Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

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The Polo Family's Adventures as recorded by Marco Polo, and how Columbus was a fan

History Italy






Excerpts Below:

1 - How the Chinese burn black stones (coal)

2 - The Maji, three Kings, a fable heard along the way

3 -  Kublai Khan and his four wives

4 - How the dead Khans are buried

5 - Giant, reclining Buddas

6 - Xanadu's pleasure dome

7 - The Khan's palace compound in Beijing

8 - Ancient Beijing during the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty

9 - Nomadic Tartars (Mongols)

10 - Feasting with the Khan

11 - The Khan goes falconing

12 - The tent-city erected for the hunting party

Sections Below:


Summary of Polo Adventures

Links to Free Books On-line

Amazon Books, DVDs about Polo

Illumination Illustrations from 1400 Book (unique and very beautiful!)

(From Candida:  I apologize for some of the trashy adds that appear in the Google ads on this page.  Modern China is very different from Marco Polo's China.)




Excerpt 1

Marco describes how in China people burned coal (black stones) to warm their homes and heat their water.  This is in contrast to Venice and other places where coal was not found locally, and where they burned wood, which is scarce and cumbersome.  You'll note that taking a bath 3 times a week was seen as odd.  Medieval Europe was a smelly place, and not just from the dirty people, but from the pervasive smell of burning wood.


"It is a fact that all over the country of Cathay there is a kind of black stones existing in beds in the mountains, which they dig out and burn like firewood. If you supply the fire with them at night, and see that they are well kindled, you will find them still alight in the morning; and they make such capital fuel that no other is used throughout the country. It is true that they have plenty of wood also, but they do not burn it, because those stones burn better and cost less.


"Moreover with that vast number of people, and the number of hot baths that they maintain--for every one has such a bath at least three times a week, and in winter if possible every day, whilst every nobleman and man of wealth has a private bath for his own use--the wood would not suffice for the purpose.




Excerpt 2

This is an excerpt from Marco's book about the Three Kings or the Magi who visited Jesus of Nazareth just after Jesus's birth.  There are many tales about the Magi, in Jewish writings, Muslim writings, and Christian writings.  And while none agree completely, they are all, however, very entertaining.


"Persia is a great country, which was in old times very illustrious and powerful; but now the Tartars have wasted and destroyed it. In Persia is the city of SABA, from which the Three Magi set out when they went to worship Jesus Christ; and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, carefully kept.

'The bodies are still entire, with the hair and beard remaining. One of these was called Jaspar, the second Melchior, and the third Balthasar. Messer Marco Polo asked a great many questions of the people of that city as to those Three Magi, but never one could he find that knew aught of the matter, except that these were three kings who were buried there in days of old.

'However, at a place three days' journey distant he heard of what I am going to tell you. He found a village there which goes by the name of CALA ATAPERISTAN, which is as much as to say, "The Castle of the Fire-worshippers." And the name is rightly applied, for the people there do worship fire, and I will tell you why.


'They relate that in old times three kings of that country went away to worship a Prophet that was born, and they carried with them three manner of offerings, Gold, and Frankincense, and Myrrh; in order to ascertain whether that Prophet were God, or an earthly King, or a Physician. For, said they, if he take the Gold, then he is an earthly King; if he take the Incense he is God; if he take the Myrrh he is a Physician.  

'So it came to pass when they had come to the place where the Child was born, the youngest of the Three Kings went in first, and found the Child apparently just of his own age; so he went forth again marvelling greatly.

'The middle one entered next, and like the first he found the Child seemingly of his own age; so he also went forth again and marvelled greatly.

'Lastly, the eldest went in, and as it had befallen the other two, so it befell him. And he went forth very pensive.

'And when the three had rejoined one another, each told what he had seen; and then they all marvelled the more. So they agreed to go in all three together, and on doing so they beheld the Child with the appearance of its actual age, to wit, some thirteen days.

'Then they adored, and presented their Gold and Incense and Myrrh. And the Child took all the three offerings, and then gave them a small closed box; whereupon the Kings departed to return into their own land. And when they had ridden many days they said they would see what the Child had given them. So they opened the little box, and inside it they found a stone. On seeing this they began to wonder what this might be that the Child had given them, and what was the import thereof.

'Now the signification was this: when they presented their offerings, the Child had accepted all three, and when they saw that they had said within themselves that He was the True God, and the True King, and the True Physician. And what the gift of the stone implied was that this Faith which had begun in them should abide firm as a rock. For He well knew what was in their thoughts.

'Howbeit, they had no understanding at all of this signification of the gift of the stone; so they cast it into a well. Then straightway a fire from Heaven descended into that well wherein the stone had been cast. And when the Three Kings beheld this marvel they were sore amazed, and it greatly repented them that they had cast away the stone; for well they then perceived that it had a great and holy meaning.

'So they took of that fire, and carried it into their own country, and placed it in a rich and beautiful church. And there the people keep it continually burning, and worship it as a god, and all the sacrifices they offer are kindled with that fire.

'And if ever the fire becomes extinct they go to other cities round about where the same faith is held, and obtain of that fire from them, and carry it to the church. And this is the reason why the people of this country worship fire. They will often go ten days' journey to get of that fire.  

'Such then was the story told by the people of that Castle to Messer Marco Polo; they declared to him for a truth that such was their history, and that one of the three kings was of the city called SABA, and the second of AVA, and the third of that very Castle where they still worship fire, with the people of all the country round about."




Marco Polo captured the imaginations of Europeans with his stories of adventure in foreign lands.  His books inspired other writers to imagine what a young Marco Polo might have been like, and to use his made-up story to inspired young readers to greatness.




Excerpt 3

Here Marco described Kublai Khan and his four wives.


"The personal appearance of the Great Kaan, Lord of Lords, whose name is Cublay, is such as I shall now tell you. He is of a good stature, neither tall nor short, but of a middle height. He has a becoming amount of flesh, and is very shapely in all his limbs. His complexion is white and red, the eyes black and fine, the nose well formed and well set on.

'He has four wives, whom he retains permanently as his legitimate consorts; and the eldest of his sons by those four wives ought by rights to be emperor;--I mean when his father dies. Those four ladies are called empresses, but each is distinguished also by her proper name.

'And each of them has a special court of her own, very grand and ample; no one of them having fewer than 300 fair and charming damsels. They have also many pages and eunuchs, and a number of other attendants of both sexes; so that each of these ladies has not less than 10,000 persons attached to her court."




Marco Polo became a household name, and represented the mysterious and foreign far east.  Products such as tea were named for him over the years.











Excerpt 4

This is an excerpt from Marco Polo's book, telling how the Khans were brought to their chosen place of burial.


"To Chingis-khan succeeded Cyhn-khan; the third was Bathyn-khan, the fourth Esu-khan, the fifth Mongu-khan, the sixth Kublai-khan, who became greater and more powerful than all the others, inasmuch as he inherited what his predecessors possessed, and afterwards, during a reign of nearly sixty years, acquired, it may be said, the remainder of the world.

'The title of khan, or kaan, is equivalent to emperor in our language.

'It has been an invariable custom that all the grand khans and chiefs of the race of Chingis-khan should be carried for interment to a certain lofty mountain named Altai, and in whatever place they may happen to die, even if it should be at the distance of a hundred days' journey, they are nevertheless conveyed there."

[ed. The Altai Mountains are a mountain range in central Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together.  Here are two images.]





"It is likewise the custom, during the progress of removing the bodies of these princes, for those who form the escort to sacrifice such persons as they chance to meet on the road, saying to them, "Depart for the next world, and there attend upon your deceased master," believing that all they kill do actually become his servants in the next life.

'They do the same also with respect to horses, killing the best of the stud, in order that he may have the use of them.

'When the corpse of Mongu was transported to this mountain, the horsemen who accompanied it, having this blind and horrible persuasion, slew upwards of twenty thousand persons who fell in their way."





