son Marco, now fifteen. The papal interregnum was the longest that had been known, at least since the Dark Ages. After the Polos had spent two years at home there was still no pope, and the brothers resolved on starting again for the East, taking young Marco with them. At Acre they again saw Tedaldo, and were furnished by him with letters to authenticate the causes that had hindered their mission. They had not yet left Lajazzo, Layas, or Ayas on the Cilician coast (then one of the chief points for the arrival and departure of the land trade of Asia), when they heard that Tedaldo had been elected pope. They hastened back to Acre, and at last were able to execute Kublai's mission, and to obtain a papal reply. But, instead of the hundred teachers asked for by the Great Khan, the new pope (styled Pope Gregory X) could supply but two Dominicans; and these lost heart and turned back, when they had barely taken the first step of their journey.
The second start from Acre must have taken place about November 1271; and from a consideration of the indications and succession of chapters in Polo's book, it would seem that the party proceeded from Lajazzo to Sivas and Tabriz, and thence by Yezd and Kirman down to Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, with the purpose of going on to China by sea; but that, abandoning their naval plans (perhaps from fear of the flimsy vessels employed on this navigation from the Gulf eastwards), they returned northward through Persia. Traversing Kirman and Khorasan they went on to Balkh and Badakshan, in which last country young Marco recovered from illness. In a passage touching on the climate of the Badakshan hills, Marco breaks into an enthusiasm whiqh he rarely betrays, but which is easily understood by those who have known what it is, with fever in the blood, to escape to the exhilarating mountain air and fragrant pine groves. They then ascended the upper Oxus through Wakhan to the plateau of Pamir (a name first heard in Marco's book). These regions were hardly described again by any European traveller (save Benedict Goes) till the expedition in 1838 of Lt. John Wood of the Indian navy, whose narrative abounds in incidental illustration of Marco Polo. Crossing the Pamir the travellers descended upon Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan (Khutan). These are regions which remained almost absolutely closed to our knowledge till after 1860, when the temporary overthrow of the Chinese power, and the enterprise of British, Russian and other explorers, again made them known.
From Khotan the Polos passed on to the vicinity of Lop-Nor, reached for the first time since Polo's journey by Prjevalsky in 1871. Thence the great desert of Gobi was crossed to Tangut, as the region at the extreme north west of China, both within and without the Wall, was then called.
In his account of the Gobi, or desert of Lop, as he calls it, Polo gives some description of the terrors and superstitions of the waste, a description which strikingly reproduces that of the Chinese pilgrim Suan T'sang, in passing the same desert in the contrary direction six hundred years before.
The Venetians, in their further journey, were met and welcomed by the Great Khan's people, and at last reached his presence at Shangtu, in the spring of 1275. Kublai received them with great cordiality, and took kindly to young Marco, by this time about twenty-one years old. The "young bachelor", as the book calls him, applied himself diligently to the acquisition of the divers languages and written characters chiefly in use among the multifarious nationalities subject to the Khan; and Kublai, seeing that he was both clever and discreet, soon began to employ him in the public service. G. Pauthier found in the Chinese annals a record that in the year 1277 a certain Polo was nominated as a second-class commissioner or agent attached to the imperial council, a passage which we may apply to the young Venetian. Among his public missions was one which carried him through the provinces of Shansi, Shensi, and Szechuen, and the wild country on the borders of Tibet, to the remote province of Yunan, called by the Mongols Karajang, and into northern Burma (Mien). Marco, during his stay at court, had observed the Khan's delight in hearing of strange countries, of their manners, marvels, and oddities, and had heard his frank expressions of disgust at the stupidity of envoys and commissioners who could tell of nothing but their official business. He took care to store his memory or his notebook with curious facts likely to interest Kublai, which, on his return to court, he related. This south-western journey led him through a country which until about 1860 was almost a terra incognita -- though since the middle of the 19th century we have learned much regarding it through the journeys of Cooper, Garnier, Richthofen, Gill, Baber and others. In this region there existed and still exists in the deep valleys of the great rivers, and in the alpine regions which border them, a vast ethnological garden, as it were, of tribes of various origin, and in every stage of semi-civilization or barbarism; these afforded many strange products and eccentric traits to entertain Kublai.
