The Travels of Marco Polo is unquestionably one of the world's greatest travel books and the memoir of the West's most famous traveler-Marco Polo (1254-1324). Composed in 1298, the book describes Polo's travels across the entire continent of Asia and provides the only comprehensive travelogue of a European traveler in the East in the Middle Ages. Marco Polo's travels begin in 1271 when this seventeen year-old son of a Venetian merchant sets off with his father and uncle to visit the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan in Beijing. The book traces the epic journey overland through Persia, Central Asia, and Mongolia, and excursions through China to the furthest reaches of the Great Khan's empire in Tibet, Burma, and the borders with India. Polo returned by ship across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, arriving home in 1295. In a magisterial geographical sweep, The Travels of Marco Polo presents a unique encyclopedic account of cities and regions across Asia, but the book is not a dry account: It sets out to entertain as well as inform, and Polo's delight in the diversity of nature and social customs he observes is palpable. Although very accessible to modern readers, the book clearly has medieval origins, most evident in the liberal peppering of wonders and marvels. Polo guides his readers through a realm of fabulous cities, pigmies, exotic plants and birds, ornate palaces, wild beasts, vast deserts, rivers of gems, beautiful women, fine silks, spices, miracles, legends, cannibalism, matriarchal societies, and bizarre marriage customs and funeral rites. Perhaps because of his exuberant and sometimes hyperbolic style, Polo's contemporaries treated his descriptions of the Far Eastwith skepticism. Although the important discoveries underlying Polo's account were largely ignored and did not result in the maps of the world being redrawn, they had untold impact on the European imagination for centuries to come.
For a traveler well-known enough to give his name to airports, bridges, hotels, and frequent-flyer clubs, we know little about Marco Polo. He was born in Venice in 1254 where he died, a fairly wealthy man, seventy years later. He married Donata Badoer from a prestigious Venetian family, and they had three daughters, the main beneficiaries of his unremarkable will, one of very few historical documents connected with Marco Polo. Signed on January 9, 1324, Polo's will is now in St. Mark's library in Venice. It makes no mention of his book, but does grant freedom to his Tartar slave, Peter. Polo died shortly after making his will, and was buried, in accordance with this document, in the Church of St. Lorenzo. Polo's life as a traveler is legendary, but the man who returned to Venice and spent his remaining years there as a successful merchant was quite ordinary. Shortly after returning from his travels, Polo was reportedly involved in the battle of Curzola (1298), where he commanded a Venetian galley in an engagement with the Genoese fleet. In the battle, the whole of the Venetian fleet was captured and Polo was imprisoned. As a member of a wealthy and noble family in Venice, it would not have been unusual for Polo to be gentleman-commander of a galley. What is remarkable, however, is that during his imprisonment of a few months (if his involvement at Curzola can be verified) Polo dictated his travels in Asia to Rustichello (Rustigielo) of Pisa, a collector of Arthurian romances, and a fellow prisoner. If the story is true, Rustichello could hardly have believed his luck at having the captive source for this potential best seller. The ghostwriter persuaded Polo that his Description of the World, as it was originally called, should be written down-"for the benefit of those who could not see them with their own eyes." This chance meeting of the traveler and the travel writer, holed up together in a prison in Genoa, is how Polo's travels came to be recorded for posterity.
At least, this is how the story is presented by Polo's sixteenth-century editor and translator, John Baptist Ramusio, who claims he worked from a Latin text of "great antiquity." Although it is generally agreed that Rustichello produced the original manuscript in medieval French, Ramusio incorporated a printed account of Polo's book in Italian in his Collection of Voyages and Travels (c.1553), and this has been a main source for modern translations, including this one. As well as including material not found in other manuscripts, Ramusio produced a preface with biographical notes on Marco Polo, the source of most of what we know about the man himself. Bearing in mind that this "biography" was produced more than two centuries after Polo's death and for the most part cannot be corroborated, we should perhaps treat some of the stories it contains with a pinch of salt. One of the stories in Ramusio's preface concerns the Polos returning home to Venice years after they had been presumed dead, and being refused entry to their own house because of their shabby appearance. They then cut open their dusty Tartar cloaks and out poured rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds to the astonishment of the assembled crowd who were forced to welcome the noble Polos home. Whether Ramusio invented, embellished, or merely passed on these stories cannot be proven, but they have certainly added to Marco Polo's legendary status as a traveler. But the prison story described above does at least furnish us with a very good reason why The Travels of Marco Polo was written at all, at a time when few travelers put pen to paper. Those who did produce personal narratives were mainly missionaries and royal envoys who wrote for a specific audience or patron, not, as did Polo and Rustichello, for the public at large.
