Polo, Marco

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Polo, Marco

Polo, Marco (1254-1324) Venetian explorer and travelogue writer

A merchant and traveler, Marco Polo provided the Western world with a late-medieval best seller, a documented description of the fabled Silk Road of Cathay (China) and a memoir of Kublai Khan, the emperor of China. In company with his well-traveled father, Niccold Polo, and uncle Maffeo, traders with the Byzantine Empire, 17-year-old Marco set out in 1271 to east central Asia with letters and oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre, a gift from Pope Gregory X at the khan’s request. The Polos made their odyssey overland via some 5,600 miles through Jerusalem, Armenia, Turkey, and Georgia, where they traversed battlegrounds once commandeered by Alexander the Great. They continued east to Persia, from where the New Testament writer Matthew indicated that the three magi set out to visit the Christ child, an apocryphal trio unnamed in the Christian gospels but in later western works called Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior.

Because of an innate intellectual curiosity, Polo adapted naturally to travel. After admiring the silk needlecraft of Persian women, he traveled over Afghanistan’s rugged terrain, the fine pasturage of Tibet, and Muslim enclaves skirting the Gobi Desert. He arrived in Inner Mongolia at Sachiu (present-day Dunhuang, China) in the fourth year of his trek. Along the route, he survived hostility on the strengths of his grace, lingual skill, and STORYTELLING ability, all of which later impressed the great khan, who entrusted him with diplomatic missions. For three years, Polo held the governorship of Yangzhou. He conducted a diplomatic mission to the Bagan empire in Burma, a rich coastal property that the Tartars considered adding to their empire. After 17 years, in 1291, the khan dispatched Marco Polo with Princess Koekecin and a fleet of 14 ships from Quanzhou to sail the South China Sea and around Vietnam to Java, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and India before delivering the princess to Persia to be married. The final sea leg introduced Polo to Madagascar, Mozambique, Zanzibar, and Abyssinia.

A Traveler's Stories

After his tour of many of the world’s empires— Abyssinian, Bagan, Islamic, Majapahitan, Mamluk, Mongolian, Papal, and Persian—Polo arrived in Venice in 1295 and described his journeys to incredulous listeners. He admired his mentor, Kublai Khan, the sixth lord of the Tartars and ruler of the world’s largest land-based empire. Most impressive to the traveler were the khan’s valor, wisdom, and suitability to the offices of emperor and commander of 360,000 cavalry and 100,000 infantry. Polo spoke of the khan’s failed expedition against Japan’s Kamakura shogunate in 1274 and again in 1281, when typhoons destroyed the Mongolian armadas. Among the marvels of China, a few stand out for their ingenuity—the khan’s portable silk and cane palace, paper currency and bank credit, bathrooms, and asbestos table napkins. The napkin that the Polos returned to the pope displayed the Petrine Supremacy worked in gold: “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam” (You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church; Polo 1931, 74), a reference to the commissioning of the beloved disciple that is sheathed in gold on the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The gesture illustrates the khan's willingness to study the beliefs of other cultures and to respect their symbols and scriptures.

To curious Venetians, Polo reported details of life in China, including priority mail service, canal transportation, and coal fires. He recited a memoir of Kublai Khan, whose power lay in charisma and sincerity toward his subjects: “When these peoples saw how worthily this lord exercised his dominion, and how good he was, they went most willingly with him” (79). He surprised his listeners by claiming that the size and complexity of the Chinese Empire dwarfed the realms of Europe.

Polo later commanded a war galley for Venice, which lost to the Genoese fleet at the Island of Curzola. In 1298, during incarceration as a prisoner of war of the Genoese, the romance writer Rustichello of Pisa wrote in Old French the travelogue dictated by his cell mate, later entitled The Travels of Marco Polo. At age 66, Polo wrote a new version of his travels in Italian. Among his fans was the explorer Christopher Columbus, who jotted notes in the margins of his copy. An Emmy-winning television series, Marco Polo (1982), starred Ken Marshall as the title figure alongside a starladen cast that included Burt Lancaster as Pope Gregory X and John Gielgud as the doge of Venice. A TV remake in 2007 cast Brian Dennehy as the great khan.


Haw, Stephen. Marco Polo in China: A Venetian in the

Realm of Khubilai Khan. New York: Routledge, 2006. Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Translated by

Aldo Ricci. London: George Routledge, 1931.