Marco rose rapidly in favor and was often employed on distant missions as well as in domestic administration; but we gather few details of his employment. He held for three years the government of the great city of Yangchow; on another occasion he seems to have visited Kangchow, the capital of Tangut, just within the Great Wall, and perhaps Karakorum on the north of the Gobi, the former residence of the Great Khans: again we find him in Ciampa, or southern Cochin-China; and perhaps, once more, on a separate mission to the southern states of India. We are not informed whether his father and uncle shared in such employments, though they are mentioned as having rendered material service to the Khan, in forwarding the capture of Siang-yang (on the Han river) during the war against southern China, by the construction of powerful artillery engines -- a story, however, perplexed by chronological difficulties.
All the Polos were gathering wealth which they longed to carry back to their home, and after their exile they began to dread what might follow Kublai's death. The Khan, however, was deaf to suggestions of departure and the opportunity only came by chance.
Arghun, khan of Persia, the grandson of Kublai's brother, Hulagu, lost in 1286 his favorite wife, called by Polo Balgana (i.e. Bulughan or "Sable"). Her dying injunction was that her place should be filled only by a lady of her own Mongol tribe. Ambassadors were despatched to the court of Peking to obtain such a bride. The message was courteously received, and the choice fell on the lady Cocacin (Kukachin), a maiden of seventeen. The overland road from Peking to Tabriz was then imperilled by war, so Arghun's envoys proposed to return by sea. Having made acquaintance with the Venetians, and eager to profit by their experience, especially by that of Marco, who had just returned from a mission to the Indies, they begged the Khan to send the Franks in their company. He consented with reluctance, but fitted out the party nobly for the voyage, charging them with friendly messages to the potentates of Christendom, including the pope, and the kings of France, Spain and England. They sailed from Zaiton or Amoy Harbor in Fukien (a town corresponding either to the modern Changchow or less probably to Tswanchow or Chinchew),then one of the chief Chinese havens for foreign trade, in the beginning of 1292. The voyage involved long detention on the coast of Sumatra, and in south India, and two years or more passed before they arrived in Persia. Two of the three envoys and a vast proportion of their suite perished by the way; but the three Venetians survived all perils, and so did the young lady, who had come to look on them with filial regard. Arghun Khan had died even before they quitted China; his brother reigned in his stead; and his son Ghazan succeeded to the lady's hand. The Polos went on (apparently by Tabriz, Trebizond, Constantinople and Negropont) to Venice, which they seem to have reached about the end of 1295.
The first biographer of Marco Polo was the famous geographical collector John Baptist Ramusio, who wrote more than two centuries after the traveller's death. Facts and dates sometimes contradict his statements, but he often adds detail, evidently authentic, of great interest and value, and we need not hesitate to accept as a genuine tradition the substance of his story of the Polos' arrival at their family mansion in St. John Chrysostom parish in worn and outlandish garb, of the scornful denial of their identity, and the stratagem by which they secured acknowledgment from Venetian society.
We next hear of Marco Polo in a militant capacity. Jealousies had been growing in bitterness between Venice and Genoa throughout the 13th century. In 1298 the Genoese prepared to strike at their rivals on their own ground, and a powerful fleet under Lamba Doria made for the Adriatic. Venice, on hearing of the Genoese armament, equipped a fleet still more numerous, and placed it under Andrea Dandolo. The crew of a Venetian galley at this time amounted, all told, to 250 men, under a comito or master, but besides this officer each galley carried a sopracomito or gentleman-commander, usually a noble. On one of the galleys of Dandolo's fleet Marco Polo seems to have gone in this last capacity. The hostile fleets met before Curzola Island on the 6th of September, and engaged next morning. The battle ended in a complete victory for Genoa, the details of which may still be read on the fašade of St. Matthew's church in that city. Sixty-six Venetian galleys were burnt in Curzola Bay, and eighteen were carried to Genoa, with 7000 prisoners, one of whom was Marco Polo. The captivity was of less than a year's duration; by the mediation of Milan peace was made, on honorable terms for both republics, by July 1299; and Marco was probably restored to his family during that or the following month.
