Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

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As the first European to travel extensively throughout Asia, Marco Polo was the earliest bridge between East and West. His famous journeys took him across the boundaries of the known world, along the dangerous Silk Road, and into the court of Kublai Kahn, where he won the trust of the most feared and reviled leader of his day. Polo introduced the cultural riches of China to Europe, spawning centuries of Western fascination with Asia.

In this lively blend of history, biography, ...

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Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

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As the first European to travel extensively throughout Asia, Marco Polo was the earliest bridge between East and West. His famous journeys took him across the boundaries of the known world, along the dangerous Silk Road, and into the court of Kublai Kahn, where he won the trust of the most feared and reviled leader of his day. Polo introduced the cultural riches of China to Europe, spawning centuries of Western fascination with Asia.

In this lively blend of history, biography, and travelogue, acclaimed author Laurence Bergreen separates myth from history, creating the most authoritative account yet of Polo's remarkable adventures. Exceptionally narrated and written with a discerning eye for detail, Marco Polo is as riveting as the life it describes.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Sumptuous. . . . A full-blooded rendition of Polo's astonishingh journey. . . . Richly researched and vividly conveyed.” —The Washington Post Book World“Fascinating. . . . Richly detailed and illuminating, a window into the most exotic of places and times.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer“As enthralling as a rollicking travel journal. . . . The world [Polo] encountered was stranger than any fable.” —The New York Times Book Review “With his polished, authoritative storytelling, Bergreen makes the world of Marco Polo very permanent.” —Entertainment Weekly
Bruce Barcott
Few famous names have as much vagueness attached to their exploits…Marco Polo opened Asia to European trade, so we're told, but we generally don't know much else. Laurence Bergreen remedies that by bolstering Polo's reputation and arguing for his historical importance in a book as enthralling as a rollicking travel journal. Bergreen, who has written biographies of Louis Armstrong, James Agee and Irving Berlin, turned his attention to ancient explorers with Over the Edge of the World, which tracked Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe. I was a fan of that book, but Marco Polo far outshines it, and not surprisingly. Marco Polo, unlike Magellan, left his biographers a masterpiece of a memoir to work with.
—The New York Times
Colin Thubron
Of all the travelogues ever published, none is more ambitious, controversial and erratic than Marco Polo's Description of the World. During the century after it was written, it appeared in some 120 manuscripts, none of them identical. It is riddled with legends and half-truths. Its chronology is haphazard, its personal history unsubstantiated. It is full of wonders later revealed to be true and others that remain absurd. Even now, it is probably incomplete. In Polo's lifetime, children are said to have followed him through the alleys of Venice chanting, "Messer Marco, tell us another lie!" In Marco Polo, Laurence Bergreen gives a full-blooded rendition of Polo's astonishing journey. It is richly researched and vividly conveyed. He has, by his own account, tinkered a little with chronology and has adopted—and seems to believe—the longest and most personal of the many narrative versions.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Even in his own day, the famed 13th-century travel writer Marco Polo was mocked as a purveyor of tall tales-gem-encrusted clothes, nude temple dancing girls, screaming tarantulas-in his narrative of his journey to the Chinese court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. In this engrossing biography, Bergreen (James Agee: A Life), while allowing that "mere facts... were never enough for Marco," finds him a roughly accurate and perceptive witness (aside from the romantic embellishments and outright fabrications concocted with his collaborator Rustichello of Pisa) who painted an influential and unusually sympathetic portrait of the much-feared Mongols. Bergreen follows Polo's disjointed commentary on everything from Chinese tax policy to asbestos manufacturing, crocodile hunting and Asian sexual mores-Polo was especially taken with the practice of sharing one's wife with passing travelers-while deftly glossing it with scholarship. Less convincing is Bergreen's attempt to add depth to Polo's "lurid taste and over-heated imagination" by portraying him as both a prophet of globalization and a "pilgrim and explorer of the spirit." Polo's spiritual trek didn't take him very far, since he ended his days back in Venice as a greedy, litigious merchant. Still, the result is a long, strange, illuminating trip. 16 pages of photos, 3 maps. (Oct. 25)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Bill Tipper
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400078806
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/21/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 255,847
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Laurence Bergreen is a prize-winning biographer and historian. His books have been translated into fifteen languages worldwide. His last book, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, was a New York Times "Notable Book" for 2003 and a bestseller. He has written for many national publications including Esquire, Newsweek, and The Chicago Tribune. Mr. Bergreen graduated from Harvard in 1972. He is a member of PEN American Center, and is a trustee of the New York Society Library. He lives in New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Merchants of Venice  

Then all the charm
Is broken—all that phantom-world so fair
Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread. . . .  