Apart from Ramusio's preface, a few unrevealing historical documents, such as his will, and some marginalia on early manuscripts, the only other knowledge we have about Marco Polo is found in his book, particularly in the prologue (most of which is incorporated in chapter one of this edition). The prologue frames the main narrative of Marco Polo's travels and gives a cumulative sense of explaining, authenticating, and promoting his incredible journey for an incredulous audience. When we add up all we really know about Marco Polo, he becomes a shadowy persona, flickering between man and myth. Often he seems like a character in a romance, and perhaps we can only really get to know him through his book. We have only tiny fragments of the real Marco Polo to grasp, but we do have the book that bears his name, and the eight-five or so surviving manuscripts spread across the world's libraries attest to the very real presence of one of the most important texts of the Middle Ages. Regardless of whether we treat Marco Polo as real person or as a composite literary persona, he is one of the most interesting and important subjects of the Middle Ages, because it is through him that the real wonders of the East are unveiled to a European audience. Wondrous to behold, yet mostly based in fact, Polo's book did not have the impact it deserved in the Middle Ages. Although The Travels of Marco Polo was translated into most European languages, and copies were disseminated across the major libraries of the Middle Ages, the book seems to have brought Polo ridicule rather than fame in his own lifetime. According to Ramusio, he was given the nickname "Million" (Il Milione) and this is the title by which his book is best known in Italy; the Polos' house in Venice came to be known as the "Corte del Milione," suggesting that his neighbors thought him prone to exaggeration-to "talking big." After his death, a comic figure appeared in Venetian carnivals: "Marco del Milione," who amused the crowds with gross exaggerations. Another reason that Polo's book was ignored in its own time was because a new worldview was emerging in Europe, partly the result of the end of the Mongol Peace in the fourteenth century following the resurgence of Islam and the end of Mongol rule in China. This effectively closed to Westerners the overland routes the Polos had followed. Furthermore, as the late Middle Ages gave way to the early Modern Period a new phase began in European history, which focused on New Worlds and maritime exploration. It was not until the nineteenth century that Marco Polo began to be recognized as a truly great explorer in the modern sense, and it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that scholars began to take an interest in researching and verifying his discoveries.
