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?

While in the Middle East, a new pope was elected–conveniently the archbishop of Acre! He wrote a letter responding to Khubilai’s offering of some sort of “pact,” and the Polos brought it back to the Khan’s court, arriving in 1275. Khubilai liked Marco and Marco liked China. He stayed for 17 years.

Upon returning home, Marco found that the Venetians were still at war, so he outfitted a ship and went to do his patriotic duty, attacking the Genoese, possibly at the Battle of Curzola. He ended up in a Genoese prison for two years. There, he dictated the story of his adventures to his cellmate, one romance writer named Rustichello di Pisa (Rusticiano). Ghostwriters take note. You might not get the credit you deserve.

Before diving further into “the book,” it’s worth noting that Marco was eventually let out of prison, returned home to enjoy the wealth that he and his family had brought back (in gemstones–smart!), got married, and lived to the ripe old age of 70, probably never again venturing further than the local piazza for pasta e faxioi.

Wood cut depiction of Marco in the Cordier & Yule edition of “Il Milone.” Painting in Gallery of Monignore Badia, Rome.

The Filter

Rusticiano, Marco’s cellmate, had written an Italian version of an Arthurian romance legend before he was thrown in prison by the Genoese (who were also fighting with the Pisans). Roman de Roi Artus was recopied multiple times into many languages–especially French because the French ate up that stuff. So Rusticiano “sold” well, considering this was two hundred years before the printing press would come to Europe. Which it partly did because Marco Polo had seen moveable type in Asia and talked it up when he got home, though it is not mentioned in the book that Rusticiano ghost wrote. Kinda ironic!

Marco talks, apparently endlessly, but they had two years as cellmates together. Someone supplied them with a lot of parchment, clearly! Rusticiano wrote it all down, and it’s long. This English version is only volume two. I have another translation done in Edinburgh which is 380 pages long.

Title page from the 1844 edition.

The thing is that Rusticiano didn’t publish it as The Travels of Marco Polo. He added several other stories, copied segments verbatim from his other book, included important material on weights and measures for merchants, and called the book Il Millone. That was Marco’s nickname, and it’s unclear whether it was a family name or whether it was because Marco called himself Mr. Marco Millions when he ordered his vino.

Speculation is that Rusticiano intended it to be a handbook for merchants because of the handy table of statistics. However, when the French translated it, they called it Devisement du Monde or Travels of the World. It was the English who decided to slap on Marco Polo’s name, thereby eliminated Rusticiano from the annals of history. Again, before the printing press, so every copy that was created would be subject to whatever the copier chose to include. Every person who translated it, and translated it again, would include or exclude whatever they chose. So if you read at the beginning of the book…

Including the unabridged third edition (1903) of
Henry Yule’s annotated translation, as revised
by Henri Cordier; together with Cordier’s later
volume of notes and addenda (1920)

…you must count the number of filters applied. This is Marco’s story told to a guy he met in prison, known for his romantic imagination, which was then translated into French then into English, and recopied for 200 years before it was set into type, and further annotated and revised.

Thus, if you are asked the question whether what Marco was true, how would you even know what Marco said?

Painting of Marco hanging in Palazzo Doria-Tursi in Genoa. Kinda ironic.

The Controversy

Frances Wood, a British historian with expertise on China, dropped a bombshell in 1995 when she proposed that Marco’s embellishments were so extreme that he never even went to China. Her book Did Marco Polo Go to China? was eaten up with fascination by the media and the public because of its controversial nature. Historians then spent the next three decades refuting her arguments. It was a clever ploy of the “Betsy Ross” nature. (Betsy didn’t sew America’s first flag, but one of her grandsons was such a fantastic marketer that he convinced America otherwise).

Wood claimed that Marco likely didn’t go to China because his account has exaggerations, inaccuracies, and critical omissions. In particular, Marco doesn’t mention tea, footbinding, Chinese writing, or the Great Wall of China. Marco also claims he ruled the large city of Yangzhou–this last note appears to be clearly refutable. There are several minor errors about the names of bridges, exact placement of cities, and so on. Much of this can be chalked up to either exaggeration, faulty memory, or inaccurate copying. But what about those famous Chinese things never mentioned?

Depiction of Khubilai in National Museum in Taipei.

Each turns out to be easily explained. Tea was drunk by the peasants, not by Khubilai and his court, who were Mongols. They drank not tea but kumiss, fermented mare’s milk, and they didn’t change that particular custom during the Khan’s reign. Footbinding was done by wealthy Chinese women and prevented them from being in public, so Marco may not have seen it. Similarly, he didn’t read Chinese, and Chinese scholars wrote with Chinese characters, so he might not have seen them. Particularly since Khubilai replaced the Chinese bureaucrats with foreign administrators.

The Great Wall? Hopefully, you know by know that it’s not visible from space. The great brick wall that tourists walk upon now was built by the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. The original great wall created by the Hans–see J is for Jade Gate–did exist in 200 BCE. But it was built of rammed earth and wood. Multiple border tribes from the West, of which the Mongols were only the latest, had poured through and over the hills. By Marco Polo’s time, there was little of the original Great Wall left, and whatever was there didn’t keep many invading armies out. As Mongol historians note, the fact that Marco doesn’t mention it proves their case. That’s how Khubilai and his army was able to conquer and wrest China from the Song dynasty.

Marco’s travels. Photo from Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Legacy

Frances Wood was, in her own way, as smart as Marco Polo. Her name continues to be circulated. As the saying goes, “there’s no bad publicity.” People–including myself–still read what she had to say and evaluate it, critically. It’s an interesting argument, even if wrong. Sharpens the critical thinking muscles.

Meanwhile, Marco is also credited now with all sorts of things that aren’t in the book, and he may not have mentioned. He didn’t bring spaghetti or ice cream; both of those foods were in circulation in the Middle East, and many Italian merchants would have known of them. He might have talked about gunpowder, the printing press, or paper. Those ideas did make their way somehow from China along the Silk Road. Scholars try to back into explaining that he must have been the one to talk about them, but it could have been any of a thousand merchants.

And even though he didn’t write his memoirs, they are fanciful enough to have tripped the imagination of the all those who read the copies and translations.

One person who read them was another man from Genoa, Cristoffa Corombo. He was a sailor and known to have read The Travels of Marco Polo because there’s a copy with his marginal notes covering the pages. He thought about China a lot, particularly whether there was a quicker way to get there than the long, slow Silk Road across Asia. Especially since, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, the road wasn’t as safe as it had been under Pax Mongolica.

He talked the Queen of northern Spain, Isabella, into funding an expedition. Off to find the mystical Chinese courts that Marco Polo wrote about, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

That’s probably Marco Polo’s biggest legacy.

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