Marco Polo is not forgotten in Asia, as these images show.  He helped show the east not as aggressive hoards, but as civilized nations with great resources at their disposal.  He also showed that trade contacts could lead to mutual understanding, dialog and security.




Excerpt 5

Marco describes giant, reclining Buddas in one town.  These were common along the Silk Route.  In the news in the last years have been the giant, standing Buddas of Afghanistan.  But archeologists have found the remains of giant, reclining Buddas at the same site.


"Campichu is also a city of Tangut, and a very great and noble one. Indeed it is the capital and place of government of the whole province of Tangut.  [NOTE 1]

'The people are Idolaters [ed. Buddists], Saracens [ed. Arabs-Moslims], and Christians, and the latter have three very fine churches in the city, whilst the Idolaters have many minsters and abbeys after their fashion.

'In these they have an enormous number of idols, both small and great, certain of the latter being a good ten paces in stature; some of them being of wood, others of clay, and others yet of stone.

'They are all highly polished, and then covered with gold. The great idols of which I speak lie at length. And round about them there are other figures of considerable size, as if adoring and paying homage before them."




Over the years that followed the publication of Marco Polo's book, explorers sailed out across the seas and discovered that Marco Polo was not making things up in his book.  The places he mentioned really existed, sometimes altered from his description, but they really existed.  They were included in maps of the world, some used by Columbus on his travels.







Excerpt 6

This excerpt about the Khan's summer palace was the inspiration for the poet Coleridge's famous poem 'Xanadu' that began:  "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree...".


"And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned, between north-east and north, you come to a city called CHANDU,which was built by the Kaan [ed. Khan] now reigning.

'There is at this place a very fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

'Round this Palace a wall is built, inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gerfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew. Of these there are more than 200 gerfalcons alone, without reckoning the other hawks.

'The Kaan himself goes every week to see his birds sitting in mew, and sometimes he rides through the park with a leopard behind him on his horse's croup; and then if he sees any animal that takes his fancy, he slips his leopard at it,and the game when taken is made over to feed the hawks in mew. This he does for diversion."




Here is a lovely site set up by a university, that matches comments in Marco Polo's text with actual locations on a map.  Go to the site, and use the clickable map.


A university site offers an interactive map with locations mentioned by Marco Polo, and what he said about the location.




Excerpt 7

Here are some of Marco's descriptions of the Khan's palace compound in Cambaluc, or Peking, or Beijing.  Today, it is called the Forbidden City, enclosed in the Imperial City, but what exist today was built several centuries later.  When the Mongol rulers, the Yuan dynasty, were overthrown, their city was raised to the ground, only to be built over by a later dynasty.


"You must know that for three months of the year, to wit December, January, and February, the Great Kaan resides in the capital city of Cathay, which is called CAMBALUC, and which is at the north-eastern extremity of the country. In that city stands his great Palace, and now I will tell you what it is like.  

'It is enclosed all round by a great wall forming a square, each side of which is a mile in length; that is to say, the whole compass thereof is four miles. This you may depend on; it is also very thick, and a good ten paces in height, whitewashed and loop-holed all round.

'At each angle of the wall there is a very fine and rich palace in which the war-harness of the Emperor is kept, such as bows and quivers, saddles and bridles, and bowstrings, and everything needful for an army.

'Also midway between every two of these Corner Palaces there is another of the like; so that taking the whole compass of the enclosure you find eight vast Palaces stored with the Great Lord's harness of war.

'And you must understand that each Palace is assigned to only one kind of article; thus one is stored with bows, a second with saddles, a third with bridles, and so on in succession right round.


[ed. Mongol Battle outfit from this period]


'The great wall has five gates on its southern face, the middle one being the great gate which is never opened on any occasion except when the Great Kaan himself goes forth or enters. Close on either side of this great gate is a smaller one by which all other people pass; and then towards each angle is another great gate, also open to people in general; so that on that side there are five gates in all.

'Inside of this wall there is a second, enclosing a space that is somewhat greater in length than in breadth. This enclosure also has eight palaces corresponding to those of the outer wall, and stored like them with the Lord's harness of war. This wall also hath five gates on the southern face, corresponding to those in the outer wall, and hath one gate on each of the other faces, as the outer wall hath also.

'In the middle of the second enclosure is the Lord's Great Palace, and I will tell you what it is like. You must know that it is the greatest Palace that ever was. Towards the north it is in contact with the outer wall, whilst towards the south there is a vacant space which the Barons and the soldiers are constantly traversing.


[ed. This is the last Khan's palace in Mongolia, still built to a similar design as that described by Marco Polo.]


'The Palace itself hath no upper story, but is all on the ground floor, only the basement is raised some ten palms above the surrounding soil and this elevation is retained by a wall of marble raised to the level of the pavement, two paces in width and projecting beyond the base of the Palace so as to form a kind of terrace-walk, by which people can pass round the building, and which is exposed to view, whilst on the outer edge of the wall there is a very fine pillared balustrade; and up to this the people are allowed to come.

'The roof is very lofty, and the walls of the Palace are all covered with gold and silver. They are also adorned with representations of dragons, sculptured and gilt, beasts and birds, knights and idols, and sundry other subjects. And on the ceiling too you see nothing but gold and silver and painting.

'On each of the four sides there is a great marble staircase leading to the top of the marble wall, and forming the approach to the Palace.

'The Hall of the Palace is so large that it could easily dine 6000 people; and it is quite a marvel to see how many rooms there are besides. The building is altogether so vast, so rich, and so beautiful, that no man on earth could design anything superior to it.

'The outside of the roof also is all coloured with vermilion and yellow and green and blue and other hues, which are fixed with a varnish so fine and exquisite that they shine like crystal, and lend a resplendent lustre to the Palace as seen for a great way round. This roof is made too with such strength and solidity that it is fit to last for ever.  

'On the interior side of the Palace are large buildings with halls and chambers, where the Emperor's private property is placed, such as his treasures of gold, silver, gems, pearls, and gold plate, and in which reside the ladies and concubines. There he occupies himself at his own convenience, and no one else has access.  

'Between the two walls of the enclosure which I have described, there are fine parks and beautiful trees bearing a variety of fruits. There are beasts also of sundry kinds, such as white stags and fallow deer, gazelles and roebucks, and fine squirrels of various sorts, with numbers also of the animal that gives the musk, and all manner of other beautiful creatures, insomuch that the whole place is full of them, and no spot remains void except where there is traffic of people going and coming.

'The parks are covered with abundant grass; and the roads through them being all paved and raised two cubits above the surface, they never become muddy, nor does the rain lodge on them, but flows off into the meadows, quickening the soil and producing that abundance of herbage.  

'From that corner of the enclosure which is towards the north-west there extends a fine Lake, containing foison of fish of different kinds which the Emperor hath caused to be put in there, so that whenever he desires any he can have them at his pleasure. A river enters this lake and issues from it, but there is a grating of iron or brass put up so that the fish cannot escape in that way.  

'Moreover on the north side of the Palace, about a bow-shot off, there is a hill which has been made by art from the earth dug out of the lake; it is a good hundred paces in height and a mile in compass. This hill is entirely covered with trees that never lose their leaves, but remain ever green.

The Khan's Palace Compound

'And I assure you that wherever a beautiful tree may exist, and the Emperor gets news of it, he sends for it and has it transported bodily with all its roots and the earth attached to them, and planted on that hill of his. No matter how big the tree may be, he gets it carried by his elephants; and in this way he has got together the most beautiful collection of trees in all the world.

'And he has also caused the whole hill to be covered with the ore of azure, which is very green. And thus not only are the trees all green, but the hill itself is all green likewise; and there is nothing to be seen on it that is not green; and hence it is called the GREEN MOUNT; and in good sooth 'tis named well.  

'On the top of the hill again there is a fine big palace which is all green inside and out; and thus the hill, and the trees, and the palace form together a charming spectacle; and it is marvellous to see their uniformity of colour! Everybody who sees them is delighted. And the Great Kaan had caused this beautiful prospect to be formed for the comfort and solace and delectation of his heart.  