The prologue (chapter one) provides an overview of Polo's travels and a description of a previous, and otherwise undocumented, journey undertaken by Polo's father (Niccolò) and uncle (Maffeo). The elder Polos were probing new markets in Central Asia, heading first for Sudak in the Crimea, where another uncle (Marco the elder) is known to have owned a property. They then moved on to Bukhara (in Turkestan, or, according to some historians, Persia), unable to return via Constantinople with their wares and profits because war had broken out between rival Mongol chiefs, so they were forced to continue traveling east. At Bukhara they were persuaded by envoys of Kublai Khan, to travel to Beijing (Khan Balik, Kanbalu), where they were told he would receive them favorably. This earlier journey (1260 - 1269) was the precursor to Marco Polo's more extensive travels. It also provided an improbable, but not impossible, pretext for a second visit because Kublai Khan asked the elder Polos to take letters to the Pope with a request for one hundred learned Christian men to convert his people to Christianity. Here, we need to consider history for a moment. The Kublai Khan was the successor of Chinghiz (Chingis, Jeng(h)is) Khan, whose Mongol armies had conquered northern China, Central Asia, Russia and the Levant, and at one stage threatened the whole Christian empire of the West. Kublai Khan, or the "Great Khan," ruled the eastern part of the Mongol empire, displacing the Song dynasty and bringing the whole of China under Mongol control for about a hundred years. After Kublai Khan's death in 1294, this eastern Mongol empire gave way to the Ming dynasty. The story of a pro-Christian, pro-Western Mongol emperor may seem odd, but there is ample evidence that Kublai Khan did indeed welcome foreigners to his court and was tolerant of different religions. The idea that he intended to convert to Christianity is, nonetheless, unlikely. It could be a ruse by Rustichello or a later scribe or translator to give the book a more Christian outlook, or perhaps the Polos were duped by Kublai Khan who might simply have wanted to pick the brains of learned men from the West. The pretext for Polo's journey to China was the same as for the Christian missionaries sent by the Pope to China and Mongolia -to try to convert the Mongol chiefs to Christianity, or at least rally them against what they rightly perceived as a resurgence of Islam in the Middle East. But Polo's book has a quite different emphasis from the reports of John of Montecorvino, John of Plano Carpini, and William of Rubruck, who were all in the Far East in Polo's time. Their writings are far more focused on the difficulties of preaching Christianity, and on reporting the success or otherwise of their missions. The Franciscan, Odoric of Pordenone (c. 1286 - 1331), was closer to Polo in content and style, but his Itinerarius (1330) does not have Polo's geographical compass nor the elaborate storytelling devices we find in Polo's book. Odoric does however share Polo's enthrallment at the grandeur and opulence of the court of Kublai Khan, confirming the West's fascination with this image of an exotic East.
According to the prologue, the elder Polo's were determined to carry out Kublai Khan's instructions and went to great lengths, literally, to do so. However, when they arrived in Acre, the last Christian stronghold in the Middle East, they were greeted with the news that Pope Clement IV had recently died. It was another two years before a new Pope-Gregory X-was elected. After one or two false starts, Niccolò and Maffeo were eventually equipped with oil from the holy lamp at Jerusalem (another request from Kublai Khan), and they had the blessing of the Pope and letters to the Mongol Emperor. Two Friars were also dispatched by the Pope to accompany the elder Polos who had decided to take with them the young Marco Polo, now seventeen years old. After the arduous journey of more than three years, Marco Polo, with his father and uncle, arrived in China (the Friars lost heart early on). Young Marco seems quickly to have become a favorite of Kublai Khan and was employed by him as an emissary, because, we are told, of his consummate skill at learning the customs and languages of the Mongols (although it seems he never learned Chinese). Noticing that the Grand Khan took pleasure in hearing accounts of novelties and curiosities, and the "peculiar circumstances of distant countries," Polo recorded all he saw and heard "in order to gratify the curiosity of his master." So, Polo would be the eyes and ears of the Great Khan in the remote corners of an empire he would never have the chance to see for himself-an empire we now know, was far less secure than Polo's account would have us believe. The prologue explains the reasons for the journey and it establishes Polo's credentials in the role of travel writer. He was to be a travel writer by imperial command, and so he learnt to take special note of the curiosities that might amuse the Emperor. According to Ramusio's preface, Polo recorded his observations in notebooks that he kept with him and was able to use in the Genoese prison where he and Rustichello would prepare their manuscript. Although little of this can be corroborated, it is a persuasive and credible plot, and there is no immediate reason to disbelieve it. The Travels of Marco Polo is an extraordinary travel book by any standards. In the Middle Ages, only Ibn Battuta's Travels (c. 1353) would come close in range, and only The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1356) would rival it in popularity. The first of these describes a predominantly Muslim East and is a useful corrective to Polo's Christian-biased perspective; the second is largely built on plagiarism and fancy and is a different kind of travel book altogether. As an account of the whole of Asia, and as a first full account of China, Polo's book is unrivalled. It describes cities, peoples, customs, topography, and wildlife across an area roughly ten times the size of