She hid from her enemies amid a seductive array of islands, 118 in all. Damp, dark, cloistered, and crowded, she perched on rocks and silt. Fortifications and spectacular residences rose on foundations of pinewood piles and Istrian stone. In Marco Polo's Venice, few edifices—with the exception of one huge Byzantine basilica and other large churches—stood entirely straight; most structures seemed to rise uncertainly from the water.  

Marco Polo came of age in a city of night edging toward dawn; it was opaque, secretive, and rife with transgressions and superstitions. Even those who had lived their entire lives in Venice became disoriented as they wandered down blind alleys that turned without warning from familiar to sinister. The whispers of conspiracy and the laughter of intimacy echoed through narrow passageways from invisible sources; behind dim windows, candles and torches flickered discreetly. In the evening, cobwebs of mist arose from the canals, imposing silence and isolation, obscuring the lanterns in the streets or in windows overlooking the gently heaving canals. Rats were everywhere—emerging from the canals, scurrying along the wharves and streets, gnawing at the city's fragile infrastructure, bringing the plague with them.  

The narrow streets and passageways, some barely shoulder-width, took bewildering twists and turns until, without warning, they opened to the broad expanse of the Grand Canal, which divided one-half of the city from the other before running into the lagoon and, beyond that, the expanses of the Adriatic Sea.  

In winter, the city hosted Carnival (literally, the playful "bidding farewell to meat" before Lent). Carnival became the occasion for orgies taking place just out of sight behind high courtyard walls and opaque curtains. Rumors of foul play ran rife amid the gaiety and sensuality of the Republic. Venetians bent on evil preferred quiet means of imposing death, such as poisoning or strangulation, and they usually got away with it.  

In an uncertain world, thirteenth-century Venetians could feel certain of a few things. Two hundred years before Copernicus and three hundred before Galileo, it was an article of faith that the Sun revolved around the Earth, that the heavenly spheres were perfectly smooth, and that Creation occurred exactly 4,484 years before Rome was founded. Jerusalem was considered "the navel of the world." Entrances to Heaven and Hell existed, somewhere.   The day, for most people, was subdivided into times for prayer: matins at midnight, lauds three hours later, prime at daybreak, terce at midmorning, sext at noon, none at midafternoon, vespers at sunset, and, at bedtime, compline. In the Age of Faith, science consisted largely but not entirely of spurious pursuits such as alchemy—the effort to transmute so-called base metals into gold—and astrology, which went hand in hand with astronomy.  

People depended on wind, water, and animals for power. In Western Europe, coal had yet to be exploited as an energy source; paper money and the printing press also lay two hundred years in the future. The most advanced technology consisted of ships—considered a marvel of transport, though very dangerous—and devices capable of sawing wood, pressing olives, and tanning hides.  

Throughout Europe, travel was exceedingly slow and hazardous. Crossing the English Channel was a dreaded undertaking; those who completed the ordeal would claim that the effort had impaired their health. Over land, people moved no faster than a horse could take them; the average land journey covered eight to ten miles a day, or under special circumstances, for brief durations, fifteen to twenty miles. Superstition led those who undertook such journeys to seek shelter at nightfall in primitive inns, infested with vermin, where two or three sojourners shared a single bed. It took five harrowing weeks to ride by cart from Paris to Venice.  

But in Venice, conditions were very different. Tiny in size, yet global in outlook, Venice was entering the Late Middle Ages, a period of economic expansion, cultural achievement, and the lowering of barriers to commercial activity. Travel was not the exception, it was the norm. Everyone in Venice, it seemed, was a traveler and a merchant, or aspired to be. Across Europe, political power, formerly scattered among disorganized and crumbling empires reaching back to Roman times, had coalesced in well-armed and well-organized city-states, such as Venice. The growth in commerce among European city-states contributed to rapid advances in art, technology, exploration, and finance. The compass and clock, windmill and watermill—all vital to the smooth functioning of European economies—came into being, and great universities that survive to this day were being founded. As a result of all these advances, Venice—indeed, all of Europe as we know it—began to emerge.  

