The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps

The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps

by Benjamin B. Olshin

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In the thirteenth century, Italian merchant and explorer Marco Polo traveled from Venice to the far reaches of Asia, a journey he chronicled in a narrative titled Il Milione, later known as The Travels of Marco Polo. While Polo’s writings would go on to inspire the likes of Christopher Columbus, scholars have long debated their veracity. Some have argued that Polo never even reached China, while others believe that he came as far as the Americas. Now, there’s new evidence for this historical puzzle: a very curious collection of fourteen little-known maps and related documents said to have belonged to the family of Marco Polo himself.

In The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps, historian of cartography Benjamin B. Olshin offers the first credible book-length analysis of these artifacts, charting their course from obscure origins in the private collection of Italian-American immigrant Marcian Rossi in the 1930s; to investigations of their authenticity by the Library of Congress, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI; to the work of the late cartographic scholar Leo Bagrow; to Olshin’s own efforts to track down and study the Rossi maps, all but one of which are in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson Jeffrey Pendergraft. Are the maps forgeries, facsimiles, or modernized copies? Did Marco Polo’s daughters—whose names appear on several of the artifacts—preserve in them geographic information about Asia first recorded by their father? Or did they inherit maps created by him? Did Marco Polo entrust the maps to Admiral Ruggero Sanseverino, who has links to Rossi’s family line? Or, if the maps have no connection to Marco Polo, who made them, when, and why?

Regardless of the maps’ provenance, Olshin’s tale—stretching from the remote reaches of the northern Pacific to early Chinese legends—takes readers on a journey confounding yet fascinating, offering insights into Italian history, the age of exploration, and the wonders of cartography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226149967
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/29/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 47 MB
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About the Author

Benjamin B. Olshin is associate professor of philosophy and the history and philosophy of science and technology at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.

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The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps

By Benjamin B. Olshin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-14996-7


The "Marco Polo Maps" and the Polo Family

The pieces that make up the "Marco Polo" collection of maps include a variety of intriguing images and texts. Not only do they include representations of lands and seas—along with what appear to be historical narratives—but they are also connected to one another through various cross-references and persons mentioned in more than one document. Before examining the materials in detail, we should take a quick look at exactly what the collection includes.

A Look at the Maps

There are fourteen documents in the Rossi Collection that concern Marco Polo and his travels. There are a number of connections between the various maps and texts. A brief inventory is given below; the documents are categorized in terms of what names (e.g., "Bellela Polo") appear on the documents, and what cartographic images or geographic regions they treat.

Document 1 ("Sirdomap Map"; see pl. 1) A map of northeastern Asia with toponyms.

Document 2 ("Sirdomap Text"; see pl. 2) A short text in "Arabic" lettering, followed by a brief Italian text, with the year "1267."

Document 3 ("Bellela Polo Chronicle"; see pl. 3) A text in Italian concerning Marco Polo and Sirdomap.

Document 4 ("Map with Ship"; see pl. 4) A map of eastern Asia, along with a picture of a sailing vessel.

Document 5 ("Pantect Map"; see pl. 5) A map of eastern Asia, with an attached accompanying text.

Document 6 ("Fantina Polo Map 1"; see pl. 6) A map covering Europe, North Africa, and Asia, with a "longitude-latitude" grid and a series of place-names.

Document 7 ("Fantina Polo Map 2"; see pl. 7) A map depicting East Asia, a strait, and a peninsula with a chain of islands.

Document 8 ("Moreta Polo Map 1"; see pl. 8) A map covering Europe, North Africa, and Asia, with a "longitude-latitude" grid.

Document 9 ("Lorenzo Polo Chronicle"; see pl. 9) A text concerning the Polo family and concerning manuscripts left by "Rugerio Sanseverino."

Document 10 ("Map of the New World"; see pls. 11a and 11b) On the recto, a map of Europe, North Africa, and North and South America; on the verso, there is a text mentioning Antilla and the explorer Hernando Cortez.

Document 11 ("Columbus Map"; see pl. 12) A map of the New World, with a brief text.

Document 12 ("Spinola Chronicle"; see pl. 10) A text in the form of a letter to "Elisabetta Feltro della Rovere Sanseverino" and signed "Guido Spinola."