Western Europe. The book announces itself in the prologue as "A Description of the World" (Divisament dou Monde), and what a world it describes. It traces intercontinental land routes across Asia, specifically the Silk Routes (both land and sea), and although Polo's cartographic skills occasionally fail in the details of place names, distances, and directions, the book is an astonishing feat of topography, which in the main, corresponds to modern geography, as the extensively annotated Yule and Cordier edition ( 1920) of his book demonstrates. The main text clearly has a realistic, geographical design, not the design of a medieval fable, despite evidence that the romance writer Rustichello crafted the text, embellishing it with themes of quest and revelation, and romantic motifs. The geographical design is only interrupted occasionally, and at such moments the text betrays its literary crafting. In the Middle East there are several digressions concerning, for example, the three Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus; and the story of the "Old Man of the Mountain," whose fearless young recruits were promised everlasting life in the garden of Paradise attended by young damsels in return for carrying out dangerous and potentially suicidal missions for the Muslim chief. This "explanation" of the religious fanaticism of the "Assassins," as they became known, was based on popular belief at the time, probably originating in Crusaders' stories; it has chilling parallels with the suicide bombers of today. In the less familiar terrain (to a Western audience) of China, Polo reports fewer myths and legends, yet his predominantly realistic, if hyperbolic, descriptions of China often show signs of literary crafting, giving a seamless shift between the real and the romantic. One example is the description of the palace of the former "king" of Kinsai, who would engage parties of young women and "take amusement on the lake, in barges covered with silk" and hunt in the grounds "laid out in groves, pieces of water, beautiful gardens stored with fruit-trees, and also enclosures for all sorts of animals that are the objects of sport, such as antelopes, deer, stags, hares, and rabbits." This romantic tableau does conform in essence to the existence of a real king and a real palace, but a moral is attached to this description, and a warning against the excessive pursuit of pleasure. The king of Kinsai (actually the Song emperor, who ceased to rule in 1274) indulged in pleasure to such an extent that he ignored matters of state and "his depraved habits. . .enabled the grand khan to deprive him of his splendid possessions." This is perhaps designed as a lesson for Christian kings too much bent on pleasure. It also seeds the idea of an opulent country prone to decadence; an exotic East brought under the control of Polo's model ruler, Kublai Khan.
Although the existing manuscripts of Polo's book contain variations, abridgements, and emendations, and differ in expression and content, they all confirm the geographical design of the original manuscript (sadly lost). Following the prologue, the book, like the journey it purports to represent, sets out with descriptions of Armenia, Turkomania, Georgia, Iraq, Persia, Kashmir, the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, and Northeast China. But it is important to note, that unlike modern travel narratives, Polo's book does not actually describe the journey itself and his impressions en route. We can only re-assemble a journey from the sequence of places he describes. The main thrust of the book is to describe the world, as it might be seen, rather than as it actually was seen by a particular traveler. In this sense it is an impersonal, rather than a personal, travel narrative only occasionally embellished with on-the-spot, personal incidents, which seem out of place, and possibly not part of the original design. One such incident has proven to be very difficult to reconcile with Chinese history. At the siege of Siang-yang-fu (Sa-yan-fu), the book tells of the elder Polo's involvement in constructing siege weapons, which led to the taking of the city. But Chinese history records the taking of Siang-yang-fu in 1273, when the brothers were supposedly on their way back to China with Marco (they left in 1271, and could not have reached China for a further three years).
In the Middle East, Polo links places with both the Bible and the letters of Alexander the Great, the two main intertexts for any discussion of the East in the Middle Ages. Polo knew that his audience would expect mention of Mount Ararat where Noah's Ark was supposed to have come to rest; the mountains of Gog and Magog, behind which Alexander claimed to have driven the barbarous tribes; and the legendary Christian ruler, Prester John, about whom the West was anxious to hear news (actually he was the subject of a hoax, and Polo's confirmation of his influence in the East does little to help his reputation as a historian). These allusions, together with his inaccurate account of Tartar lineage and major battles, are not, thankfully, the main substance of Polo's book. Once away from the Middle East, the descriptions focus more on flora and fauna, showing Polo to be a keen ornithologist, and generally better on natural history than the history of civilizations. Indeed, Polo makes a considerable contribution to demythologizing the beasts, dragons, and monstrous nature that had been the matter of the East since antiquity. The popular medieval view of the East was of a barely inhabitable and wondrous periphery, the site of earthly Paradise, monsters, and monstrous humans. Polo helped to turn this into a real but still wondrous realm. Sometimes he translated "the East" of antiquity into real wonders: The huge serpents with claws and teeth found on medieval maps turn from fabulous monsters to the rather more mundane crocodiles of Karazan; and the fabled "salamanders" that can survive fire are demythologized in his description of the "miraculous" properties of asbestos.