'You must know that beside the Palace (that we have been describing), i.e. the Great Palace, the Emperor has caused another to be built just like his own in every respect, and this he hath done for his son when he shall reign and be Emperor after him.

'Hence it is made just in the same fashion and of the same size, so that everything can be carried on in the same manner after his own death. It stands on the other side of the lake from the Great Kaan's Palace, and there is a bridge crossing the water from one to the other. The Prince in question holds now a Seal of Empire, but not with such complete authority as the Great Kaan, who remains supreme as long as he lives.  





Here's another map for which I can't find the original location on the web.  It shows Marco Polo's travels from Venice to China (the yellow line) and Marco father and uncle's path to China, which are also described by Marco in his book), while in China (the red lines that go south then north from Beijing), and on his way home to Venice (the red lines).




Excerpt 8

This is how Marco Polo describes ancient Beijing under the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol Dynasty.


"Now there was on that spot in old times a great and noble city called CAMBALUC, which is as much as to say in our tongue "The city of the Emperor."

'But the Great Kaan was informed by his Astrologers that this city would prove rebellious, and raise great disorders against his imperial authority. So he caused the present city to be built close beside the old one, with only a river between them. And he caused the people of the old city to be removed to the new town that he had founded; and this is called TAIDU.

'However, he allowed a portion of the people which he did not suspect to remain in the old city, because the new one could not hold the whole of them, big as it is.  

'As regards the size of this (new) city you must know that it has a compass of 24 miles, for each side of it hath a length of 6 miles, and it is four-square. And it is all walled round with walls of earth which have a thickness of full ten paces at bottom, and a height of more than 10 paces; but they are not so thick at top, for they diminish in thickness as they rise, so that at top they are only about 3 paces thick. And they are provided throughout with loop-holed battlements, which are all whitewashed.  

'There are 12 gates, and over each gate there is a great and handsome palace, so that there are on each side of the square three gates and five palaces; for (I ought to mention) there is at each angle also a great and handsome palace. In those palaces are vast halls in which are kept the arms of the city garrison.

The West Gate of Beijing  

'The streets are so straight and wide that you can see right along them from end to end and from one gate to the other. And up and down the city there are beautiful palaces, and many great and fine hostelries, and fine houses in great numbers.

'All the plots of ground on which the houses of the city are built are four-square, and laid out with straight lines; all the plots being occupied by great and spacious palaces, with courts and gardens of proportionate size. All these plots were assigned to different heads of families.

'Each square plot is encompassed by handsome streets for traffic; and thus the whole city is arranged in squares just like a chess-board, and disposed in a manner so perfect and masterly that it is impossible to give a description that should do it justice.  

'Moreover, in the middle of the city there is a great clock--that is to say, a bell--which is struck at night. And after it has struck three times no one must go out in the city, unless it be for the needs of a woman in labour, or of the sick. And those who go about on such errands are bound to carry lanterns with them.

'Moreover, the established guard at each gate of the city is 1000 armed men; not that you are to imagine this guard is kept up for fear of any attack, but only as a guard of honour for the Sovereign, who resides there, and to prevent thieves from doing mischief in the town."




This image from Wikipedia shows the Mongol empire over time, the same time the Polos were traveling to and from the empire.  After it's growth, the empire was eventually divided up.  To see more detail, visit the Wikipedia page for this image





Excerpt 9

Here is another excerpt from Marco Polo's book, about the Tartars (Mongolians).

"The Tartars never remain fixed, but as the winter approaches remove to the plains of a warmer region, to find sufficient pasture for their cattle; and in summer they frequent cold areas in the mountains, where there is water and verdure, and their cattle are free from the annoyance of horse-flies and other biting insects.

"During two or three months they go progressively higher and seek fresh pasture, the grass not being adequate in any one place to feed the multitudes of which their herds and flocks consist.

"Their huts or tents are formed of rods covered with felt, exactly round, and nicely put together, so they can gather them into one bundle, and make them up as packages, which they carry along with them in their migrations upon a sort of car with four wheels.



"When they have occasion to set them up again, they always make the entrance front to the south. [ed. gehr or a yurt]

"Besides these cars they have a superior kind of vehicle upon two wheels, also covered with black felt so well that they protect those within it from wet during a whole day of rain. These are drawn by oxen and camels, and convey their wives and children, their utensils, and whatever provisions they require.

"The women attend to their trading concerns, buy and sell, and provide everything necessary for their husbands and their families; the time of the men is devoted entirely to hunting, hawking, and matters that relate to the military life. They have the best falcons in the world, and also the best dogs.

"They live entirely upon flesh and milk, eating the produce of their sport, and a certain small animal, not unlike a rabbit, called by our people Pharaoh's mice, which during the summer season are found in great abundance in the plains. They eat flesh of every description, horses, camels, and even dogs, provided they are fat.



"They drink mares' milk, which they prepare in such a manner that it has the qualities and flavor of white wine. They term it in their language kemurs.

"Their women are not excelled in the world for chastity and decency of conduct, nor for love and duty to their husbands. Infidelity to the marriage bed is regarded by them as a vice not merely dishonorable, but of the most infamous nature; while on the other hand it is admirable to observe the loyalty of the husbands towards their wives, amongst whom, although there are perhaps ten or twenty, there prevails a highly laudable degree of quiet and union.

"No offensive language is ever heard, their attention being fully occupied with their traffic (as already mentioned) and their several domestic employments, such as the provision of necessary food for the family, the management of the servants, and the care of the children, a common concern.

"And the virtues of modesty and chastity in the wives are more praiseworthy because the men are allowed the indulgence of taking as many as they choose. Their expense to the husband is not great, and on the other hand the benefit he derives from their trading, and from the occupations in which they are constantly engaged, is considerable; on which account when he receives a young woman in marriage, he pays a dower to her parent.

"The wife who is the first espoused has the privilege of superior attention, and is held to be the most legitimate, which extends also to the children borne by her. In consequence of this unlimited number of wives, the offspring is more numerous than amongst any other people.

"Upon the death of the father, the son may take to himself the wives he leaves behind, with the exception of his own mother. They cannot take their sisters to wife, but upon the death of their brothers they can marry their sisters-in-law. Every marriage is solemnized with great ceremony.



These images, like many on this page, are illustrations from reprints of Marco Polo's book over the years.  They show the romanticization that has surrounded the work since it's earliest publication.





Excerpt 10

This excerpt is about how feasts are held with the Khan presiding.  I especially like the treatment of people who step on the threshold, considered to be unlucky just about everywhere.


"And when the Great Kaan sits at table on any great court occasion, it is in this fashion. His table is elevated a good deal above the others, and he sits at the north end of the hall, looking towards the south, with his chief wife beside him on the left.

'On his right sit his sons and his nephews, and other kinsmen of the Blood Imperial, but lower, so that their heads are on a level with the Emperor's feet. And then the other Barons sit at other tables lower still. So also with the women; for all the wives of the Lord's sons, and of his nephews and other kinsmen, sit at the lower table to his right; and below them again the ladies of the other Barons and Knights, each in the place assigned by the Lord's orders.

'The tables are so disposed that the Emperor can see the whole of them from end to end, many as they are. Further, you are not to suppose that everybody sits at table; on the contrary, the greater part of the soldiers and their officers sit at their meal in the hall on the carpets. Outside the hall will be found more than 40,000 people; for there is a great concourse of folk bringing presents to the Lord, or come from foreign countries with curiosities.  

'In a certain part of the hall near where the Great Kaan holds his table, there is set a large and very beautiful piece of workmanship in the form of a square coffer, or buffet, about three paces each way, exquisitely wrought with figures of animals, finely carved and gilt. The middle is hollow, and in it] stands a great vessel of pure gold, holding as much as an ordinary butt; and at each corner of the great vessel is one of smaller size of the capacity of a firkin, and from the former the wine or beverage flavoured with fine and costly spices is drawn off into the latter.