Venice—seductive, Byzantine, and water-bound—was among the most important centers of commerce and culture in thirteenth-century Europe, a flourishing city-state that lived by trade. Her economy thrived thanks to her aggressive navy, which vigorously defended the city from repeated onslaughts by rapacious Genoese rivals and Arab marauders. Unlike other medieval cities, Venice had no walls or gates. They were not necessary. The lagoon and swamps protected Venice from invaders by land or by sea.  

As the gateway to the riches of the East, Venice gave rise to a sophisticated merchant aristocracy, including the Polo family, known for frequent journeys to the East, especially Constantinople, in search of jewels, silks, and spices. Venice was highly structured, fiercely independent and commercial, and based on a unique combination of feudal obligation, and global outlook.  

Because Venice was compact, hemmed in by the lagoon and by its enemies, the sense of common cause among its inhabitants was strong. "By virtually confining the Venetians to so restricted a space," says the historian John Julius Norwich, "it had created in them a unique spirit of cohesion and cooperation . . . not only at times of national crisis but also, and still more impressively, in the day-to-day handling of their affairs. Among Venice's rich merchant aristocracy everyone knew everyone else, and close acquaintance led to mutual trust of a kind that in other cities seldom extended far outside the family circle."  

As a result, Venetians developed a reputation for efficient and thorough business administration—the most advanced in Europe. "A trading venture," Norwich says, "even one that involved immense initial outlay, several years' duration, and considerable risk, could be arranged on the Rialto in a matter of hours. It might take the form of a simple partnership between two merchants, or that of a large corporation of the kind needed to finance a full-sized fleet or trans-Asiatic caravan." Either way, Norwich concludes, "it would be founded on trust, and it would be inviolable."  

The contractual underpinnings of a journey such as the one undertaken by the Polo family to China were a bit more formal than a mere handshake or oath. Marco Polo came of age in a city teeming with commerce. Venetian merchants had developed all sorts of strategies for dealing with the vagaries of their livelihood, global trade. In the absence of standard exchange rates, the many types of coins in use created a nightmare of conversion. The Byzantine Empire had its bezants, Arabic lands their drachmas, Florence its florins. Venice, relying on the ratio of gold to silver in a given coin to determine its true value, tried to accommodate them all. Merchants such as the Polos sought to circumvent the vexed system of coins, with its inevitable confusion and debasement, by trading in gems such as rubies and sapphires, and in pearls.  

To meet these sophisticated and exotic financial needs, Venice developed the most advanced banking system in Western Europe. Banks of deposit on the Continent originated there. In 1156, the Republic of Venice became the first state since antiquity to raise a public loan. It also passed the first banking laws in Europe to regulate the nascent banking industry. As a result of these innovations, Venice offered the most advanced business practices in Europe.  

Venice adapted Roman contracts to the needs of merchants trading with the East. Sophisticated sea-loan and sea-exchange contracts spelled out obligations between shipowners and merchants, and even offered insurance—mandatory in Venice beginning in 1253. The most widespread type of agreement among merchants was the commenda, or, in Venetian dialect, the collegantia, a contract based on ancient models. Loosely translated, the term meant "business venture," and it reflected prevailing customs of the trade rather than a set of consistent legal principles. Although these twelfth- and thirteenth-century contracts seem antiquated, they are startlingly modern in their calls for precise accounting. Contracts like these reflected and sustained a rudimentary form of capitalism long before the concept came into existence.  

For Venetians, the world was startlingly modern in another way: it was "flat," that is to say, globally connected across boundaries and borders, both natural and artificial. They saw the world as a network of endlessly changing trade routes and opportunities extending over land and sea. By ship or caravan, Venetian merchants traveled to the four corners of the world in search of valuable spices, gems, and fabrics. Through their enterprise, minerals, salt, wax, drugs, camphor, gum arabic, myrrh, sandalwood, cinnamon, nutmeg, grapes, figs, pomegranates, fabrics (especially silk), hides, weapons, ivory, wool, ostrich and parrot feathers, pearls, iron, copper, gold dust, gold bars, silver bars, and Asian slaves all poured into Venice via complex trade routes from Africa, the Middle East, and Western Europe.  

Even more exotic items flowed into the city aboard foreign galleys. Huge marble columns, pedestals, panels, and blocks piled up on the docks, having been taken from some ruined temple or civic edifice in Constantinopole, or another Greek or Egyptian city. These remnants of antiquity, the very headstones of dead or moribund civilizations, would wind up in an obscure corner of the Piazza San Marco, or on the façade of some ostentatious palazzo inhabited by a duke or a wealthy merchant of Venice.  

