Marco Polo: a name that everyone associates with travel and discovery.
A lot of research has been conducted on the fabulous account of his journey to China in the 13th century, but not so much is known about Marco himself.
Venice, his homeland, has named its airport after him, but what traces of the traveler remain in the city?
So, let’s take a walk through Venice to discover more about Marco.
Who was Marco Polo? The Corte del Milion
The Polo family was first documented in Venice in the 11th century.
The family had two branches: one lived in the parish of San Geremia, and the other near the church of San Giovanni Crisostomo. This branch of the family was known as “Polo Emilioni”, hence the name “Corte del Milion” given to the two little squares that we can find near the Church of San Giovanni Crisostomo, not far from Rialto Bridge. The Polo family home was here; unfortunately it was destroyed by a fire in 1598 and later replaced by a theatre.
Recent archaeological excavations in the area have found traces of a large medieval mansion, and many decorations carved in stone around the corte date to the 13th century.
Marco’s father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo left Venice in 1260 to go to their brother’s house in Crimea: many Venetian merchants settled some family members either in Constantinople or on the Black Sea. From there the two elder Polos would start their first journey along the Silk Road.
Marco, born in 1254, wouldn’t see his father again until their return to Venice in 1269.
Niccolò and Maffeo remained in Venice for a few years waiting for the right moment to leave again. That moment came in 1271, and they took the 17-year-old Marco with them on an expedition headed to the Court of the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan.
The travellers didn’t return to Venice for 25 years, and, as we can easily imagine, they had a lot of extraordinary anecdotes to narrate upon their return. Thus the old family name “Emilione” changed into “Milion” (meaning “a million”) in reference to the treasure trove of stories and wealth that Marco had brought back from Asia. Even the account of his journey, compiled years later while he was being held prisoner in Genoa, was originally titled “Le devisement du monde” (“The description of the world”) but became popularly known in Italy as “Il Milion”.
How did the Polos reach China?
The Marciana Library and the Doge’s Palace
Niccolò, Maffeo and Marco first sailed from Venice to Ayas (today called Yumurtalik, in South-East Turkey). From there they went overland across Central Asia, crossing the Karakorum to reach the summer palace of Kublai Khan, North of Peking, in 1275.
On their way back in 1291, they sailed throughout South-East Asia and around India to Hormuz in present-day Iran. From there they travelled to the Black Sea overland and finally returned to Venice.
In the so-called “Room of Maps” in the Doge’s apartment, we can find a map commemorating Marco’s journey: his path through Asia can be followed… from the right to the left!
In fact, the map was painted upside down, with the south at the top. Why?
Let’s move to the nearby Marciana Library to clear up the confusion and find our bearings again.
In the antechamber to the main hall of the library you can see the “Map of the World” by Fra (Friar) Mauro, dating from around 1450. It’s an impressive depiction of the world known to Europeans before the discovery of the American continents, with a lot of inscriptions describing different places and peoples.
And it is upside down.
This is because many maps and compasses in the 15th century were derived from Islamic models, which placed the south at the top.
Fra Mauro used a lot of different sources to collect information for his work: from Greek and Roman geographers to Medieval merchants and travelers, including, of course, Marco Polo. Several passages from “Il Milion” are written on the map to describe places in Central and East Asia.
The geographer Giovan Battista Ramusio created a commemorative map for the Doge’s palace in 1540. Believing that Fra Mauro had seen a map drawn by Marco himself, Ramusio probably used the Friar’s world map as a model for his own.
Even when Francesco Griselini redrew the Ramusio map in the 18th century, he kept the original orientation.
Why did they go?
The Perfume Museum in Palazzo Mocenigo
Commercial relationships between Europe and China had existed since at least Roman times, but trade normally took place through the mediation of Middle Eastern merchants.
Central Asia, China, and South East Asia were sources of luxury goods such as silk, spices and precious gems, but rice would have been imported from Asia to Europe as well.
The Polos were not the first Europeans to reach China (the first travelers were missionaries, namely Giovanni da Pian del Carpine in 1245), but their enterprise was definitely unusual, pioneering, and forward-thinking.
In the late 1200s, attacks by Tatar tribes on the Eastern borders of the weakened Byzantine Empire had started to become a serious threat to the usual trade routes. This, together with political instability in Venice, led merchants like Niccolò and Maffeo Polo to try to establish new commercial relations directly with the court of the Kublai Khan.
Marco Polo never clearly states the type of goods his family dealt with. This is partly because merchants were often trading different items, but also because they preferred not to let other people know their businesses. Regardless, from several documents about Marco (like his will and the records of a trial) we know that he possessed a considerable amount of musk, the gland of an animal called musk deer, which was of extreme importance in the production of perfumes.
The Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo hosts an entire section dedicated to the art of perfume making in Venice.
What did they find in China?
The Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Treasury
One of the stone capitals on the southern facade of the Doge’s Palace is decorated with reliefs of human faces, one of them showing distinctively Mongolian features.
At the time of Marco Polo’s journey, China was actually under the dominion of the Mongols, Kublai Khan having defeated the Han Chinese Song Dynasty in 1279. The young Marco was tasked by Kublai Khan with traveling to the newly subjugated lands and reporting on what he found.
Though considered barbarians by the Han, the Mongols actually admired the refinement of the Song Dynasty. And for good reason: some of the most elegant artwork in the history of China was produced under their reign.
Tradition has it that a small porcelain vase and a glass dish in the Treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica were brought to Venice by Marco Polo himself. Although not yet dated, the small white vase in the treasury might be a product of the Song period, and, even though it’s possible that it arrived in Venice much later as a gift from an Ottoman sultan, the idea that we can still see a tangible memento of Marco’s journeys across China is definitely fascinating.
Where is Marco resting? The Church of San Lorenzo
Besides the account of his journey, the other document we have about Marco Polo is the will that he compiled in 1324, the same year as his death.
The will features a list of his possessions, including, of course, silk, musk, spices, Chinese robes and headdresses, yak hair (!), and the golden tablets given to him by Kublai Khan.
It also states that Marco wanted to be buried in the Church of San Lorenzo in the Castello district. Unfortunately, that church was deconsecrated in 1920 and consequently abandoned. Apparently there is no trace of the tomb of the famous traveler: another mystery left to solve!
“Marco Polo”, Marina Montesano, Salerno Editrice, 2014.
“Marco Polo digitale”