'And on the buffet aforesaid are set all the Lord's drinking vessels, among which are certain pitchers of the finest gold, which are called verniques, and are big enough to hold drink for eight or ten persons. And one of these is put between every two persons, besides a couple of golden cups with handles, so that every man helps himself from the pitcher that stands between him and his neighbour. And the ladies are supplied in the same way. The value of these pitchers and cups is something immense; in fact, the Great Kaan has such a quantity of this kind of plate, and of gold and silver in other shapes, as no one ever before saw or heard tell of, or could believe.

'There are certain Barons specially deputed to see that foreigners, who do not know the customs of the Court, are provided with places suited to their rank; and these Barons are continually moving to and fro in the hall, looking to the wants of the guests at table, and causing the servants to supply them promptly with wine, milk, meat, or whatever they lack.

'At every door of the hall (or, indeed, wherever the Emperor may be) there stand a couple of big men like giants, one on each side, armed with staves. Their business is to see that no one steps upon the threshold in entering, and if this does happen, they strip the offender of his clothes, and he must pay a forfeit to have them back again; or in lieu of taking his clothes, they give him a certain number of blows.

'If they are foreigners ignorant of the order, then there are Barons appointed to introduce them, and explain it to them. They think, in fact, that it brings bad luck if any one touches the threshold. Howbeit, they are not expected to stick at this in going forth again, for at that time some are like to be the worse for liquor, and incapable of looking to their steps.

And you must know that those who wait upon the Great Kaan with his dishes and his drink are some of the great Barons. They have the mouth and nose muffled with fine napkins of silk and gold, so that no breath nor odour from their persons should taint the dish or the goblet presented to the Lord.

'And when the Emperor is going to drink, all the musical instruments, of which he has vast store of every kind, begin to play. And when he takes the cup all the Barons and the rest of the company drop on their knees and make the deepest obeisance before him, and then the Emperor doth drink. But each time that he does so the whole ceremony is repeated.

'I will say nought about the dishes, as you may easily conceive that there is a great plenty of every possible kind. But you should know that in every case where a Baron or Knight dines at those tables, their wives also dine there with the other ladies.

'And when all have dined and the tables have been removed, then come in a great number of players and jugglers, adepts at all sorts of wonderful feats, and perform before the Emperor and the rest of the company, creating great diversion and mirth, so that everybody is full of laughter and enjoyment. And when the performance is over, the company breaks up and every one goes to his quarters.




Marco Polo is one of the early Italian explorers and is honored in Italy as a pioneer.




Excerpt 11

Marco describes how the Khan goes falconing after his three month stay in the capital Cambaluc.


"And so the Emperor follows this road that I have mentioned, leading along in the vicinity of the Ocean Sea (which is within two days' journey of his capital city, Cambaluc), and as he goes there is many a fine sight to be seen, and plenty of the very best entertainment in hawking; in fact, there is no sport in the world to equal it!  

'The Emperor himself is carried upon four elephants in a fine chamber made of timber, lined inside with plates of beaten gold, and outside with lions' skins for he always travels in this way on his fowling expeditions, because he is troubled with gout.

'He always keeps beside him a dozen of his choicest gerfalcons, and is attended by several of his Barons, who ride on horseback alongside. And sometimes, as they may be going along, and the Emperor from his chamber is holding discourse with the Barons, one of the latter shall exclaim: "Sire! Look out for Cranes!"

'Then the Emperor instantly has the top of his chamber thrown open, and having marked the cranes he casts one of his gerfalcons, whichever he pleases; and often the quarry is struck within his view, so that he has the most exquisite sport and diversion, there as he sits in his chamber or lies on his bed; and all the Barons with him get the enjoyment of it likewise!

'So it is not without reason I tell you that I do not believe there ever existed in the world or ever will exist, a man with such sport and enjoyment as he has, or with such rare opportunities."



Excerpt 12

Marco describes the Khan's tent-city when he goes hunting after his three months in the capital city.


"And when he has travelled till he reaches a place called CACHAR MODUN,there he finds his tents pitched, with the tents of his Sons, and his Barons, and those of his Ladies and theirs, so that there shall be full 10,000 tents in all, and all fine and rich ones.

'And I will tell you how his own quarters are disposed. The tent in which he holds his courts is large enough to give cover easily to a thousand souls. It is pitched with its door to the south, and the Barons and Knights remain in waiting in it, whilst the Lord abides in another close to it on the west side. When he wishes to speak with any one he causes the person to be summoned to that other tent.

'Immediately behind the great tent there is a fine large chamber where the Lord sleeps; and there are also many other tents and chambers, but they are not in contact with the Great Tent as these are.

'The two audience-tents and the sleeping-chamber are constructed in this way. Each of the audience-tents has three poles, which are of spice-wood, and are most artfully covered with lions' skins, striped with black and white and red, so that they do not suffer from any weather.


[ed. Here is an image of a yurt (Mongol tent) from today, to give an idea of how large they can be.]


'All three apartments are also covered outside with similar skins of striped lions, a substance that lasts for ever. And inside they are all lined with ermine and sable, these two being the finest and most costly furs in existence. For a robe of sable, large enough to line a mantle, is worth 2000 bezants of gold, or 1000 at least, and this kind of skin is called by the Tartars "The King of Furs." The beast itself is about the size of a marten. These two furs of which I speak are applied and inlaid so exquisitely, that it is really something worth seeing.

'All the tent-ropes are of silk. And in short I may say that those tents, to wit the two audience-halls and the sleeping-chamber, are so costly that it is not every king could pay for them.  

'Round about these tents are others, also fine ones and beautifully pitched, in which are the Emperor's ladies, and the ladies of the other princes and officers. And then there are the tents for the hawks and their keepers, so that altogether the number of tents there on the plain is something wonderful.

'To see the many people that are thronging to and fro on every side and every day there, you would take the camp for a good big city. For you must reckon the Leeches, and the Astrologers, and the Falconers, and all the other attendants on so great a company; and add that everybody there has his whole family with him, for such is their custom."


[ed. Here is an image of modern yurts set up for tourists in Mongolia, including garbage container outside the front door.]




Some Products



The first link is the highest rated DVD/movie about Marco Polo from 1982




These are DVD documentaries.




Some biographies, books.




And for children.





This short Preface from a story about Marco Polo from 1896 by Noah Brooks says it all:

“The story of Marco Polo and his companions is one of the most romantic and interesting of mediaeval or of modern times. 

'The manner of the return of the Polos long after they ad been given up for dead, the subsequent adventures of Marco Polo, the incredulity with which his book of travels was received, the gradual and slow confirmations of the truth of his reports as later explorations penetrated the mysterious Orient, and the fact that he may be justly regarded as the founder of the geography of Asia, have all combined to give to his narrative a certain fascination, with which no other story of travel has been invested. 

'At first read for pure amusement, Marco Polo’s book eventually became an authoritative account of regions of the earth which were almost wholly unknown to Europe up to his time, and some portions of which even now remain unexplored by Western travelers.”

I think the most striking things that we discover about Marco Polo, are that Marco:

  • had a gregarious character,

  • had great skill with people and languages,

  • was curious about people and their customs, that suggests his book is the work of a natural-born social-scientist, and

  • he had a very study physique. 

Marco, who took after his outgoing and adventurous father, embraced the newness he discovered along his journey, related to people as equals, and survived strenuous travels, violence, illness and inclement weather that would have stopped other men in their tracks and sent them packing back home (several of their traveling companions did just that, others perished!).

When you see representations of Marco Polo, none made during his lifetime, you see a sturdy hulk of a man whom today we would say looks like a rugby player, or an adventurer.  This physique seems the most likely.  Only later, when Marco's story was reprinted and illustrated for a mass audience, was his likeness changed into a romanticized waif.

