Traveller; born at Venice in 1254; died there in 1324. His father Nicolo and his uncle Matteo, sons of the Venetian patrician, Andrea Polo, had established a house of business at Constantinople and another at Sudak on the shore of the Black Sea, in the southeast of the Crimea. About 1255 they left Constantinople with a consignment of jewels and after reaching Sudak went to the residence on the banks of the Volga of Barka (Bereke), Mongol Khan of Kiptchak, who welcomed them and paid them well for their wares. But war having broken out between Bereke and Hulagu, the Mongol conqueror of Persia, and Bereke having been defeated, the Venetians were at a loss how to return to their own country. Leaving Kiptchak they continued their journey towards the east, thus reaching Bokhara, where they stayed three years. Envoys from Hulagu to the Great Khan of Tatary passing through the town and finding these "Latins" who spoke the Tatar language induced them to accompany them to the residence of the great khan, which they reached only after a year's journey. Kublai, the great khan, was the most powerful of the descendants of Jenghiz Khan. While his brother Hulagu had received Iran, Armenia, and Egypt Kublai was master of Mongolia, Northern China, and Tibet, and was to conquer Southern China. This intelligent prince endeavoured to maintain intercourse with the West and favoured the Christians, whether Nestorians or Catholics. Hence Nicolo and Matteo Polo were well received by him, he questioned them with regard to the Christian states, the emperor, the pope, princes, knights, and their manner of fighting and confided to them letters to the pope in which he asked for Christian missionaries.
Accompanied by a Mongol "baron", the two brothers set out in 1266 and after three years of travel reached St.-Jean d'Acre in 1269. There the papal legate, Teobaldo Visconti, informed them that Clement IV was dead and they returned to Venice to await the election of a new pope. The cardinals not having reached a decision at the end of two years the brothers Polo determined to return, but this time they brought with them the youthful Marco, son of Nicolo, then aged eighteen. All three went to Acre to see the legate and request of him letters for the great khan, but they had scarcely left Acre when they learned that this same legate had been elected pope under the name of Gregory X (1 Sept., 1271). Overjoyed, they returned to Acre and the new pope gave them letters and appointed two Friars Preachers to accompany them. But while going through Armenia, they fell amid troops of the Mameluke Sultan Bibara the Arbelester, the monks refused to go further, and the Venetians continued their journey alone. It was only after three years and a half that, after having escaped all kinds of dangers, they reached the dwelling of Kublai, who received them probably at Yen King near the present Peking (1275). The great khan was delighted to see them once more; they presented him with the letters from the pope and some oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre.
Kublai conceived a great affection for the youthful Marco Polo, who readily adopted the Tatar custom and soon learned the four languages as well as the four writings of which they made use (probably Mongolian, Chinese, Persian, and Uighur). The great khan sent him on a mission six months' journey from his residence (probably to Annam) and the information he brought back with regard to the countries he traversed confirmed him in the good will of the sovereign. For three years he was governor of the city of Yang-chow (Janguy), on which twenty-seven cities were dependent. The question of his share in the siege of Siang-yâng and the engines of war constructed under his supervision are much more doubtful. According to Chinese historians the reduction of this city took place in 1273, prior to Marco Polo's arrival in China; on the other hand the details which he gives concerning Kublai's expedition against the Kingdom of Mien (Burma, 1282) leave it to be supposed that he participated therein. He was also charged with several missions to the Indian seas, Ceylon, and Cochin China. At last after having journeyed through almost the whole of Western Asia, the three Venetians obtained, but not without difficulty, the great khan's permission to return to their own country. They set sail with a fleet of fourteen four-masted ships and were charged with the escort of an imperial princess betrothed to Arghun, Khan of Persia. After a perilous voyage through the Sonda Strait and the Indian Ocean, they landed at Ormuz and after having delivered the princess to the son of the lately deceased Arghun they continued their journey by land as far as Trebizond, where they took ship for Constantinople, finally reaching Venice in 1295 after an absence of twenty-four years.
In costume and appearance they resembled Tatars; they had almost forgotten their native tongue and had much difficulty in making themselves recognized by their friends. Their wealth speedily aroused admiration, but their marvellous accounts were suspected of exaggeration. Marco, who was constantly talking of the great khan's millions, was nicknamed "Messer Millioni" and in the sixteenth century their dwelling was still called the "Corte de millioni". War having broken out between Genoa and Venice, Marco Polo was placed in command of a galley (1296), but the Venetian fleet having been destroyed in the Gulf of Lajazzo he was taken prisoner to Genoa. There he became associated with Rusticiano of Pisa, an adapter of French romances, who wrote down at his dictation the account of his travels. On his release from prison Marco Polo became a member of the Great Council of Venice and lived there till his death.
