M is for Marco Polo

Marco Polo in prison (litho) by Valda, John Harris (1874-1942); Private Collection

Marco Polo was a liar. One scholar claimed that rather than going to China, he never went further east than Iran.

Marco was a prisoner of war, caught in a skirmish fighting his hometown’s biggest enemy. Marco was not a writer, but a spinner of tales. Mr. Marco Millions was a traveler, a merchant, an ambassador, an embellisher, and a subject of controversy.

Marco Polo was an adventurer, who had too many adventures to tell here. We can only scratch the surface of who he was.

Marco Polo leaving Venice, painting at the Bodleian Library.

The Bare Bones

Marco Polo was born in 1254 in the Republic of Venice. If you read my “D is for Doge” passage last year, you’d recall that Venice was a major world power at the time, responsible for the sack of Constantinople just a few decades earlier and one of the groups calling the shots in Europe. They “owned” ports on the Black Sea and elsewhere and had grown very rich ferrying French and Teutonic knights back and forth to the Crusades. So had the Genoese, another Italian seaport.

Marco’s father wasn’t there for his son’s birth because he was off in Constantinople with his brother, doing trade deals. Niccolo and Maffeo Polo decided to high tail it out of there because Constantinople was taken back from the Venetian puppets; the Polos went east–way east–out to the court of Khubilai Khan. They returned to Venice and persuaded 15-year-old Marco to go back with them, so Marco and family traveled the Silk Road once more, although their first stop was in Acre. Had I mentioned the Crusades?

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U is for Usury

German woodcut of Italian bankers. Photo from medium.com

Usury was denounced by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages, a potential route to heresy and excommunication. But royalty, the church, and the merchants needed bankers. The bankers found ways around restrictions. The Medici thrived on banking, but it proved to be their downfall, or their rise depending on how you look at it. Lending to people in charge seems to have an inherent risk, usury or not.

Criminal Interest

Usury is defined as charging an “exorbitant” interest according to Webster’s. But there’s that third dictionary definition, listed as Obsolete. Usury was once defined as charging any interest at all. It varied with the century.

There were banks in Rome, which might charge from 5-12% interest. There were banks in the 6th century Byzantine Empire, because Emperor Justinian set loan rates, which varied by the venture: 4% for “exalted personages,” 7% for business loans, and 12% for maritime loans. The Council at Nicea centuries earlier had banned interest but for clergy, not everybody.

Yet a few centuries later, between the time of Charlemagne (750 CE) to the Black Death (1350), usury was more strictly banned. First, the Catholic church said that usury was banned to everybody, that you could not have a transaction where more was returned than was given. Even in a simple transaction, like selling a cow, the farmers had to find a just price, where they would only receive what it cost.

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L is for Leonardo (and the Giant Horse of Francesco Sforza)

Da vinci’s sketches of the horse, from the Royal Collection Trust.

A 28-year-old offered his services to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in 1480. The letter writer provided visions of weapons design and military engineering, tasks close in mind to a man whose province had repeatedly churned through turmoil in recent decades The duke’s brother had been assassinated in church and his young son assumed the title, under Uncle Ludovico’s watchful eye. Better armaments might help fend off the numerous challenges from the French, Burgundians, Guelphs (or Ghibellines? or both?), Ottomans–you name it, and there was a threat.

Plus, Ludovico wanted to erect a giant commemorative statue to his grandfather. The letter writer said he could paint a little and knew something about sculpting.

Sketchy Ideas

The letter, of course, came from Leonardo Da Vinci. Even though Da Vinci had been apprenticed in an artist’s studio for a dozen years and opened his own studio for a few more, he had not yet completed a major work. Wikipedia calls Da Vinci a polymath, meaning he knew how to do everything. At this point in his life, he hadn’t been able to do much of it yet. But he had a lot of ideas. And he had heard about the horse.

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