Document 13 ("Keynote to Pantect Map"; see fig. 3)—missing A text describing a voyage by Marco Polo to a chain of islands and a large peninsula in the Far East; this document is reproduced and discussed by Bagrow in his article of 1948, but is now missing from the collection.

Document 14 ("Moreta Polo Map 2"; see figs. 4a and 4b)—missing On the recto: a map of Asia, with an oval cartouche containing an inscription in Italian; on the verso: a map covering Europe, North Africa, and Asia, with a "longitude-latitude" grid. This document is discussed by Bagrow in his article but is now missing from the collection.

The documents are all on parchment, with the maps and text done in ink. Most of the texts are in Italian; there are also shorter passages in Latin, Chinese, and Arabic. Most of the writing is very clear. However, there appears to have been erasing of text in some cases, with some underwriting slightly visible—this is primarily so with the "Map with Ship" (pl. 4) and the "Columbus Map" (pl. 12). In at least one case, there has been slight erasing and modification of text, as we will see in the discussion of the "Fantina Polo Map 1" (pl. 6), below. As noted in this list, two of the documents are missing, and the current owner, Jeffrey R. Pendergraft, believes that there may have been others in the collection at one time that are also now missing.

Initial Details and Clues

Looking at our list, we see immediately that there are three peculiar documents referring to a Syrian mariner named "Biaxio Sirdomap." The first is a map of northeastern Asia with toponyms referred to by the Roman numerals I through V, and with the toponyms written in some kind of Arabic text (see pl. 1). The second is a short text in this same script, followed by an Italian text on the same page (pl. 2). The third document is a text, apparently written by Marco Polo's daughter, Bellela Polo, about her father and his encounter with Sirdomap in the Far East (pl. 3). This document is known as the "Bellela Polo Chronicle" and is one of several pieces in the collection directly citing Marco Polo's daughters.

The "Map with Ship," currently in possession of the Library of Congress, has a rendering of the eastern regions of Asia, along with a picture of a sailing vessel (see pl. 4). The document appears as if it has been written on at different times, and there are bits of writing that have been scratched away. A complete discussion of this map is found in chapter 3 here.

The "Pantect Map" derives its name from a note in its right-hand margin that reads "Pantect De Praefectoria Potestate Interpret / in lat / Domus de Sanseverinus Urvinum." It, too, is a map of Asia, with the place-names taken from the ancient geography of Ptolemy. An inscription in Italian alongside the map claims that an accompanying Latin text above it is a translation from the original Tartar of the famed "Golden Tablet" given to Marco Polo by the great Kublai Khan (1215–1294). The map was folded and stored in a parchment envelope.

In 1934, Marcian Rossi sent a document from his collection to the Library of Congress. Now missing, this item survives only in the reproduction by Bagrow in his 1948 article. He calls it the "Keynote to the Pantect Map," although it does not seem to have any strong connection to that map. It is a text, in two parts, that describes a voyage by Marco Polo to a chain of islands and a large peninsula.

History tells us very little about Marco Polo's daughters, so it is rather suprising that a whole series of documents in the collection apparently contain their comments about their father's travels. The names of all Polo's daughters—Fantina, Bellela, and Moretta—appear on these maps and in these texts, which relate and refer to one another in various ways. The first document—the "Fantina Polo Map 1" (see pl. 6)—is a map covering Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, set in a kind of "longitude-latitude" grid, with place-names referred to by a series of Roman numerals. The map is signed "Fantina Polo" with the year "1329." Very similar gridded configurations are found in two other maps in this series. Another map, the "Fantina Polo Map 2" (see pl. 7), is also signed by Fantina Polo. It bears the same date and takes the form of an oval cartouche. The text below the map is a variant of that found in the first Fantina Polo map, just described.

The name of Moreta Polo—Marco Polo's youngest daughter—appears on several maps in this series. The first map, "Moreta Polo Map 1" (see pl. 8), displays the same kind of gridded configuration found in the "Fantina Polo Map 1." Another piece, the "Moreta Polo Map 2" (see figs. 4a and 4b), actually has maps on two sides. On one side, we find a map covering parts of South and East Asia and an oval cartouche, and on the reverse we see a map covering Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, again with a "longitude-latitude" grid. Both of these maps contain another surprise: Chinese characters written in the margins.

