Marco Polo was born in 1254. By the time of his death in 1324, he was wealthier than any of his close relatives had ever been. The history behind Marco the Traveler, as he came to be known during his lifetime, is one of relative mystery. We know much about his travels through Asia from his timeless literary work, The Travels of Marco Polo, or Le Divisament dou monde, as it was originally titled. This is the first modern travel account of his time. It presented a great stylistic and thematic change from other, more popular, forms of medieval travel writing. This is not, however, enough to know the life and doings of the real person behind his work.
Marco Polo: The Man Behind the Story
Although much is assumed about the adventurous life of our hero, Marco Polo is, in reality, a distant and uncertain character, so much so that his contemporaries would have perceived his various discoveries with the same sense of wonder and mystery as we do now. Europeans at the time also met his discoveries with a certain skepticism, at least in the impressions of his literary work.
This work, nevertheless, also became a tool of importance and value for those that wanted to venture East into the lands of the Mongol Empire; the descriptions and minute accounts of Marco’s discoveries became invaluable for merchants, crusaders, and travelers alike. Marco Polo was indeed an outlier. His talent, in truth, stems from a rich family tradition, that of a family of Venetian merchants. Marco applied the inquisitive eye of an explorer and a merchant in everything he came across, thus transmitting his discoveries in a factual and accurate way hitherto unknown in the most popular European travel literature.
Beginnings of the Family Ventures
Marco Polo (or Marco the Traveler) was born into a family of merchants in Venice. The republic at the time enjoyed considerable wealth in the Mediterranean world; it was one of the major trading ports in Europe. Thus, the older generation of Polos (Marco the Traveler’s father and two uncles) had extensive experience to pass down to the younger generation. The Polo family conducted business in the existence of a fraterna compagnia which was initially composed of the three elder Polos. They conducted trading operations in the Black Sea or the Eastern Mediterranean, in which all three elder brothers possibly took part.
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The fraterna compagnia warrants some clarification here. It varied in composition through time, but it assimilated various members of both generations of Polos. After Marco senior took a non-traveling role in the family ventures—when he settled in the Black Sea—Niccolò Sr. and Maffeo Sr. continued their partnership. After 1295—Marco Sr. possibly passed away sometime earlier—had left his properties to his son, Niccolò Jr.
A later business fellowship was formed, attested in 1310; Maffeo Sr. and the brothers Maffeo Jr. and Marco the Traveler had joined in a special agreement of some unknown kind. In this, the three had agreed to divide the proceeds and movables of their trading ventures (we are not told which ones specifically) between them into three equal parts. The fraterna compagnia did not cover all movable wealth, nor their immovables, such as the jointly-owned manor at San Giovanni Grisostomo, in Venice. After 1310, Marco Jr. remained the only legitimate heir of the partnership, which provided him with the inheritance of the joint wealth of much of the business activities of the previous years.
Two Generations of Polos & the Mongol’s Commercial Empire
In this initial journey, the Polos made modest profits from trading goods acquired in Asia, which were then brought back to Venice—or traded along the way—where there was a demand for luxurious, exotic goods. They returned to Venice in 1269. Having completed this venture, the elder brothers probably concluded that their trading business had been quite successful or that it offered possibilities for further missions; they planned a new venture out into Mongol Asia. Maffeo Sr. and Niccolò Sr. left Venice again and arrived in Soldaia—in Marco Sr.’s property in the Black Sea—in 1271, this time with Marco Jr., the Traveler.
The elder Polos had probably been in contact with the Golden Horde, one of the later partitions of the Mongol Empire (this having been founded by Qubilai qaghan’s grandfather, Genghis) sometime before 1261. They arrived at these lands after being unable to trace their steps back to Constantinople and decided to continue east to Central Asia. This was the first contact the Polos had with the Mongol Empire.
The three Polos left Acre in the same year with crystal objects to be delivered to Qubilai from the pope-elect Gregory; this, it could be said, was the beginning of the close relationship between Marco the Traveler and the most powerful Mongol qaghan of the Far East, Qubilai.
Marco Jr. probably spent about 24 years traveling through Asia, and for a great part of this journey, he was alone. The elder Polos, Maffeo Sr. and Niccolò Sr., returned to Venice at some point without Marco Jr., but we cannot be certain of this. On their way back from Asia, they probably resided in the villa at Soldaia in 1288, as some records seem to suggest.