The variety of goods moved Shakespeare to observe, through the character Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, that "the trade and profit of the city / Consisteth of all nations." Venetian trade was synonymous with globalization—another embryonic concept of the era. To extend their reach, Venetians formed partnerships with distant governments and merchants that cut across racial and religious divisions. Arabs, Jews, Turks, Greeks, and eventually the Mongols became trading partners with Venice even when they seemed to be political enemies. The Polos were not the first merchants to travel from Venice to Asia, but thanks to Marco Polo's exploits, they became the most celebrated.  

Wherever Venetians went, they announced themselves with their distinctive accent and dialect, veneto. This tongue, like other Romance languages, was based on Latin, and it incorporated vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation from other languages-some German and Spanish (in the form of the Castilian s, pronounced "th"), and some Croatian. There was even a little French thrown into the mix. There are lots of x's and z's in veneto, but almost no l's. Lord Byron, who claimed to have enjoyed two hundred women in Venice in as many consecutive evenings, called veneto a "sweet bastard Latin." To further complicate matters, veneto had numerous variants. The Polos of Venice would have strained to understand the dialect spoken elsewhere in the area by the inhabitants of Padua, Treviso, or Verona.  

Some distinctive words in Marco Polo's world have leapt from veneto to English. Venetians of Polo's day bade each other ciao—or, to be more precise, s ciavo or s ciao vostro—which means, literally, "I am your slave." (The word came into the Venetian language from Croatian.) Gondola is another Venetian word, although it is not clear when the long, elegant, black vessel itself came into use. It is likely that in Marco Polo's day, a wide variety of small craft, including sailboats, rowboats, and galleys, jostled one another in the city's winding canals.  

And "arsenal," or a place where weapons are manufactured and stored, entered the Venetian language by way of the Arabic term dar al sina'ah, meaning "workshop." When Europeans of Marco Polo's era employed this word, they meant the Arsenal in Venice, renowned as a center of shipbuilding. Here shipwrights operated an early assembly line devoted to turning out galleys at a furious rate from standardized, prefabricated components such as keels and masts. A Spanish visitor named Pero Tafur described the precisely choreographed activity devoted to launching the galleys: "out came a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows they came out to them, from one the cordage, from another the bread, from another the arms, and from another the ballistas and mortars, and so from all sides everything that was required. And when the galley had reached the end of the street all the men required were on board, together with the complement of oars, and she was equipped from end to end."  

Tafur counted the launching of ten "fully-armed" galleys within a six-hour span: one new warship every thirty-six minutes. No wonder that the speed with which the Arsenal of Venice could turn a bare keel into fully rigged craft was admired throughout Europe. And commanders could have their galleys in any color they wanted—as long as it was black.  

The Venetian manner, then as now, was correspondingly brusque, efficient, and commercial. It took a Venetian to possess the practical knowledge, the sophistication, and the confidence to finance large expeditions or caravans to the East, to deal profitably with Muslim and Orthodox Christian adversaries, and to manage complex partnerships. Venetian laws enforced the smooth operation of business. A merchant returning to Venice was legally required to present his partners with his accounts within one month, and to divide the profits forthwith. As a further incentive to trade, taxation in Venice was among the lowest in Europe, and merchants kept nearly all the profit they made.

Just about everyone in Venice engaged in commerce. Widows and orphans invested in merchant activity, and any young man without means could describe himself as a "merchant" simply by launching himself in business. Although the risks were great, riches beyond imagining lured the adventurous, the willing, and the foolish. Fortunes were made and lost overnight, and Venetian family fortunes were built on the success of a single trade expedition to Constantinople.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 30 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 30 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 3, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    Historical Accuracy?

