Marco Polo: Venetian patron of travel

The name of Marco Polo, the legendary Venetian merchant and adventurer, is one that everyone now associates with travel and discovery. In the late 13th century, Marco travelled from Europe to Asia, including China, which he documented, for the first time, for a European audience. He suffered badly for what cynics assumed were his flights of fancy, such as paper money or urban planning, but, despite a sometimes sceptical reception, The Travels of Marco Polo became one of the world’s first bestsellers.

Marco was born in Venice into a family of merchants in a house later destroyed by a fire at Corte del Milion near the Rialto Bridge. In 1271, Marco’s father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo set off from Venice with 17 year-old Marco on an expedition headed to the Court of the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan. The travellers wouldn’t return to Venice for 25 years. Marco never clearly states the type of goods his family dealt in but he does write about establishing commercial relations with the imperial court of China.

Marco’s return to Venice in 1295 is nothing short of dramatic. His relatives and neighbours who had long thought him dead at first refuse to recognise him and then refuse to believe his outlandish stories. On top of that, he ends up in prison in Genoa, Venice’s historic rival, after becoming embroiled in a naval conflict between the two cities. It’s during his three years in Genoese prison that he, for lack of his own writing skills, dictates his travel stories to his cellmate and hack writer Rustichello da Pisa.

This is where Marco’s credibility deficit culminates. It’s possible that he himself preferred facts, but his ghost writer – the prolific writer of popular Arthurian romances and a man who could spin a tale – was more interested in hype. Marco’s travel memoirs thus feature some shameless embellishments as well as glaring omissions, such as his failure to mention the Great Wall of China. This has led to some scepticism and accusations that Marco was an armchair traveller who never made it to the Far East.

Marco’s account nevertheless did open new vistas to the European mind. His descriptions of the Far East set the tone for the great European voyages of discovery while his detailed localisations of spices encouraged Western merchants to break the old Arab trading monopoly. In his will, Marco wished to be buried in the Venetian church of San Lorenzo where, despite much digging, his tomb has never been found. The only obvious trace of Marco Polo in Venice today is the city’s modern airport named after him.