I have links below to free on-line copies of Marco Polo's book.  It is the famous Yule translation that comes in two volumes.  You'll find that the footnotes added by the translator to each chapter are much longer than Marco's chapters, and they provide fascinating information

But be warned, the first 69 pages or so, are all about the translator!  Then the next 150 pages are background information about the times, the Polos, and Marco's book.  Then Marco's book begins with a prologue that offers an overview of his father and uncle's travels, and his own travels with them and on his own.  After that, he discusses places he visited, one at a time, over the two books.

Marco's commentary, dictated to his transcriber, is just as an Italian would speak to you.  Many of the phrases begin with "You should know..." which in Italian is "Devi sapere...", a common way of beginning an explanation of something to someone.  The text is very colloquial, just as if Marco were sitting there speaking to you. 

Marco explains that he learned so much about the lives of the peoples he visited, because he wanted to entertain the Khan with the details when he returned from his missions.  Marco had noticed that the other ambassadors disappointed the Khan by their dry and spare accounts of their journeys, so Marco kept notebooks as he traveled, noting down things the Khan might not know.  He brought these notebooks home with him, and sent for them from prison, and referred to these notebooks as he dictated his story.

I provide links below to for movies and books about Marco Polo, and even a copy of his Travels, in case you prefer a hard copy, or a paperbound book. 

But wouldn't it be nice to be able to read one of the 80 or so hand-written copies believed to be have been made?  Or even one of the many, many early printed editions with woodblock images?  When visiting museums around the world, be sure to check their manuscript sections.  They will surely have an early copy of The Travels of Marco Polo - Il Milione.  I link below to one copy in the Bodleian Library that you can view on-line, and show several of the illuminations that decorate that copy, written in French.


Summary of Polo Adventures

I report here a summary of the story of Marco Polo (b.1254-d.1324) and his father and uncle and their trips to the Far East.  The summary is written by the beloved American author Washington Irving (b.1783-d.1859) and was included in his biography of Christopher Columbus.

Washington Irving Home, Tarrytown


Here begin Washington Irving's words:

"The travels of Marco Polo, or Paolo [ ed. the family uses both when writing their names], furnish a key to many parts of the voyages and speculations of Columbus, which without it would hardly be comprehensible.

Marco Polo was a native of Venice, who, in the thirteenth century, made a journey into the remote, and, at that time, unknown regions of the East, and filled all Christendom with curiosity by his account of the countries he had visited.

He was preceded in his travels by his father Nicholas and his uncle Maffeo Polo. These two brothers were of an illustrious family in Venice, and embarked, about the year 1255, on a commercial voyage to the East.

Having traversed the Mediterranean and through the Bosphorus, they stopped for a short time at Constantinople, which city had recently been wrested from the Greeks by the joint arms of France and Venice.  [ed. The Polos, together with their older brother, ran a trading business with offices in Venice, Constantinople and Soldaia on the Black Sea]



Here they disposed of their Italian merchandise, and, having purchased a stock of jewelry, departed on an adventurous expedition to trade with the western Tartars, who, having overrun many parts of Asia and Europe, were settling and forming cities in the vicinity of the Wolga.

After traversing the Euxine [ed. Black Sea, or Great Sea] to Soldaia, (at present Sudak,) a port in the Crimea, they continued on, by land and water, until they reached the military court, or rather camp, of a Tartar prince, named Barkah, a descendant of Ghengis Khan, into whose hands they confided all their merchandise.

The barbaric chieftain, while he was dazzled by their precious commodities, was flattered by the entire confidence in his justice manifested by these strangers. He repaid them with princely munificence, and loaded them with favors during a year that they remained at his court.

A war breaking out between their patron and his cousin Hulagu, chief of the eastern Tartars, and Barkah being defeated, the Polos were embarrassed how to extricate themselves from the country and return home in safety.

The road to Constantinople being cut off by the enemy, they took a circuitous route, round the head of the Caspian Sea, and through the deserts of Transoxiana, until they arrived in the city of Bokhara, where they resided for three years.


While here there arrived a Tartar nobleman who was on an embassy from the victorious Hulagu to his brother the Grand Khan. The ambassador became acquainted with the Venetians, and finding them to be versed in the Tartar tongue and possessed of curious and valuable knowledge, he prevailed upon them to accompany him to the court of the emperor, situated, as they supposed, at the very extremity of the East.

After a march of several months, being delayed by snow-storms and inundations, they arrived at the court of Cublai, otherwise called the Great Khan, which signifies King of Kings, being the sovereign potentate of the Tartars.


This magnificent prince received them with great distinction; he made inquiries about the countries and princes of the West, their civil and military government, and the manners and customs of the Latin nation. Above all, he was curious on the subject of the Christian religion.

He was so much struck by their replies, that after holding a council with the chief persons of his kingdom, he entreated the two brothers to go on his part as ambassadors to the pope, to entreat him to send a hundred learned men well instructed in the Christian faith, to impart a knowledge of it to the sages of his empire. He also entreated them to bring him a little oil from the lamp of our Saviour, in Jerusalem, which he concluded must have marvelous virtues.


It has been supposed, and with great reason, that under this covert of religion, the shrewd Tartar sovereign veiled motives of a political nature. The influence of the pope in promoting the crusades had caused his power to be known and respected throughout the East; it was of some moment, therefore, to conciliate his good-will.

Cublai Khan had no bigotry nor devotion to any particular faith, and probably hoped, by adopting Christianity, to make it a common cause between himself and the warlike princes of Christendom, against his and their inveterate enemies, the soldan of Egypt and the Saracens.  [ed. The Pope held the same hope when he heard of the Khan's overtures]

Having written letters to the pope in the Tartar language, he delivered them to the Polos, and appointed one of the principal noblemen of his court to accompany them in their mission.


On their taking leave he furnished them with a tablet of gold on which was engraved the royal arms; this was to serve as a passport, at sight of which the governors of the various provinces were to entertain them, to furnish them with escorts through dangerous places, and render them all other necessary services at the expense of the Great Khan. [ed. These tablets, or royal bulls to use the Vatican term, were common in the Mongol empire, and were indeed a passport for the bearer.]

They had scarce proceeded twenty miles, when the nobleman who accompanied them fell ill, and they were obliged to leave him, and continue on their route. Their golden passport procured them every attention and facility throughout the dominions of the Great Khan.

They arrived safely at Acre, in April, 1269.  [ed. Palestine's gateway to the Levant and a trading city during Mediaeval Times, with offices and markets for the major Italian city-states.]  Here they received news of the recent death of Pope Clement IV, at which they were much grieved, fearing it would cause delay in their mission.


There was at that time in Acre a legate of the holy chair, Tebaldo di Vesconti, of Placentia, to whom they gave an account of their embassy. He heard them with great attention and interest, and advised them to await the election of a new pope, which must soon take place, before they proceeded to Rome on their mission.

They determined in the interim to make a visit to their families, and accordingly departed for Negropont, and thence to Venice, where great changes had taken place in their domestic concerns, during their long absence. The wife of Nicholas, whom he had left pregnant, had died, in giving birth to a son, who had been named Marco.


As the contested election for the new pontiff remained pending for two years, they were uneasy, lest the emperor of Tartary should grow impatient at so long a postponement of the conversion of himself and his people; they determined, therefore, not to wait the election of a pope, but to proceed to Acre, and get such dispatches and such ghostly ministry for the Grand Khan, as the legate could furnish.

On the second journey, Nicholas Polo took with him his son Marco, who afterwards wrote an account of these travels.


They were again received with great favor by the legate Tebaldo, who, anxious for the success of their mission, furnished them with letters to the Grand Khan, in which the doctrines of the Christian faith were fully expounded. With these, and with a supply of the holy oil from the sepulchre, they once more set out in September, 1271, for the remote parts of Tartary.

They had not long departed, when missives arrived from Rome, informing the legate of his own election to the holy chair. He took the name of Gregory X, and decreed that in future, on the death of a pope, the cardinals should be shut up in conclave until they elected a successor; a wise regulation, which has since continued, enforcing a prompt decision, and preventing intrigue.



Immediately on receiving intelligence of his election, he dispatched a courier to the king of Armenia, requesting that the two Venetians might be sent back to him, if they had not departed. 

