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Marco Polo

Marco Polo (September 151254January 8 1324) was a Venetian trader and explorer who, together with his father and uncle, was one of the first Westerners to travel the Silk Road to China (which he called Cathay) and visited the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kubilai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan). His travels are written down in Il Milione ("The Milione", from Polo's family nickname Emilione, or The Travels of Marco Polo). Marco Polo is known as one of the world's greatest explorers — some skeptics see him as the world's greatest storyteller.

The Polos probably lived in China for seventeen years before returning to Venice. After his return, in a sea battle between Venice and Genoa, Marco was captured and taken to prison, where he dictated to Rustichello da Pisa the book Il Milione about his travels.


The first voyage

The Polo family had explorers other than Marco. His father Niccol˛ (also Nicol˛ in Venetian) and his uncle Maffeo (also Maffio) were prosperous merchants in the East trade. The two merchants set out to Asia in 1255, reached China in 1266, arriving at Khanbaliq (now Beijing). They returned from China as Kublai Khan's envoys with a letter for the Pope asking to be sent educated people to teach in his empire, to inform the Mongols about their way of life.

There is a tradition that the Polo family originated from the island of Korčula (then known as Curzola) in the Adriatic Sea. It is considered dubious as there is some factual evidence supporting these claims, and some evidence contrary to it, with no complete records that would help ascertain the truth. The city of Korčula still maintains an old house in which Marco was said to have been born. Regardless, the Polos gained prominence in Venice and are historically recorded as Venetians.

The second voyage

Marco Polo at the court of Kublai Khan
Marco Polo at the court of Kublai Khan

Matteo and Niccol˛ Polo set out on a second journey, with the Pope's response to Kublai Khan, in 1271. This time Niccol˛ took his son Marco who soon won the favour of Kublai Khan, who made Marco his adviser. Soon afterwards Marco became the Khan's emissary. In his seventeen years of service to the Khan, Marco Polo became acquainted with the vast regions of China and with numerous achievements of Chinese civilization, many of which were more advanced than similar contemporary European developments.

Il Milione

On their return from China in 1295, the family settled in Venice where they became a sensation and attracted crowds of listeners, who had difficulties in believing their reports of distant China. Since they did not believe him, Marco Polo invited them all to dinner one night during which the Polos dressed in the simple clothes of a peasant in China. Shortly before the crowds ate, the Polos opened their pockets to reveal hundreds of rubies and other jewels which they had received in Asia. Though they were much impressed, the people of Venice still doubted the Polos.

His restless spirit drove Marco Polo to take part in the naval battle of Curzola/Korčula between Genoa and Venice in 1298. He was captured by and spent the few months of his imprisonment dictating a detailed account of his travels in the then-unknown parts of the Far East. His book, Il Milione ("The Million"; known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo) was written in the Provenšal language and was soon translated into many European languages. The original is lost and we have several often-conflicting versions of the translations. The book became an instant success — quite an achievement in a time when printing was not known in Europe.

Did the trip really take place?

On his deathbed, a priest begged Marco to confess that he had lied in his stories. Marco refused, insisting, "I have not told half of what I saw!"

While most historians believe that Marco Polo did indeed reach China, in recent times some have proposed that he did not get that far, and only retold information he had heard from others. Those skeptics point out that, among other omissions, his account fails to mention Chinese writing, chopsticks, tea, foot binding, or the Great Wall. Also, Chinese records of the time do not mention him, despite the fact that he claimed to have served as a special emissary for Kublai Khan—which is puzzling, given the careful record-keeping in China at that time.

On the other hand, Marco describes other aspects of Far Eastern life in much detail: paper money, the Grand Canal, the structure of a Mongol army, tigers, the Imperial postal system. He also refers to Japan by its Chinese name "Zipang" or Cipangu. This is usually considered the first mention of Japan in Western literature.

Marco Polo is also believed to have described a bridge that was the site of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, a battle that marked the beginning of the Japanese invasion of north central China in World War II.

Historical impact

Although the Polos were by no means the first Europeans to reach China overland (see for example Giovanni da Pian del Carpini), thanks to Marco's book their trip was the first to be widely known, and the best-documented until then.

Legend has it that Marco Polo introduced to Italy some products from China, including ice cream, pizza, the pi˝ata and pasta, especially spaghetti. However, these legends are highly dubious — for instance, there is evidence that pasta was known in Italy since antiquity.

The airport in Venice, Italy is named Marco Polo International Airport. See also the Marcopolo satellites.

The travels of Marco Polo are given an extended fantasy treatment in the Irish writer Donn Byrne 's Mesuser Marco Polo. He also appears as the pivotal character in Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities.

The name Marco Polo was also given to a children's game — see Marco Polo (game) — and to a story in the science fiction series Doctor Who — see Marco Polo (Doctor Who) — and to a three-masted clipper ship built in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1851. The fastest ship of her day, Marco Polo was the first ship to sail around the world in under six months. Several ships of the Italian navy were named Marco Polo.

A popular childrens swimming-pool hide-and-go-seek game is called "Marco Polo".


  • Sir Henry Yule (Ed.): The Travels of Marco Polo Dover Publications, New York, 1983 [new edition of: London 1870]
  • Henry H. Hart: Marco Polo, Venetian Adventurer Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1967
  • Frances Wood , Did Marco Polo Go to China?, Westview Press , 1995
  • John Larner: Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World Yale Univ. Press, 1999

External links

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