The "Lorenzo Polo Chronicle" (see pl. 9) presents us with more family names. This document is a long text discussing the Polo family and manuscripts left by a certain "Rugerio Sanseverino." The names of both Fantina and Moreta again appear, as does a certain "Lorenzo Polo," whose identity is uncertain. The relationship among all the documents in the Rossi Collection can be quite complex, and this "Lorenzo Polo Chronicle" adds to the complexity, presenting connections to a number of the other maps and texts.

The next document, the "Map of the New World" (see pls. 11a and 11b), in a manner similar to some of the other pieces of the collection, gives us both the familiar and peculiar. On the recto side of this document, there is a map of Europe, parts of northern Africa, and North and South America; the peculiarity is that the Americas are labeled "Columbia Septentrionalis" and "Columbia Meriodionalis," terms that seem not to be found in any other historical sources. Below the map, there is an accompanying text in the form of a letter that is addressed to "Elisabetta Feltro della Rovere Sanseverino," and that is signed "Guido Spinola" and labeled "Cagliari, 20 October 1524." On the verso is a text mentioning the mysterious island of Antilla, and a reference to the famed conquistador Hernando Cortez (1485–1547).

The final map under study here is the "Columbus Map" (see pl. 12); this is a map of the New World, with a brief text that is signed with the surname Sanseverino, which appears several times in these documents. The text mentions voyages by Columbus "and others" and notes that the map includes "islands and terra firma explored up to the year 1535." The collection also includes a text, known as the "Spinola Chronicle" (see pl. 10), which is in the form of a letter to "Elisabetta Feltro della Rovere Sanseverino" and signed by again by the mysterious Guido Spinola.

It is intriguing to think about the various people who have handled these documents over the centuries. Who examined them, read them, pondered their contents, and made their own mark? We are given a few clues by the documents themselves. The "Fantina Polo Map 2," a map of the northeastern reaches of Asia, set in oval outline and signed "Fantina Polo," has a small, oval-shaped tab attached to it at the bottom. On the tab is written: "diana bonacolsin da Verona." The last name was probably Bonacolsino or Bonacolsini, with the final vowel dropped. Furthermore, the -ini ending is a diminutive, so we can view the name as a variant of Bonacolsi—this was a famous Italian family that controlled several northern cities, including Mantua and Modena in the early thirteenth century.

Another Rossi document, the "Bellela Polo Chronicle" (see pl. 3), also has one of these attached, oval-shaped tabs. On this tab, we find a different name: Marta Veniero da Padova. The name Veniero is from the Venetian form of Venerio. Here, we might note a Venetian connection; indeed, Venerio was the surname of one of Venice's noble families.

Again, the daughters of Marco Polo play a key role in the mystery of these maps and texts, since their names—Bellela Polo, Moreta Polo, and Fantina Polo—are found on a number of the documents. What do we know about these women, and what do historical sources tell us about any connection between them and the voyages of their father? A reading of the maps seems to reveal that that the daughters were recording or preserving information about Asia that had been brought back by their father. But there are many questions brought up by such a scenario.

Nothing in the surviving manuscripts of the Polo narrative indicates that Marco Polo transmitted information about his journey to his daughters or left any behind for them. The Venetian historian, diplomat, geographer, and writer Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485–1557), who put together an edition of the Marco Polo narrative and wrote a somewhat confusing summary of the Polo family, also does not mention any such transaction. In one of the Rossi documents here, however, Bellela Polo clearly states: "So that the noble readers may find more delight concerning the Kingdom of Women in China and the Far East, my father Marco Polo wishes me, Bellela, to show this world map which he obtained from the pilot Biaxio Sirdomap." In another document, we read: "[The] dear princesses, duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, and all the ladies whom it would please to hear about the Realm of Women in China and the Far East, will be able to read that which my father recounted, and I, Bellela, have written from that account." Neither of the stories that Bellela then goes on to recount appears in the Polo narrative in the forms in which we know them today.

