Essays On Marco Polo

Marco Polo 1254-1324

Italian merchant and traveller.

A Venetian merchant, Polo was among the first travellers to the East to provide an account of that region in a Western language. His narrative, The Travels of Marco Polo, met with skepticism and disbelief upon its circulation, as the region had only previously been written about in legends such as those of Alexander the Great, and by William of Rubrouck, a French Franciscan friar who wrote a missionary's account of his trip to Mongolia upon his return to France in 1255. Many of Polo's previously unsubstantiated observations and claims were, however, confirmed by later travellers and his work is now regarded by most scholars as the first accurate description of Asia by a European.

Biographical Information

Polo was born in Venice in 1254 while his father Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo were away on a trading voyage during which they first met Kublai Khan, the Emperor of Mongolia; they did not return to Italy until Polo was about fifteen years old. The elder Polos had been instructed by the Khan to solicit the Pope for Christian missionaries to be escorted back to the Emperor's court. The Polos were forced to wait until 1270 for a new pope, Gregory X, to be elected due to the failure of the cardinals to name a successor to Pope Clement IV following his death in 1268. Polo, now about seventeen years old, accompanied his father and uncle to Mongolia following the trio's presentation of the Khan's request to Pope Gregory X. After reaching the Khan's court and being employed in his service for a number of years, the Polos desired to return to Italy. The Khan was unwilling to release the merchants from his service, but complied with their request when they agreed to travel to Persia to escort a princess betrothed to the Khan's grand-nephew. The Polos completed their mission and then began their journey home, arriving in Venice in 1295 after a twenty-four-year absence. Soon after his return, Polo was appointed to command a ship in the war between the city-states of Venice and Genoa. His fleet was defeated and he arrived in Genoa as a political prisoner on October 16, 1298. Polo was released from prison in July of 1299. He lived in Venice until his death at the age of seventy.

Textual History

While he was in prison, Polo had dictated his account of his travels to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello. Scholars believe that Polo's original manuscript was translated, copied, and widely circulated following his release from prison in 1299. The language of the original manuscript is unknown and a topic of much debate. In 1320, Pipino made a Latin translation of Polo's Travels from a version written in an Italian dialect, implying that this dialect version was Polo's original. Giovanni Battista Ramusio, an Italian geographer whose edition of Polo's work was published in 1559 in a collection of travel accounts known as Navigationi et viaggi, believed that the original manuscript was written in Latin. Others have maintained that Polo's work was written in French or Franco-Italian. Another source of contention among critics regards the role played by Rustichello in the writing of Travels. Some critics argue that Rustichello copied a draft already completed by Polo, or transcribed the work as Polo dictated it. Others believe that Rustichello served as a collaborator and editor, rewording Polo's phrasing and adding commentary of his own. The manuscript regarded by many critics as the most complete is a French version known as fir. 1116, published by the French Geographic Society in 1824. Some critics have contended that fr. 1116 is a true transcript of Polo's dictation to Rustichello, but other scholars such as N. M. Penzer have argued that it does not represent a direct copy of Polo's work, asserting that another manuscript (referred to by Polian scholars as Z) may antedate fr. 1116. Other groups of Polian manuscripts studied for their authenticity and their relation to the original manuscript include the Grégoire version, which critics have suggested is perhaps an elaborated version of fr. 1116; the Tuscan Recension, an early fourteenth-century Tuscan translation of a Franco-Italian version of the original manuscript; and the Venetian Recension, a group of over eighty manuscripts which have been translated into the Venetian dialect. Travels was first translated into English by John Frampton in 1579. In the nineteenth century, scholars such as William Marsden, Henry Yule, and Luigi Benedetto began to publish revisions of the work that utilized information from several manuscripts to produce a more comprehensive edition of Travels. Since the original manuscript of Travels has never been recovered, the search for the version most directly descended from it continues.

Major Works

Polo's The Travels of Marco Polo, his first and only known work, provides readers with a detailed description of late thirteenth-century Asia. The work includes an account of Nicolo's and Maffeo's first journey to the residence of Kublai Khan; geographical descriptions of the countries between the Black Sea, the China Sea, and the Indian Ocean; and historical narratives about the Mongolian Empire's rise and expansion. Polo's Travels also relates the author's personal adventures and his association with Kublai Khan. Polo's tone throughout the narration is that of a commercial traveller reporting what he has seen and heard. He employs the same straightforward style in discussing his own experiences as he does when he relates hearsay, which he identifies as such. Polo focused his observations on aspects such as trade, political and military structures, religious customs relating to marriage and burial of the dead, and the architecture and layout of cities. His matter-of-fact tone in the narrative emphasizes the presentation of facts over the discussion of theories or ideas.