They joyfully returned, and were furnished with new letters to the Khan. Two eloquent friars, also, Nicholas Vincenti and Gilbert de Tripoli, were sent with them, with powers to ordain priests and bishops and to grant absolution. They had presents of crystal vases, and other costly articles, to deliver to the Grand Khan; and thus well provided, they once more set forth on their journey.

Arriving in Armenia, they ran great risk of their lives from the war which was raging, the soldan of Babylon having invaded the country. They took refuge for some time with the superior of a monastery. Here the two reverend fathers, losing all courage to prosecute so perilous an enterprise, determined to remain, and the Venetians continued their journey.

They were a long time on the way, and exposed to great hardships and sufferings from floods and snow-storms, it being the winter season. At length they reached a town in the dominions of the Khan.

That potentate sent officers to meet them at forty days' distance from the court, and to provide quarters for them during their journey. He received them with great kindness, was highly gratified with the result of their mission and with the letters of the pope, and having received from them some oil from the lamp of the holy sepulchre, he had it locked up, and guarded it as a precious treasure.


The three Venetians, father, brother and son, were treated with such distinction by the Khan, that the courtiers were filled with jealousy. Marco soon, however, made himself popular, and was particularly esteemed by the emperor.

He acquired the four principal languages of the country [ed. Persian, Mongolian, Uighur, Arabic], and was of such remarkable capacity, that, notwithstanding his youth, the Khan employed him in missions and services of importance, in various parts of his dominions, some to the distance of even six months' journey.

On these expeditions he was industrious in gathering all kinds of information respecting that vast empire; and from notes and minutes made for the satisfaction of the Grand Khan, he afterwards composed the history of his travels.


After about seventeen years' residence in the Tartar court the Venetians felt a longing to return to their native country. Their patron was advanced in age and could not survive much longer, and after his death, their return might be difficult, if not impossible. They applied to the Grand Khan for permission to depart, but for a time met with a refusal, accompanied by friendly upbraidings.

At length a singular train of events operated in their favor; an embassy arrived from a Mogul Tartar prince, who ruled in Persia, and who was grand-nephew to the emperor. The object was to entreat, as a spouse, a princess of the imperial lineage.  [ed. His wife had died, and made him promise to remarry a woman from her same family.]

A granddaughter of Cublai Klian, seventeen years of age, and of great beauty and accomplishments, was granted to the prayer of the prince, and departed for Persia with the ambassadors, and with a splendid retinue, but after traveling for some months, was obliged to return on account of the distracted state of the country. 

The ambassadors despaired of conveying the beautiful bride to the arms of her expecting bridegroom, when Marco Polo returned from a voyage to certain of the Indian islands. His representations of the safety of a voyage in those seas, and his private instigations, induced the ambassadors to urge the Grand Khan for permission to convey the princess by sea to the gulf of Persia, and that the Christians might accompany them, as being best experienced in maritime affairs.

Cublai Khan consented with great reluctance, and a splendid fleet was fitted out and victualed for two years, consisting of fourteen ships of four masts, some of which had crews of two hundred and fifty men.

On parting with the Venetians the munificent Khan gave them rich presents of jewels, and made them promise to return to him after they had visited their families. He authorized them to act as his ambassadors to the principal courts of Europe, and, as on a former occasion, furnished them with tablets of gold, to serve, not merely as passports, but as orders upon all commanders in his territories for accommodations and supplies.


They set sail therefore in the fleet with the oriental princess and her attendants and the Persian ambassadors. The ships swept along the coast of Cochin China, stopped for three months at a port of the island of Sumatra near the western entrance of the straits of Malacca, waiting for the change of the monsoon to pass the bay of Bengal. [ed. Marco describes all the spices that later lead to this area's devastation by the East India Company, their conquest of the Spice Islands.] 

Traversing this vast expanse, they touched at the island of Ceylon [ed. Sri Lanka] and then crossed the strait to the southern part of the great peninsula of India. Thence sailing up the Pirate coast, as it is called, the fleet entered the Persian gulf and arrived at the famous port of Olmuz, [ed. Hormuz] where it is presumed the voyage terminated, after eighteen months spent in traversing the Indian seas. [ed. Marco says only 8 people survived the journey.]

Unfortunately for the royal bride who was the object of this splendid naval expedition, the bridegroom, the Mogul king, had died some time before her arrival, leaving a son named Ghazan, during whose minority the government was administered by his uncle Kai-Khatu.  

According to the directions of the regent, the princess was delivered to the youthful prince, son of her intended spouse. He was at that time at the head of an army on the borders of Persia. He was of a diminutive stature, but of a great soul, and, on afterwards ascending the throne, acquired renown for his talents and virtues. What became of the Eastern bride, who had traveled so far in quest of a husband, is not known; but every thing favorable is to be inferred from the character of Ghazan. [ed. Marco relates that the journey was very difficult, but he, his father, and his uncle survived along with the young princess, who looked upon them as her three fathers.]

The Polos remained some time in the court of the regent, and then departed, with fresh tablets of gold given by that prince, to carry them in safety and honor through his dominions.  As they had to traverse many countries where the traveler is exposed to extreme peril, they appeared on their journeys as Tartars of low condition, having converted all their wealth into precious stones and sewn them up in the folds and linings of their coarse garments.


They had a long, difficult, and perilous journey to Trebizond, whence they proceeded to Constantinople, thence to Negropont, and, finally, to Venice, where they arrived in 1295, in good health, and literally laden with riches. [ed. Many surmise that they arrived with Tartar servants, too, who helped them bring home their riches, and who lived with the Polos in Venice.]

Having heard during their journey of the death of their old benefactor Cublai Khan, they considered their diplomatic functions at an end, and also that they were absolved from their promise to return to his dominions.

Ramusio, in his preface to the narrative of Marco Polo, [ed. Ramusio edited the earliest edition of The Travels to be made on a printing press, and wrote a long preface] gives a variety of particulars concerning their arrival, which he compares to that of Ulysses.

When they arrived at Venice, they were known by nobody. So many years had elapsed since their departure, without any tidings of them, that they were either forgotten or considered dead. Besides, their foreign garb, the influence of southern suns, and the similitude which men acquire to those among whom they reside for any length of time, had given them the look of Tartars rather than Italians.

 They repaired to their own house, which was a noble palace, situated in the street of St. Giovanni Chrisostomo, and was afterwards known by the name of la Corte de la Milione. [ed. Actually, it was a new house they bought in Venice after their return, that took on that name.]

They found several of their relatives still inhabiting it; but they were slow in recollecting the travelers, not knowing of their wealth, and probably considering them, from their coarse and foreign attire, poor adventurers returned to be a charge upon their families.

The Polos, however, took an effectual mode of quickening the memories of their friends, and insuring themselves a loving reception. They invited them all to a grand banquet.

When their guests arrived, they received them richly dressed in garments of crimson satin of oriental fashion. When water had been served for the washing of hands, and the company were summoned to table, the travelers, who had retired, appeared again in still richer robes of crimson damask. The first dresses were cut up and distributed among the servants, being of such length that they swept the ground, which, says Ramusio, was the mode in those days, with dresses worn within doors.

Crimsom Damask

After the first course, they again retired and came in dressed in crimson velvet; the damask dresses being likewise given to the domestics, and the same was done at the end of the feast with their velvet robes, when they appeared in the Venetian dress of the day. The guests were lost in astonishment, and could not comprehend the meaning of this masquerade.

Crimsom Velvet

Having dismissed all the attendants, Marco Polo brought forth the coarse Tartar dresses in which they had arrived. Slashing them in several places with a knife, and ripping open the seams and lining, there tumbled forth rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds, and other precious stones, until the whole table glittered with inestimable wealth, acquired from the munificence of the Grand Khan, and conveyed in this portable form through the perils of their long journey.


The company, observes Ramusio, were out of their wits with amazement, and now clearly perceived what they had at first doubted, that these in very truth were those honored and valiant gentlemen the Polos, and, accordingly, paid them great respect and reverence.