What is more striking perhaps than any of these features of the book's design, is the "merchant's eye," perhaps the most persuasive proof that Polo's book is mainly the work of Polo himself, or someone from the merchant class. It was Polo's realistic but glowing descriptions of the riches of Cathay (Northern China) that most excited interest in the West. In terms of wealth, architecture, technology, and sophistication Polo's Cathay trumps anything the West could offer. Even the splendor of medieval Venice pales in comparison with the city of Kinsai, surely one of the most evocative descriptions of life in a medieval city ever written. The name "Kinsai," Polo says, "signifies 'the celestial city'" and this is well justified by its "pre-eminence to all others in the world, in point of grandeur and beauty. . .which might lead an inhabitant to imagine himself in paradise." There follows a detailed description of the plan of this city with its "twelve thousand" bridges, and detailed descriptions of the markets, with long lists of the livestock, pearls, and other items available for sale. It is here that we find evidence of a merchant's special interest. But we also find that the young Polo has plenty of interest in the place of the courtesans too. Without telling us whether he availed himself of their charms himself, Polo says that men who have "tasted their charms, remain in a state of fascination. . . . Thus intoxicated with sensual pleasures, when they return to their homes they report that they have been in Kin-sai. . .and pant for the time when they may be enabled to revisit paradise." In Kinsai, Polo reveals the sexual and acquisitive appetites of man and merchant, effectively fetishizing the East for his predominantly male audience.
The Travels of Marco Polo incited Christopher Columbus to search out the riches of Polo's Cathay via a westerly route; and Polo's description of the Kublai Khan's summer palace at Shandu (Shang-tu) inspired the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write the famous romantic poem "In Xanadu" (1797). The Travels of Marco Polo has inspired action and imagination equally. In possessing China for the European imagination, it was instrumental in seeding the idea of a desirable, exotic East, an idea which has shaped Western worldviews of the East until the present day.
NOTES ON THE TEXT
The original manuscript of The Travels of Marco Polo gave rise to numerous copies, translations, and editions. There are about eighty-five surviving manuscripts in different languages preserved in museums and libraries around the world. Most modern editions are based on either the medieval French edition (the Paris manuscript or F text) written in the early fourteenth century, or the much fuller Italian version by Ramusio (1559), which is generally regarded as the first printed edition. The F text is usually considered to be closest to the original, and it is generally accepted that it is written in the same language as the original, i.e., medieval French. Ramusio claims that his edition is based on a Latin text of great antiquity (it is certainly partly based on the Latin translation made in Polo's lifetime by Francesco Pipino, a Dominican of Bologna, who claims to have worked from an Italian, not French, manuscript). This may contain original material omitted from F, or possibly contains additions made by Polo himself in later life. The origin of Ramusio's "additions" is a matter of conjecture, but it is conceivable that some of these came from a fuller translation of the original manuscript. It would surely be a great shame now if the description of Kinsai and the prologue were omitted. Marsden's English edition is a translation of Ramusio's Italian text and was first published in 1818. The present edition is a reprinting of a 1908 version of Marsden published in the Everyman Library, with the addition of several chapters, including the prologue, and extensive notes by the editor, Ernest Rhys.
Paul Smethurst is associate professor in English at the University of Hong Kong. He has published extensively on travel literature and is completing an extensive study of the genre -"The Poetics of Travel."