But his captivity was memorable as the immediate cause of his Book. Up to this time he had doubtless often related his experiences among his friends; and from these stories, and the frequent employment in them (as it would seem) of grand numerical expressions, he had acquired the nickname of Marco Millioni. Yet it would seem that he had committed nothing to writing. The narratives not only of Marco Polo but of several other famous medieval travellers (Ibn Batuta, Friar Odoric, Nicolo Conti) seem to have been extorted from them by a kind of pressure, and committed to paper by other hands. Examples, perhaps, of that intense dislike to the use of pen and ink which still prevails among ordinary respectable folk on the shores of the Mediterranean.
In the prison of Genoa Marco Polo fell in with a certain person of writing propensities, Rusticiano or Rustichello of Pisa, also a captive of the Genoese. His name is otherwise known as that of a respectable literary hack, who abridged and recast several of the French romances of the Arthurian cycle, then in fashion. He wrote down Marco's experiences at his dictation.
We learn little of Marco Polo's personal or family history after this captivity; but we know that at his death he left a wife, Donata (perhaps of the Loredano family, but this is uncertain), and three daughters, Fantina and Bellela (married, the former to Marco Bragadino), and Moreta (then a spinster, but married at a later date to Ranuzzo Dolfino). One last glimpse of the traveller is gathered from his will, now in St. Mark's library. On the 9th of January 1324 the traveller, in his seventieth year, sent for a neighboring priest and notary to make his testament. We do not know the exact time of his death, but it fell almost certainly within the year 1324, for we know from a scanty series of documents, beginning in June 1325, that he had at the latter date been some time dead. He was buried, in accordance with his will, in the Church of St. Lorenzo, where the family burying-place was marked by a sarcophagus, erected by his filial care for his father Nicolo, which existed till near the end of the 16th century. On the renewal of the church in 1592 this seems to have disappeared.
The archives of Venice have yielded a few traces of our traveller. Besides his own will just alluded to, there are the wills of his uncle Marco and of his younger brother Maffeo; a few legal documents connected with the house property in St. John Chrysostom, and other papers of similar character; and two or three entries in the record of the Maggior Consiglio. We have mentioned the sobriquet of Marco Millioni. Ramusio tells us that he had himself noted the use of this name in the public books of the commonwealth, and this statement has been verified in an entry in the books of the Great Council (dated April 10, 1305), which records as one of the securities in a certain case the "Nobilis vir Marchus Paulo Milion." It is alleged that long after the traveller's death there was always in the Venetian masques one individual who assumed the character of Marco Millioni, and told Munchausen-like stories to divert the vulgar. There is also a record (March 9, 1311) of the judgment of the court of requests (Curia Petitionum) upon a suit brought by the "Nobilis vir Marcus Polo" against Paulo Girardo, who had been an agent of his, to recover the value of a certain quantity of musk for which Girardo had not accounted. Another document is a catalogue of certain curiosities and valuables which were collected in the house of Marino Faliero, and this catalogue comprises several objects that Marco Polo had given to one of the Faliero family.
The most tangible record of Polo's memory in Venice is a portion of the Ca'Polo -- the mansion (there is reason to believe) where the three travelers, after their long absence, were denied entrance. The court in which it stands was known in Ramusio's time as the Corte del millioni, and now is called Corte Sabbionera. That which remains of the ancient edifice is a passage with a decorated archway of Italo-Byzantine character pertaining to the 13th century.
No genuine portrait of Marco Polo exists. There is a medallion portrait on the wall of the Sala dello Scudo in the ducal palace, which has become a kind of type; but it is a work of imagination no older than 1761. The oldest professed portrait is one in the gallery of Monsignor Badia at Rome, which is inscribed Marcus Polus venetus totius orbis et Indie peregrator primus. It is a good picture, but evidently of the 16th century at earliest. The Europeans at Canton have absurdly attached the name of Marco Polo to a figure in a Buddhist temple there containing a gallery of "Arhans" or Buddhist saints, and popularly known as the "temple of the five hundred gods."
Father: Niccolò Polo
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