The Merchants of Venice
The Voyage Home
Man of a Million Lies?
A Note on Religion
A Note on the Texts
Map of Marco's Journey
The Merchants of Venice
When we think of Marco Polo, we generally imagine a European man alone in the world, travelling amongst foreigners. In fact throughout his travels, Marco travelled with his father, Niciolo, and uncle, Maffeo. Indeed these two men were seasoned explorers and traders long before Marco himself ever set foot in the world.
They had left Venice within the nine months before Marco was born and by 1260AD were trading in the Byzantine city of Constantinople. From there, Nicolo and Maffeo set sail for the Crimean port of Sudak in search of new markets for their wares. This was not that unusual at the time and indeed, Venetian traders had set up a long-standing local colony in Sudak. The third Polo brother, Marco Polo the elder, had a house there and it is reasonable to assume he would have had good links with traders further afield.
The Mongol invasions begun by Genghis Khan in 1206AD had established a large land empire stretching from Mongolia, throughout Asia, eastern Europe, India and China. Trading with Asia was commonplace but the links with China were not so well defined. The famous Silk Road that ran through China and central Asia dates back to the second century BC and since that time, Chinese goods such as cloths and spices had been brought to Egypt and Rome, although western travellers never undertook the long journey to the source. In China, at that time known as Cathay, Kublai Khan had set himself up as the Governor. Beyond that, very little was probably known of this strange land in the mysterious east.
Nicolo and Matteo travelled by caravan to the river Volga and the Mongol capital set up by Barka Khan, lord of the Western Tartars. Wares were sold and goods exchanged but on the return journey, the brothers became mixed up in a battle between Barka and a rival khan, Hulagu, lord of the Levant. Nicolo and Maffeo escaped to the town of Bukhara under the protection of Barka Khan, lord of Turkestan. From there they were invited to a meeting with Barka's overlord, Kublai, Khan of all the Tartars (the name given to the Mongols). According to records of that time, no European had ever set foot in China.
Kublai was a genial and interested host. Unlike his famous warrior ancestor, Genghis, Kublai was eager to learn about religions and foreign cultures and listened with interest to Nicolo and Matteo's tales. He invited them to return to the Pope and request that he send "a hundred men learned in the Christian religion, well versed in the seven arts, and able to demonstrate the superiority of their own beliefs". A gold block was given to them, a pass inscribed with orders to any of Kublai's subjects that they came across to grant them safe passage, lodgings, fresh horses and escorts if requested. By these means they returned to the Crusader town of Acre. But their mission to seek an audience with the Pope was lost - Pope Clement IV had already passed away.
The two brothers returned to Venice in 1269, their first visit there in fifteen years. We can only guess at Nicolo's reaction to discovering his wife had died years earlier leaving him a son, Marco, born in 1254. When Nicolo and Maffeo set off again in 1271, Marco the younger joined them. But the two brothers had been left in an awkward position. The pope had died recently and in order to complete their promised mission to Kublai, they sought an audience instead with the Papal legate, Tedaldo Visconti. He advised them to continue with their journey but shortly after they had set out, they were recalled to Acre. A new Pope, the former Papal Legate had been ordained and renamed Pope Gregory X.
Gregory was naturally delighted to hear news of possible new recruits to the Christian faith, but instead of a hundred men, he selected two. They had not travelled far when the two missionaries sent by the Pope gave up. The two friars were obviously not made of strong stuff and both dropped back and returned while the Polo's pressed on. It is from this point on that the writer, Rustichello, takes up the story of Marco Polo's travels