    After having read only about 50 pages of this book, I am seriously questioning the historical accuracy of it. I am an amateur of Medieval, and in particular Venetian, history and I find that Mr. Bergreen oversimplifies and generalizes some events and conditions of 13th C Europe to a bothering degree. For example, he paints the Venetians as merchants bent on warfare where most historical sources show that they preferred to carry on matters peacefully since that was, indeed, more profitable for business, and only engaged in warfare when they felt their business interests were threatened. He also portrays the city of Venice itself as a sinister place ripe with disease, corruption, social inequality, intrigue and abuse of women. What Mr. Bergreen fails to do is compare the conditions in Venice with other those in other European cities and states where they were no better, if not worse. In fact, in many ways 13th C Venice was arguably far more enlightened than many other places with its functioning republican government, its strong mechant marine, its developing business acumen and its strong international ties. These are just a few of the inaccuracies I found.<BR/><BR/>My concerns being thus about the first part of the book, I am skeptical about the accuracy of what I am about to read - of which I have less thorough knowledge. I am afraid I will have to take it with the proverbial "grain of salt" and also keep in mind, as another reviewer has stated, that Marco Polo's memoirs were not intended as historical fact, but as engaging adventure tales told while he was in prison.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2007

    No decent map

    It is pretty amazing that an account of the travels of Marco POlo includes no decent map.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2007

    A Good Primer for Polo

    The difficulty in writing a biography about Marco Polo is the fact that the only thing we know about him comes from his autobiography, Il Milione. Polo's biographers run the risk of writing a glorified book report if grafting too much of Polo's original work. In Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, author Laurence Bergreen tries to avoid this trap by introducing historical and geographical context. Bergreen's presentation shifts like the desert sands in central Asia, a tactic that keeps the reader interested throughout this quick read book. Having never read any account of Polo's life, I enjoyed the book. But I honestly found Bergreen's information in the closing chapters and Epilogue more interesting. Bergreen's explanation on the lack of a definitive version of Il Milione, a name given by critics of Polo's 'million' lies, was insightful as was his treatment of Polo's life after Asia.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Awesome book!!!

    I've read Mr. Bergreen's book on Magellan and as soon as I saw that he wrote a book on Marco Polo I picked it right up. He has such a great way of writing without sounding too wordy, it's easy to understand and follow. He's by far one of my favorite authors.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2008

    A reinterpretation of the Travels of Marco Polo


    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2008

    More informative than captivating

    The information is interesting and extensive, but I found the book somewhat dry for me personally. In a one word, I would define it as a 'report' than a 'page-turner'. This is book I personally would rent from the library, read and return, rather than buy.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Fascinating but slow reading

    I got this book because I really liked the author's book on Magellan. This book is very well researched and very interesting but not as easily read. I found it hard to get into, it started with the travels of Marco's father and uncle, but kept going until Marco joined in the adventures. Marco found many unusual habits and customs on his travels, and the author always discusses whether or not he is telling the truth. The things Marco experienced were incredible. I can certainly understand why Venice,at the time, called him a liar. I'd recommend reading it to learn about the travels. I won't recommend it for our bookclub just because it doesn't interest everyone, but if you have historical curiosity, I'd read it.

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  • Posted May 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, by Laurence Bergreen

    This is a fascinating review of the travels of Marco Polo, which is distilled from his actual Travels as transcribed during his incarceration in Genoa following his epochal return to Venice from his travels. He had assumed the position of captain of a warship in the nacy of Venice in its periodic war with Genoa for control of the trade routes.

    The narrative of the story reads as a fascinating story of adventure in cultural diversity, geography, the court of Kubla Kahn, and the charming sexuality of various regions of the Mongol controlled Middle East and East. The young adventurer had a grand time, traveling with his father and uncle as merchants for their business, the Polo Company.

    We all tend to think of ourselves as living in a modern age. Yet, as one reads this evolutionary story, it is perfectly apparent that nothing has really changed in the world except the passage of time. We still have all the same hassles, domestic economic conditions, international trade, conflict along the trade lines, war, domestic strife within the family, ad mauseum.

    Marco Polo is not a history, nor is it a travelogue. Rather, it is a fascinating, well told adventure, which is brought into easily read context by Mr. Bergreen. Each of us experiences the journey of our lifetime. It is interesting to read about the remarkable journey of Marco Polo, and to think through the questions that it frames for our own lives.

    For example, what must it have been like for Marco to return to the quaint Venice after the genuinely unique experiences he had on his 17 year journey to places where white men had apparently not been, or not been in recorded tomes? How would you feel if this had been you?

    Marco's travels commenced at the culmination of the Christian defeat in the last Crusade, as well as the departure of the Papacy to Avignon, France seeking to find a more hospitable environment. There was chaos in the Chistian world, in which Islam had taken an upper hand, even as the Mongols were stretching across Indochina and China.

    From the standpoint of a historian or social commentator, there are many parallels to the present time.