Critical Reception

Polo's first critics, the friends and relatives to whom he verbally related his journey, refused to believe what they considered to be outrageous exaggerations or pure fiction. Yet Polo's story was appealing for its entertainment value and was rapidly copied and distributed following its initial transcription. His account did not gain credibility until after his death, when further exploration proved many of his claims. Some modern critics have faulted Polo for omitting certain subjects from the narrative: for example, Polo never mentioned tea, the practice of binding women's feet, or the Great Wall, all of which were unheard of in Europe. Polo's defenders have countered that since the merchant had lived in Mongolia for twenty-four years, subjects that would seem strange or exotic to Europeans had become commonplace in Polo's life. Others have contended that such omissions could also have been made consciously or accidentally by translators of the work. Travels is often criticized on stylistic grounds as well, for instance for shifting back and forth between first and third person narration, but scholars attribute many such faults to the numerous times the work has been translated and copied. Although many critics assess Travels as simply a merchant's pragmatic account of his stay in the East, some, like Mary Campbell, maintain that the work offers the authority of first-hand experience and argue that its value extends beyond providing enjoyment through vicarious experience in that it transforms the myth of the East into reality.

Marco Polo is one of the outstanding travelers of all times. His travel to Asia lasted about twenty-four years. He travelled through China and beyond Mongolia. He described all his travels very detailed and these descriptions became the best journey stories.

Marco Polo was born in the noble family in 1254. The certain place of his birth is not still established. Some sources inform that he was born on the coast of Dalmatia while others inform that he was born in Venice. Marco got an ordinary education. He was good at theology of Latin Church. He knew French and Italian. He knew and understood the texts of the Bible.

Marco Polo’ father and uncle traveled at first time to Cathay. Cathay is the old name of China. Their journey lasted for 9 years. When Marco’s father and uncle returned, Marco was 15 years old. Marco’s mother died. After father’s return, Marco stayed with them for two years. After that Marco spent three years in the most undaunted travel to Cathay (China).

The way to Cathay was very difficult and risky. In 1271 the ship’s company, which consisted of Marco Polo’s father, uncle and two friars, got valuable presents for the Great Khan and started their travel to east. All those presents gave the new Pope Tedaldo (Gregory X). He wrote about the election of the new Pope Gregory X.   Marco Polo was 17 years old when he started his first big traveling. Their way ran through the war zone. The two friars came back. However, Marco stayed on the ship and continued with his journey. Their way ran through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamirs, the Silk Road to China.

While making comparison of the event and people in Marco Polo’s travels and from historic sources, we can see that really the Pope from 1271 to 1276 was Pope Tedaldo Visconti (Gregory X). Great Khan ruled at that time over the vast empire that extended from Central Asia into China. This fact is also proved by many history sources. The fact that the war was in 1271 is also improved by the history sources. In that time, Great Khan continued his expansion Mongolian territories.

Marco Polo visited many countries and described many religions. And he was admired with them. He liked to see at the Buddhist lamas and their magician skills. He told many new things to Great Khan. Great Khan liked Marco Polo because of his knowledge. Marco very detaled wrote about Kubai Khan’s attitude toward religion. He believed in many prophets: Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ and Mohamed. Kubai Khan told: “I respect and honour all four great Prophets who are reverenced and worshiped by the different classes of mankind. The Christians regard Jesus Christ as their divinity; the Saracens, Mahomet; the Jews, Moses and the idolaters, Sogomombar-kan, the most eminent amongst their idols. I do honour and show respect to all the four, and invoke to my aid, whichever amongst them is in truth supreme in haven”.

Marco Polo, in his book, described every town that he has visited and every new religion he has learnt. In historical sources we can see some proves that he really described his way to China.However, in many historic sources we can find evidences that can prove Polo’s words. As we know Marco Polo’s way ran through the Silk Road. At the time when English found this way, they proved that Marco Polo was right. When they saw the present Chinese desert (Marco Polo named it the Mingsha Dune), they proved Marco’s words too. They said that the desert whistled when the wind blew. Today, the scientists proved this fact and explained it. The desert whistles because of solid granite that is under the sands.            

