Did Marco Polo go to China?
In 1271, the merchants Niccolò and Maffeo Polo left their native city of Venice and set sail for the east. The two brothers had done business in Constantinople and in the Crimea, and they had already visited the lands of the Mongols. In fact, when they returned to Europe in 1269 they carried a message from Kublai Khan to the pope in Rome. Having delivered the letter, they were now on their way back to the East. They had a paiza with them, a small tablet in gold, which gave them free passage, lodgings and horses throughout Mongol lands. With them as they left Venice was also Niccolò’s son, Marco, who was 17 years old at the time.
Marco Polo was to find particular favor with the Great Khan who made him an official at his court. He learned to speak Mongolian together with several other languages and he traveled around the vast empire visiting lands which no European previously had seen. His account of the splendors of the khan’s palace is particularly famous, together with his description of Kinsay, the city of Hangzhou in the south, with its 12,000 bridges, wide roads and magnificent architecture. The Polos came back to Venice as wealthy men and the stories Marco told of his adventures amazed everyone who heard them. He was known as Il milione, referring to the millions of marvelous tales he would tell his astonished European audience.
Yet it may be that Marco Polo never actually visited China. It is striking, for example, how he never mentions Chinese customs such as foot-binding or tea-drinking, and it is strange that place-names consistently are given in Persian rather than in Mongol or Chinese. This is not, however, a reason to dismiss the text as such. Despite omissions and mistakes, it contains many details which we know from other sources to be correct.
Marco Polo’s book – or the book associated with a person by that name – had a tremendous impact on European readers, stirring up elaborate fantasies of the exotic East. The most famous reader was perhaps Christopher Columbus who had his own copy of the book – on which he had scribbled extensive handwritten notes in the margins (see the picture above).
In Our Time: “Marco Polo”
The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, concerning the kingdoms and marvels of the East, volume 1