    From the standpoint of a thriller writer, it also provides rich thesaurus of relationships and challenges to be adapted for the backgrounds of international thrillers.

    A salute and tip of the hat for a great read and thought-provoking ideas for adventures and conflicts that could be woven into the fabric of a new story.

    For more reviews by Cym Lowell, please visit

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2007


    This was a great book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2007

    A reviewer

    Bergreen's trenchant 13th century march from Europe to Asia and back alongside the itinerant Marco Polo reminds us at once of the shifting borders of empire and the constancy of the human spirit. Like Marco Polo, Bergreen himself has taken trips of times and places and of such fantastic richness and variety, he leaves us spell-bound. Here Bergreen has written another of his first-rate books of grace and erudition on an astonishing range of subjects, wondering whether there is anything that would astonish him the way Asia did Polo. He has published biographies of Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin, James Agee and Al Capone, a travel history of Magellan's world voyage, a work on NASA's search for life on Mars, and now the travels of Marco Polo. Polo grew from boy to middle-aged man in the court and the thrall of the great Ghenghis Khan, a poor Mongolian nomad who rose to rule history's largest empire - from what is now eastern China to the Western edges of Asia. In the process, he encounters riches, toughness, brutality, animals, tools and ways of life new to him and astonishing to us. Like the blind man describing the elephant, he tells us of the magical Chinese rods of black rock taken from the ground that burn endlessly with red and white heat. In that case, it was coal that he came upon. The description, exactly accurate, but equally incomprehensible, reminds us how much we depend on context and knowledge to understand what we read and hear. Bergreen presents Polo in layers, each contributing to the richness of this work, but all together necessary and sufficient to find the man, the period and the historiography edifying. He uses as his outline the travel history Polo told to his companion Rusticello, tested by accounts published during the last seven centuries in Europe and Asia, interpreted and tweezed with the help of modern scholars of the period, to bring his reader to what are likely to be the best conclusions we can make about what was really seen by whom and when. All of history looks to modernity a bit like that 13th century piece of coal looked liked to Marco Polo - odd, incomprehensible, hard to place and hard to describe. Bergreen does a brilliant job of shining the light forward, sharing with us the many guesses historians must make when trying to see back through eight dark centuries of miasma to the 'truth' hiding among few original documents. This one is another triumph for the wandering Bergreen. Keep wandering, Mr. Bergreen, and keep telling the rest of us what you find.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2007

    You Must Be Joking, Mr. Polo

    There may have been other adventurers who left Europe as teenagers in the thirteenth century, made their way across continents into the court of the largest empire in world history, and then made their way home safely a generation later, living in the meantime a life of risk and reward that would be unimaginable to a terrestrial today. But there was only one who told the story to an author of colorful 'romances.' And he, a man named Rustichello, retold the stories of the wanderer Marco Polo for history, or at least for author Laurence Bergreen, who has retold it better for us. Bergreen, one of those great new creatures of modernity - a brilliant, worldly, tireless, non-academic historian and biographer - peels the onion of the impenetrable 'Travels' of Marco Polo, filling in with level-headed, well-crafted reviews of the eight centuries of historiography borne of Polo's original work. Walking the walk, in part, Polo walked, testing the text against its many interpretations and criticisms and tweezing out the best modern wisdom from today's leading scholars, Bergreen has brought to us in great style the wide-eyed amazement of a 13th century European meeting the East for the first time. Polo described in his 'Travels' politics, social organizations, architecture, money and people so different from those of his home that his descriptions sometimes sound like the blind men examining the elephant. He found black, soft rocks, taken from the earth that magically burned white hot without ever flaming up. This was coal, never before known to a European as a fuel. Clinically accurate and completely without context, the 'truth' of this observation makes us smile and also gives credibility to other Polo observations not so easily contextualized today. Bergreen must have had the sense that he followed a man in some ways like himself as he pieced together this fantastic story, its context and its many faces through the last 800 years. Like Polo, Bergreen has repeatedly wandered into places so disparate and opaque that only a hugely observant author of endless energy could find a reasonable proximity to the truth in each of them. He has done this in first-rate biographies of men whose names have never been put in a single paragraph before: James Agee, Al Capone, Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin. He has also written a fine historical work on the astonishing world voyage of Magellan and of NASA's search for life on Mars. This new work is a delight to read, rich in content, easy in style, respectful but not overly reverent of its primary source.

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