The "Book of Marco Polo" dictated to Rusticiano was compiled in French. A more correct version, revised by Marco Polo, was sent by him in 1307 to Thibaud of Cepoy, the agent of Charles of Valois at Venice, to be presented to that prince, who was a candidate for the Crown of Constantinople and the promoter of a crusading movement. The Latin, Venetian, and Tuscan versions are merely translations which are often faulty, or abridgments of the first two texts. The compilation of his book may be regarded as one of the most important events in the history of geographical discoveries. Hitherto Occidentals knew almost nothing of Asia; in his "Tresor" Brunetto Latini (1230-94) merely reproduces in this respect the compilations of C. Julius Solinus, the abbreviator of Pliny. The "Book of Marco Polo", on the other hand, contains an exact description by an intelligent and well-informed witness of all the countries of the Far East. It is characterized by the exactness and veracity of Venetian statesmen, whose education accustomed them to secure information with regard to various nations and to estimate their resources. This Venetian character extends even to the tone, which modern taste finds almost too impersonal. The author rarely appears on the scene and it is regrettable that he did not give more ample details concerning the missions with which he was charged by the great khan. Otherwise nothing could be more lifelike than the pictures and descriptions which adorn the account, and the naïvete of the old French enhances their literary charm.
In a prologue the author briefly relates the first journey of his father and uncle, their return to Venice, their second journey, their sojourn with the great khan, and their final return. The remainder of the work, which, in the editions is divided into three books, comprises the description of all the countries through which Marco Polo travelled or concerning which he was able to secure information. The first book treats hither Asia, Armenia, Turcomania, Georgia, the Kingdom of Mossul, the Caliphate of Bagdad, Persia, Beluchistan, etc. Curious details are given concerning the City of Bagdad and the fate of the last caliph, who died of hunger amid his treasures, and concerning the Old Man of the Mountain and his Assassins. He mentions the recollections in Bactria of Alexander the Great, whom the kings of the country regarded as their ancestor. Subsequently he describes Kashmir and the deserts of the plateau of Hindu Kush and Chinese Turkestan, "Great Turkey" and its capital, Kashgar. He mentions the Nestorian communities of Samarkand and after crossing the desert of Gobi reaches Karakoram, the old Mongol capital, which affords him the opportunity for an important digression regarding the origin and customs of the Tatars. Book II introduces us to the Court of Kublai Khan and we are given most curious information with regard to his capital, Kambalik (Peking), his magnificence, and the organization of his Government. We are shown with what facility the Mongols adopted Chinese etiquette and civilization. Then follows a description of the provinces of China, first of China north of Hwang-ho or Cathay, where there were stones which burned like wood (coal), then Si-ngan-fu, the ancient capital of Thâng (Shen-si), Tibet, into which he penetrated a distance of five days' walk, Sunnan, the Kingdom of Mien (Burma), Bengal, Annam, and Southeast China.
At the beginning of Book III he relates the great maritime expedition which Kublai Khan attempted against Zipangu (Japan) and which ended in defeat. Then he enters the Indian seas and describes the great island of Java and that of the lesser Java (Sumatra), Ceylon, in connection with which he speaks of the Buddhists and their reformer "Sagamoni Borcam" (Khakamouni). From here he goes to the coast of "Maabar" (Coromandel) and gives a full description of India. He mentions the existence of the island of Socotra and the large island of Madagascar, in connection with which he speaks of the regular currents of the Strait of Mozambique and relates the legend of the Roc, the fabulous bird of the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. He concludes with information concerning Zanzibar, the people of the coast of Zanguebar, Abyssinia, the Province of Aden, and the northern regions where the sun disappears for a period of the year. The "Book of Marco Polo" was soon translated into all European languages and exercised an important influence on the geographical discoveries of the fifteenth century. Christopher Columbus had read it attentively and it was to reach the western route to the lands described by Marco Polo that he undertook the expedition which resulted in the discovery of America.
Eighty-five manuscripts of the book showing rather important differences are known. They may be ranged into four types: (1) Paris, Bib. Nat., manuscript Tr. 1116, edited by the Societé de Géographie in 1824; it is regarded as the original manuscript of Rusticiano of Pisa, at least as its exact copy. (2) Bib. Nat., manuscript Tr. 2810. Under the name of "Libre des merveilles du monde" it is a collection of accounts of the Orient compiled in 1351 by the Benedictine Jean Lelong of Ypres and copied at the end of the fourteenth century for Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. It contains the text of Marco Polo according to the copy sent to Thibaud of Cepoy and is enriched with numerous miniatures. To the same family belong manuscripts Tr. of the Bib. Nat. 5631, 5649 and the Berne manuscript (Bib, canton. 125). (3) Latin version executed in the fourteenth century by Francesco Pipino, a Dominican of Bologna, according to an Italian copy. The Latin version published by Grynæus at Basle in 1532 in the "Novus orbis" is indirectly derived from this version. (4) Italian version prepared for printing by Giovanni Ramusio and published in the second volume of his "Navigazioni e viaggi" (3 vols. fol., Venice, 1539). Chief editions.—There are more than fifty-six of these in various languages. French text, ed. Pauthier (Paris, 1865); Italian version, ed. Baldelli (Florence, 1827); English tr. with commentary by Sir Henry Yule, revised by Henri Cordier (London, 1903).
CAHUN, Introd. à l'histoire de l'Asie (Paris, 1896); CURTIN, The Mongols (Boston, 1908).
APA citation. (1911). Marco Polo. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12217a.htm
MLA citation. "Marco Polo." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12217a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.