The account of this curious feast is given by Ramusio, on traditional authority, having heard it many times related by the illustrious Gasparo Malipiero, a very ancient gentleman, and a senator, of unquestionable veracity, who had it from his father, who had it from his grandfather, and so on up to the fountain-head.

When the fame of this banquet and of the wealth of the travelers came to be divulged throughout Venice, all the city, noble and simple, crowded to do honor to the extraordinary merit of the Polos.  Maffeo, who was the eldest, was admitted to the dignity of the magistracy.

Italian Merchant

The youth of the city came every day to visit and converse with Marco Polo, who was extremely amiable and communicative. They were insatiable in their inquiries about Cathay and the Grand Khan, which he answered with great courtesy, giving details with which they were vastly delighted, and, as he always spoke of the wealth of the Grand Khan in round numbers, they gave him the name of Messer Marco Milioni.

[ed. The Polo's purchased a palace in Venice after their return, and because of Marco's storytelling, with lots of large numbers of things owned by the Khan, the young men of Venice gave Marco and the palace a nickname, Il Milione, The Million, which also became a nickname for Marco's book.  The palace burned down in the 1600s and the Teatro Malibran was built on it's foundations.  The theatre exists today, close to both the Rialto bridge and the Teatro Fenice.]

Some months after their return, Lampa Doria, commander of the Genoese navy, appeared in the vicinity of the island of Curzola with seventy galleys. Andrea Dandolo, the Venetian admiral, was sent against him.

Marco Polo commanded a galley of the fleet. His usual good fortune deserted him. Advancing the first in the line with his galley, and not being properly seconded, he was taken prisoner, thrown in irons, and carried to Genoa.  Here he was detained for a long time in prison, and all offers of ransom rejected.

[ed. It was usual at the time to earn money from ransoming prisoners of war.  Marco's father tried two times, in long, drawn out negotiations through intermediaries to ransom his son, but both attempts failed.  In the end, Marco was released because of the stature he built for himself while in prison recounting his tales.] 

His imprisonment gave great uneasiness to his father and uncle, fearing that he might never return.  Seeing themselves in this unhappy state, with so much treasure and no heirs, they consulted together. They were both very old men; but Nicolo, observes Ramusio, was of a galliard complexion [ed. strong or lively character]; it was determined he should take a wife.  He did so; and, to the wonder of his friends, in four years had three children.

In the meanwhile, the fame of Marco Polo's travels had circulated in Genoa.  His prison was daily crowded with nobility, and he was supplied with every thing that could cheer him in his confinement.

A Genoese gentleman, who visited him every day, at length prevailed upon him to write an account of what he had seen. [ed. Marco says he agreed to dictate his stories to a transcriber because he was tired of retelling them over and over again to all his daily visitors.]

He had his papers and journals sent to him from Venice, and, with the assistance of his friend, or, as some will have it, his fellow-prisoner [ed. Rustichello of Pisa], produced the work which afterwards made such noise throughout the world.  [ed. It was a 'best-seller' in a time when books were copied by hand and decorated by hand.  Later in the early 1500s, Marco Polo's book was reproduced on the new printing presses, and was a real best-seller.]

The merit of Marco Polo at length procured him his liberty.  He returned to Venice, where he found his father with a house full of children.  He took it in good part, followed the old man's example, married, and had two daughters, Moretta and Fantina.  [ed. Actually, he had three daughters, all three mentioned by name in his will, as well as his wife, Donata.]

The date of the death of Marco Polo is unknown [ed. his will was made in 1323 when he was very ill, and he was dead by the time 1324 came around]; he is supposed to have been, at the time, about seventy years of age. [ed. Marco was a merchant trader, a business man for the remaining years of his life, from 1300 to 1324.]

On his death-bed he is said to have been exhorted by his friends to retract what he had published, or, at least, to disavow those parts commonly regarded as fictions. He replied indignantly that so far from having exaggerated, he had not told one half of the extraordinary things of which he had been an eye-witness.  [ed. It is only, really, during the Age of Exploration that the veracity of Marco Polo's tales were accepted.  Venice even has a very old Carnival character based on Marco Polo, Marco Milione, who tells tall tales.]

[ed. It is interesting to note that in his last will and testament, Marco frees his manservant, Peter a Tartar (Mongol), and gives him a generous settlement.  The will also states that his manservant had a home of his own, provided by Marco Polo.  After living 26 years among Tartars, it seems Marco Polo choose to have a Tartar for company until his last days.  A few years later, Peter was granted Venetian citizenship after living in Venice for so long and behaving impeccably.]

Marco Polo died without male issue.  Of the three sons of his father by the second marriage, one only had children, viz. five sons and one daughter. The sons died without leaving issue; the daughter inherited all her father's wealth, and married into the noble and distinguished house of Trevesino. Thus the male line of the Polos ceased in 1417, and the family name was extinguished.


Such are the principal particulars known of Marco Polo; a man whose travels for a long time made a great noise in Europe, and will be found to have had a great effect on modern discovery.

His splendid account of the extent, wealth, and population of the Tartar territories filled every one with admiration. The possibility of bringing all those regions under the dominion of the church, and rendering the Grand Khan an obedient vassal to the holy chair, was for a long time a favorite topic among the enthusiastic missionaries of Christendom, and there were many saints-errant who undertook to effect the conversion of this magnificent infidel.

Even at the distance of two centuries, when the enterprises for the discovery of the new route to India had set all the warm heads of Europe madding about these remote regions of the East, the conversion of the Grand Khan became again a popular theme; and it was too speculative and romantic an enterprise not to catch the vivid imagination of Columbus. 

In all his voyages, he will be found continually to be seeking after the territories of the Grand Khan, and even after his last expedition, when nearly worn out by age, hardships, and infirmities, he offered, in a letter to the Spanish monarchs, written from a bed of sickness, to conduct any missionary to the territories of the Tartar emperor, who would undertake his conversion.

The work of Marco Polo is stated by some to have been originally written in Latin, though the most probable opinion is that it was written in the Venetian dialect of the Italian.  Copies of it in manuscript were multiplied and rapidly circulated; translations were made into various languages, until the invention of printing enabled it to be widely diffused throughout Europe.


In the course of these translations and successive editions, the original text, according to Purchas, has been much vitiated, and it is probable many extravagances in numbers and measurements with which Marco Polo is charged may be the errors of translators and printers.

When the work first appeared, it was considered by some as made up of fictions and extravagances, and Vossius assures us that even after the death of Marco Polo he continued to be a subject of ridicule among the light and unthinking, insomuch that he was frequently personated at masquerades by some wit or droll, who, in his feigned character, related all kinds of extravagant fables and adventures.

His work, however, excited great attention among thinking men, containing evidently a fund of information concerning vast and splendid countries, before unknown to the European world. Vossius assures us that it was at one time highly esteemed by the learned.  Francis Pepin, author of the Brandenburgh version, styles Polo a man commendable for his piety, prudence, and fidelity.


Athanasius Kircher, in his account of China, says that none of the ancients have described the kingdoms of the remote East with more exactness.  Various other learned men of past times have borne testimony to his character, and most of the substantial parts of his work have been authenticated by subsequent travelers.

The most able and ample vindication of Marco Polo, however, is to be found in the English translation of his work, with copious notes and commentaries, by William Marsden, F. R. S.  He has diligently discriminated between what Marco Polo relates from his own observation, and what he relates as gathered from others; he points out the errors that have arisen from misinterpretations, omissions, or interpretations of translators, and he claims all proper allowance for the superstitious coloring of parts of the narrative from the belief, prevalent among the most wise and learned of his day, in miracles and magic.

After perusing the work of Mr. Marsden, the character of Marco Polo rises in the estimation of the reader.  It is evident that his narration, as far as related from his own observations, is correct, and that he had really traversed a great part of Tartary and China, and navigated in the Indian seas.  