The most interesting for me in this book was that Marco Polo at first learned about paper money. At that time all Europe used coins but China used paper money. It is a proved fact. We can see Marco’s description of it: “the people throughout the country the idolaters, and subjects of the grand khan. They burn the bodies of their dead and use paper money.”. In addition, in this paragraph he wrote about people from Singui-Matu and their religion traditions.

In China, Marco got to know about coal. Chinese had bathhouses and took the bath three times a week and in winter they took the bath every day. He described that the population of China was great. There were many people and everyone took the bath. At that time Europe used coal but not in a huge amount. It was new for Marco. He wrote: “It is true there is no scarcity of wood in the country, but the multitude of inhabitants is so immense, and their stoves and baths, which are they continually heating, so numerous, that quantity could not supply the demand; for there is no person who does not frequent the warm bath   at least three times in the week and during the winter daily, if its in their power. Every man of rank or wealth has one in his house for his own use; and the stock of wood must soon prove inadequate to such consumption; whereas these stones may be had in a great abundance and at cheap rate”.

His stories were very necessary for Europe. Before Marco Polo nobody explored remote lands. Marco Polo was the first. That is why his descriptions are so valuable.

We can see that the translator of ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ on every page made notes. He helped the reader to explain some descriptions and in addition, he proved some facts. He showed us at what time this event took part. It is very convenient because due to these notes we can define what was true and what Marco Polo’s imagination was. 

As for me, I think that Marco Polo’s stories are very reliable as a historical source. Some people think that it is very hard and boring to read ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ because he described every country and town, its location very carefully. We can see the evidence of it on the following statement: “Leaving the city of Yachi, and travelling ten days in a westerly direction, you reach the province of Karazan, which is also the name of its chief city”. He wrote a lot about religion, traditions and he did it very accurate too. He wrote about Kangigu, its people and their way of life in the following way: “Kangigu is a province situated towards the east, and is governed by a king. The people are idolaters, have a peculiar language, and made a voluntary submission to the grand khan, to whom they pay an annual tribute. The king is so devoted to sensual pleasures that he has about four hundred wives; and when he hears of any handsome woman, he sends for her, and adds her to the number, Gold is found here in large quantities, and also many kinds of drugs; but, being an inland country, distant from the sea, there is little opportunity of vending them”.  Sometimes the events in the book were not in the chronological order but due to the main events and descriptions we can understand about what period of time he said.

Marco Polo’s work was really great and inestimable. He showed to the Europe a new east. They did not know many interesting facts about east. They thought that east was a part of the world where the second-rate countries were located. However, in the east there were many towns which were richer and had more goods then some European countries. After his return and his stories some people did not believe in it. Even through centuries there were many theories about his journey. Some people said that he even never have been in China. In addition, some people said that it was his fantasies, the power and strength of Kubai-Khan. In reply of this he told: “I have not told half of what I saw”. He wrote many books and he could not contain all the information that he has known. However, some people found another evidenced and try to prove that Marco Polo was not in China at all. They affirmed that he was only in Persia and wrote about China due to Persian tales. They criticized him and told that he did not describe the Great Chinese Wall. I wanted to read about the Great Wall and tea ceremony in his books too. But I did not find anything. At first I started to doubt in Marco Polo’s truth. However, I remember the information which is a good proof of Marco Polo’s rightness. He could not write about the Great Wall because at that time there was no Great Wall. It was not great. The first stones of the present Great Wall were put 300 years B.C. However, till the 13th century, the time when Marco Polo visited the China, it was destroyed. The Great Wall which we can see nowadays was built in the 16th century.  

In my opinion, Marco Polo’s descriptions and his reflections on the events that took part at that time were completely normal and adequate. His books are the way of knowledge of the east world of those times. Of course, he did not have the compass and could not point the right direction with scientific words (using degrees of latitude or longitude), however with simple words he explained the location of the biggest cities and towns. My opinion is based on the previously mentioned evidences. In addition, the “hard historical facts” proves this too.

Marco Polo is the great traveler and writer of all times and as for me, nobody can be better in describing the world even with the best modern technologies.

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