Certain personages in history tie-in together more than one Period or Civilization, and so prove useful “landmarks,” so to speak, when one attempts to wrap one’s head around something so gigantic as “World History.” My favorite example is Cleopatra, who serves as a way “in” to Egyptian History, Post-Alexander History, AND Roman History– and probably much more.
Another such figure is Marco Polo, who can serve us as a port-of-entry for: the High Middle Ages, the Venetian Empire, the Byzantium Empire, the Mongols, the Arabian “Spice Trade” Era, the Crusades, and China– just to name the most obvious.
The world of Marco Polo (who was about 46 years old in 1300) is still the world of the Knight. Gunpowder will not be used in battle for another hundred years or so. Dante was writing his Comedy. The Sun still went around the Earth, and the Holy Lands were seen as the natural and definite center of the world, with the lands on either side being divided into “the West” and “the East.” There was no New World, nor any idea of one– only Europe, Asia, and Africa. And Africa was still largely mysterious, with no one yet aware that there was a water-way around its southernmost tip– indeed, no one was aware that the enormous continent even HAD a southernmost tip.
The compass was a new gadget, and clocks were a rarity. Paper money, at least in Europe, can hardly be said to have existed. Much of the continent traded either in gold or silver, or else bartered goods for goods. Some places, like Venice, would use precious gems as stores of value and sometimes for exchange.
The world of Marco Polo was one in which his home City-State, Venice, was a world superpower. The might of Venice was not based on armies, but on its wealth and naval power. And its wealth was not based on the products it made and exported itself, but on its role as middle-man in the world economy. Venice was one of the few European states with large concerns in both the West and East– though nearly all of its domains consisted of ports and shorelines. Venice was, indeed, a Sea Empire– foreshadowing in some ways, the later Sea-and-Trade Island-Empire of Great Britain in the 1800s.
There are those who believe Marco Polo never really existed, but I doubt that doubting is correct. Still, it is true, as author Frances Wood states, that there is “not a single scrap of evidence” in the voluminous records of China that Marco Polo ever visited there, much less that he ever occupied a prestigious post in the Court of the great Kublai Khan.
There are also numerous things that Marco never mentions about China, things which one would think would be hard NOT to mention for someone of his day who actually visited there. Objects and activities such as: chopsticks, tea-drinking ceremonies, and foot-binding are never mentioned by him. Neither is the Great Wall… However, this last exclusion may not such a substantial oversight as it first would seem since the Wall, though some version of it had been around for centuries, did not achieve anything like its present, awe-inspiring form until about 1600.
Also, though Marco Polo probably saw the results of woodblock-printing, he seems not to have thought there was anything revolutionary about the concept of mechanical presses. A few centuries later, Europe would finally get around to using printing presses– and the resulting changes in society would be so enormous as to be beyond all reckoning.
Any portraits you might see of Marco Polo, by the way, are absolutely, one hundred percent NOT him. If anyone ever painted his likeness in his life-time– and it’s doubtful anyone did– such has been lost to time. Any portraits of Marco Polo are simply products of the imagination.
furthermore, though the evidence leads me to believe that there WAS a Marco Polo and that he DID travel to the Far East, I am equally convinced that much in his book of “Travels” is entirely fictitious or else, at best, learned second-hand. Interestingly, the experts tell us that Marco Polo uses the Persian and Turkish names for many places– not, say, their Chinese or Mongolian or local names– which leads to the reasonable conclusion that he got some of this tales from Persian or Turkish stories. Of course, one could probably come up with fairly reasonable excuses for why Polo opted for these names; for instance, we’re just about certain he never learned a Chinese language– Hell, why should he? Even Kublai Khan didn’t speak “Chinese.”
I think there’s a great untold story about the generation of traveling Polos BEFORE Marco– his father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo. These two adventuresome brothers (non-political, lower-end nobles apparently) spent decades traveling in the East– including all the years of Marco’s childhood and early adolescence. Indeed, Marco Polo never met his father until he was about 16 years old, when his father and uncle finally returned to Venice.
About a year or two before the return of Niccolo and Maffeo, Marco Polo’s mother had died, leaving the teenager, practically speaking, an orphan (though in those days, manhood was quick in coming to a lad). As far as we know, the elder Polos never wrote home to even verify that they were still alive, so young Marco may have thought he would have to make his way in the world on his own.
After their return home, Niccolo and Maffeo stay in Venice for some months. Then, when Marco is seventeen, they leave again, this time taking the boy– now a young man– with them. Turns out to have been a smart move, at least as far as lasting fame goes… We’d probably never have known the names of the elder Polos otherwise.
So, Marco Polo spends twenty-five years or so in the Orient, having his adventures (real or imaginary), and (probably) meeting and serving the ruler of China, Kublai Khan. Kublai (grandson of Genghis Khan) was not only the Emperor of China, but was acknowledged as the overall Great Khan of all Mongol-controlled territory.
When Marco Polo finally returns home, at around age 42, he isn’t around long before he is off on another adventure– though this one closer to home. At age 44, he outfits a ship and sails off to fight in the war between the longtime, sea-going adversaries, Venice and Genoa. The war goes badly, very badly, for the Venicians, and Marco Polo is taken captive. In prison, he has the marvellous good fortune of meeting the author of Arthurian-type romances, Rusticello of Pisa (whose most important fans included King Edward of England). According to what I’ve read, poor Rusticello had been in that Genoan prison for many years before Marco arrived.
Each man was just what the other needed to pass the time in prison productively. Marco Polo, using the travel-journals he was allowed to send to Venice for, relates his long, exotic tale to Rusty, and Rusty gets another best-seller out of the deal.
Marco is released within a year or so, now aged 45. I’m not sure what happened to Rusticello, but I like to think he was released as well.
Marco goes back to Venice, lives comfortably as a Venician nobleman, and dies in January 1324, at age 69 (or so we believe). He seems not to have made any money from Rusticello’s book, but he was rather famous — for a teller of tall tales– at the time of his death. One legend says that, on his deathbed, when asked if he would like to clear his conscience and admit that he had made up most of his travel adventures, Marco Polo is supposed to have responded, “I have not told you half of what I’ve seen!”
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Bergreen, Laurence: Marco Polo: From Venice To Xanadu
The True Story Of Marco Polo presented by Arthur Kent