Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

By LAURENCE BERGREEN

Marco Polo came of age in a city of night edging toward dawn; it was opaque, secretive and rife with transgressions and superstitions. This description of Polo’s native Venice, from Laurence Bergreen’s vivid biography of the famous 13th-century traveler, is as romantic as any inspired by that fabled city. And it’s in keeping with the book’s emphasis on the exhilarating spectacle of Marco Polo’s breakthrough travels. Not that there’s any lack of detail about the restless career of the man himself, which truly began when his ambitious father took him thousands of miles to offer young Marco up as human tribute to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. But the heart of the book is in the profusion of magnificent episodes: the dangers of the Silk Road, the battle scenes (elephants vs. mounted archers), and the legendary grandeur of Kublai’s palace. Indeed, “legendary” is a key concept here: as Bergreen notes, the further into Asia Polo traveled, the more his reports on his destination verged on the fabulous. Luckily, for readers of this entertaining and richly detailed portrait, the pleasure is all in the journey itself. -