Meanwhile, Marco was entrusted with missions from Qubilai qaghan’s court. These required rigorous reports on commercial and industrial activities. This is the main way by which Marco the Traveler knew the world around him so well and with such minute precision. He spent about 17 years in the service of the qaghan, mostly traveling abroad to the ports of southern India.
On his return to Venice, Marco traveled with some goods that were valuable and easy to transport. We cannot be certain of exactly how long the journey took, but we can estimate about three years. We are further told that the three passed the Greek state of Trebizond in Asia Minor in 1295. He probably arrived back in Venice in the same year.
Marco Polo’s Capture
By the time of his arrival, Genoa was at war with Venice and Pisa. As a consequence of which, Polo was captured and imprisoned in a Genoese jail. However, we cannot be sure of the way in which he was apprehended because the accounts that narrate his capture differ in the sources. One of them tells us that Marco was captured in a naval battle in 1294 in Laiazzo, the main port of Cilician Armenia, after which the Venetian prisoners were released from Genoese imprisonment, except for 100 of them.
This version of events would exclude that of Marco the Traveler himself, which narrates his return to Venice from Asia through Constantinople and Negroponte, both of which are a far distance away from Laiazzo. The probability that he was captured in this military campaign is rather small, not only for its geographic inconsistency but also due to the very likelihood that he would not have wanted to volunteer in the military service after his long voyage.
Another version is that he was captured at the naval battle of Curzola in 1298, which seems to be a more plausible event, than that of Laiazzo. The capture at Curzola still seems unlikely, as Marco would have been 44 years old and he also would have volunteered in order to participate in battle, all of this after a 24-year-long journey through Asia. The most likely event is that he was captured while on a commercial journey, for we know that he continued to engage in trade activities after his return to Venice. This would mean that he was captured for the simple reason of being a Venetian citizen. He probably engaged in a trading venture in the Mediterranean at the time of his capture.
The Travels: A Sound Work of Unknown Purpose
Sadly, there are many different versions; editions span several centuries, and they conform to certain standards of the time and region where they were published. For example, we know of one edition that was copied in the context of a probable crusade, which would have been used to gain the friendship of the Mongols of the near east and contemplate an alliance with them. This complicates the vital issue of knowing what the original manuscript intended; we do have an inkling of it, as described above, but we are far from the original manuscript.
Not many of Polo’s life achievements are reflected in his literary work. The reception of his Travels was skeptical to an extent. Not having heard of the Far East, his contemporaries questioned that the existence of the peoples outside Christendom could be as civilized and with such sophisticated institutions as the ones reported by Marco the Traveler. Europeans of the time believed that Christian Europe was the most advanced and civilized part of the world and that this could not be the case elsewhere, where Christianity had not yet reached. On the other hand, The Travels portray non-Christian peoples as foreign as they were unlikely to be ever met, but we probably owe this to Rusticello’s hand in the project, as it was fashionable then—and this was the case with other literary works, such as Sir John Mandeville’s Travels.
The Final Years of Marco Polo’s Life in Venice
Marco Polo spent the last years of his life comfortably in Venice, enjoying a highly regarded reputation. He became, in the end, heir to all the wealth accumulated by the fraterna compagnia. Later, however, he acted as an investment partner in other trading ventures and several business activities and [replkaced by:] but no longer traveled, as shown by some documental evidence in 1344, when Marco was sixty years old.
Marco died in Venice in 1354, at the age of 70. He owned large amounts of trading goods of unknown origin, among which included deer musk, a highly valuable product in Venice at the time, that could only be obtained in China or Tibet. He also owned several souvenirs that were not considered commercial goods; these included “a large golden tablet of authority,” known then as a paiza or p’ai-tzu. This was provided to agents of the qaghan in order to conduct business in his name, thus proving the close relationship between Marco the Traveler and Qubilai. Numerous silks, Asian costumes of uncertain origin, and valuable porcelain pieces. In short, he was a wealthy man, probably a member of the elite of Venice’s trade culture.
Thus, our understanding of who Marco Polo was remains uncertain. It is not only the lack of evidence that makes us hesitate when trying to draw definitive conclusions, but the sheer complexity of this evidence will make us stagger in our pursuit of the truth. Moreover, we seem to only be able to place Marco the Traveler in the world with the necessary context of business records, family relations, and broader historical events. This is what allows us to trace the real individual behind the literary work.