We find the name of Moreta Polo in two maps in this collection. In one document, the "Moreta Polo Map 1" (see pl. 8), we have a rendering of Europe, North Africa, and Asia, along with an inscription. It is signed "Moreta Polo," with the year "1338." We do not know when Moreta Polo was born, but we know that she died in 1375. Her father died in 1324, so this map must have been created after his death. Alternatively, Moreta simply could have added the inscription to the map—a map that would have been rendered at some earlier time by her father, or rendered by her based on notes from her father. The so-called "Moreta Polo Map 2" (see figs. 4a and 4b) has, on the recto side, a map of Asia, with an oval cartouche containing an inscription in Italian. On the verso, we see a map covering Europe, the northern part of Africa, and Asia. The map on the recto is signed as follows: "Morett[a] Polo. Venetia." There is an indication, as we found in the case of Bellela Polo, that this information was given to Moreta Polo by her father. The full inscription on the recto, in fact, ends with the phrase "tracto (d)a le lettere di mio p(ad)re," that is, "drawn from the letters of my father."

Fantina Polo appears in two Rossi documents. The first map covers Europe, northern Africa, and Asia; it is signed "Fantina Polo," with the year "1329" (see pl. 6). The second is a map of the northeast reaches of Asia, set in an oval outline (see pl. 7). The map has a brief text accompanying it, which is signed "Fantina Polo," with the year "1329." As was the case with Moreta Polo, this date is again plausible, since records indicate that Fantina died some time between 1375 and 1380.

The Polo Family and Some Notes on the Narrative

Despite the fact that these documents imply a close connection between the three daughters and Marco Polo's travels, nothing in the surviving Polo narrative itself discusses this possibility. Furthermore, Marco Polo's last will and testament does not explicitly mention any maps—maps that might be have been passed on to his daughters.

In fact, considering how frequently Marco Polo and his narrative are discussed today, it is worth noting how little we actually know about the man and his family. As one author succinctly puts it: "La genealogia della famiglia Polo non è troppo chiara nè sicura." Details such as the exact meaning and origin of the nickname often connected to Marco Polo and his narrative—Il Milione—are also uncertain. One scholar argues that the name was simply applied to Marco Polo in error and actually referred to another member of the family. In error, too, Ramusio explained the nickname Il Milione "as coming from the supposed revenues of Marco Polo, which amounted to ten or fifteen million of a gold denomination," and a number of later historians apparently "accepted this explanation." But the term does not make sense in relation to Marco Polo, and indeed, as the historian John Larner notes, "Great riches are not at all in evidence. Marco Polo ended his days in modest patrician style."

The surname Polo does not help us navigate through this history, because other—apparently unrelated—families of the period shared this name. Marco Polo, the famed traveler, belonged to the Polo family of San Giovanni Crisostomo (or Grisostomo). This was the name of a neighborhood of Venice; one can still visit, in fact, the church of San Giovanni Crisostomo, and behind it La Corte del Milion. A plaque there reads, in part: "Qui furono le case di Marco Polo che viaggiò le più lontane regioni dell'Asia e le descrisse." Another Polo family hailed from San Geremia, located in another district of Venice, and included a figure named Marco Polo. But the two families do not seem to have been related.

The family of our Marco Polo, the famed traveler, has been traced across a few generations, but we have little after the fourteenth century (see app. 3). The record begins with Andrea Polo; he had several sons: Maffeo, Nicolo, and Marco. Nicolo was the father of the famed Marco Polo (il viaggiatore), while Nicolo's brother Marco (sometimes labeled il vecchio, to avoid confusion) was, then, the uncle. The family was a merchant clan—in this period Venice carried out extensive overseas trade, with connections in Alexandria, Constantinople, the Black Sea, and beyond.


Excerpted from The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 The “Marco Polo Maps” and the Polo Family
2 Who Was “Biaxio Sirdomap”?
3 To the Distant East
4 The Daughters’ Maps
5 Chronicles and Histories
6 Maps of the New World
7 Conclusions and Future Directions
Appendix 1: An Inventory of the Documents
Appendix 2: A Partial Genealogy of the Rossi Family
Appendix 3: Genealogy of the Family of Marco Polo the Traveller

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