Some of the countries and many of the islands, however, are evidently described from accounts given by others, and in these accounts are generally found the fables which have excited incredulity and ridicule. As he composed his work after his return home, partly from memory and partly from memorandums, he was liable to confuse what he had heard with what he had seen, and thus to give undue weight to many fables and exaggerations which he had received from others.

Much had been said of a map brought from Cathay by Marco Polo, which was conserved in the convent of San Michale de Murano in the vicinity of Venice, and in which the Cape of Good Hope and the island of Madagascar were indicated; countries which the Portuguese claim the merit of having discovered two centuries afterwards.  It has been suggested also that Columbus had visited the convent and examined this map, whence he derived some of his ideas concerning the coast of India.

According to Ramusio, however, who had been at the convent, and was well acquainted with the prior, the map preserved there was one copied by a friar from the original one of Marco Polo, and many alterations and additions had since been made by other hands, so that for a long time it lost all credit with judicious people, until on comparing it with the work of Marco Polo it was found in the main to agree with his descriptions.  The Cape of Good Hope was doubtless among the additions made subsequent to the discoveries of the Portuguese.


Columbus makes no mention of this map, which he most probably would have done had he seen it.  He seems to have been entirely guided by the one furnished by Paulo Toscanelli, and which was apparently projected after the original map, or after the descriptions of Marco Polo, and the maps of Ptolemy.

When the attention of the world was turned towards the remote parts of Asia in the 15th century, and the Portuguese were making their attempts to circumnavigate Africa, the narration of Marco Polo again rose to notice. This, with the travels of Nicolo le Comte, the Venetian, and of Hieronimo da San Stefano, a Genoese, are said to have been the principal lights by which the Portuguese guided themselves in their voyages.  

Above all, the influence which the work of Marco Polo had over the mind of Columbus, gives it particular interest and importance.  It was evidently an oracular work with him.  He frequently quotes it, and on his voyages, supposing himself to be on the Asiatic coast, he is continually endeavoring to discover the islands and main-lands described in it, and to find the famous Cipango.

It is proper, therefore, to specify some of those places, and the manner in which they are described by a Venetian traveler, that the reader may more fully understand the anticipations which were haunting the mind of Columbus in his voyages among the West Indian islands, and along the coast of Terra Firma.

The winter residence of the Great Khan, according to Marco Polo, was in the city of Cambalu, or Kanbalu, (since ascertained to be Pekin,) in the province of Cathay.

This city, he says, was twenty-four miles square, and admirably built. It was impossible, according to Marco Polo, to describe the vast amount and variety of merchandise and manufactures brought there; it would seem they were enough to furnish the universe.

"Here are to be seen in wonderful abundance the precious stones, the pearls, the silks, and the diverse perfumes of the East; scarce a day passes that there does not arrive nearly a thousand cars laden with silk, of which they make admirable stuffs in this city."


The palace of the Great Khan is magnificently built, and four miles in circuit. It is rather a group of palaces. In the interior it is resplendent with gold and silver; and in it are guarded the precious vases and jewels of the sovereign. All the appointments of the Khan for war, for the chase, for various festivities, are described in gorgeous terms.


But though Marco Polo is magnificent in his description of the provinces of Cathay, and its imperial city of Cambalu, he outdoes himself when he comes to describe the province of Mangi. This province is supposed to be the southern part of China. It contains, he says, twelve hundred cities. The capital, Quinsai  (supposed to be the city of Hang-cheu), was twenty-five miles from the sea, but communicated by a river with a port situated on the seacoast, and had great trade with India. 

The name Quinsai, according to Marco Polo, signifies the city of heaven; he says he has been in it and examined it diligently, and affirms it to be the largest in the world; and so undoubtedly it is if the measurement of the traveler is to be taken literally, for he declares that it is one hundred miles in circuit. This seeming exaggeration has been explained by supposing him to mean Chinese miles or li, which are to the Italian miles in the proportion of three to eight; and Mr. Marsden observes that the walls even of the modern city, the limits of which have been considerably contracted, are estimated by travelers at sixty li.

The ancient city has evidently been of immense extent, and as Marco Polo could not be supposed to have measured the walls himself, he has probably taken the loose and incorrect estimates of the inhabitants.

He describes it also as built upon little islands like Venice, and has twelve thousand stone bridges, the arches of which are so high that the largest vessels can pass under them without lowering their masts. It has, he affirms, three thousand baths, and six hundred thousand families, including domestics.

It abounds with magnificent houses, and has a lake thirty miles in circuit within its walls, on the banks of which are superb palaces of people of rank. The inhabitants of Quinsai are very voluptuous, and indulge in all kinds of luxuries and delights, particularly the women, who are extremely beautiful.

There are many merchants and artisans, but the masters do not work, they employ servants to do all their labor. The province of Mangi was conquered by the Great Khan, who divided it into nine kingdoms, appointing to each a tributary king. He drew from it an immense revenue, for the country abounded in gold, silver, silks, sugar, spices, and perfumes. 

Zipangu, Zifangri, or Cipango.

Fifteen hundred miles from the shores of Mangi, according to Marco Polo, lay the great island of Zipangu, by some written Zipangri, and by Columbus Cipango. Marco Polo describes it as abounding in gold, which, however, the king seldom permits to be transported out of the island.

The king has a magnificent palace covered with plates of gold, as in other countries the palaces are covered with sheets of lead or copper. The halls and chambers are likewise covered with gold, the windows adorned with it, sometimes in plates of the thickness of two fingers. 

The island also produces vast quantities of the largest and finest pearls, together with a variety of precious stones; so that, in fact, it abounds in riches. The Great Khan made several attempts to conquer this island, but in vain; which is not to be wondered at, if it be true what Marco Polo relates, that the inhabitants had certain stones of a charmed virtue inserted between the skin and the flesh of their right arms, which, through the power of diabolical enchantments, rendered them invulnerable. This island was an object of diligent search to Columbus.

About the island of Zipangu or Cipango, and between it and the coast of Mangi, the sea, according to Marco Polo, is studded with small islands to the number of seven thousand four hundred and forty, of which the greater part are inhabited. There is not one which does not produce odoriferous trees and perfumes in abundance. Columbus thought himself at one time in the midst of these islands.

 These are the principal places described by Marco Polo, which occur in the letters and journals of Columbus. The island of Cipango was the first land he expected to make, and he intended to visit afterwards the province of Mangi, and to seek the Great Khan in his city of Cambalu, in the province of Cathay.

Unless the reader can bear in mind these sumptuous descriptions of Marco Polo, of countries teeming with wealth, and cities where the very domes and palaces flamed with gold, he will have but a faint idea of the splendid anticipations which filled the imagination of Columbus when he discovered, as he supposed, the extremity of Asia.


It was his confident expectation of soon arriving at these countries, and realizing the accounts of the Venetian, that induced him to hold forth those promises of immediate wealth to the sovereigns, which caused so much disappointment, and brought upon him the frequent reproach of exciting false hopes and indulging in willful exaggeration."

(ed. End of Washington Irving's summary of the Polo family's adventures and their significance to Columbus.)


Some Links

The summary I have on this page is excerpted from Washington Irving’s Life of Christopher Columbus.  I only added some paragraph breaks to it to aid online reading.  The book is available to read online or to download for free from Gutenberg Project. 

Here are free e-books of Marco Polo's Travels, edited by Henry Yule (a famous edition) available  from Gutenberg Project, and from The Internet Archive made with images of the book's pages which includes all the images and maps.

Volume 1 of Marco Polo's Adventures is a text file to download for free from Gutenberg Project

Volume 1 as a PDF from Internet Archive There are several formats available for download (see their left box) but the PDF is the best.

Various e-book versions from Project Gutenberg



Volume 2 of Marco Polo's Adventures is a text file to download for free from Gutenberg Project

Volume 2 as a PDF from Internet Archive There are several formats available for download (see their left box) but the PDF is the best.


The I Read Italian site has a free Marco Polo game for small children, teaching them about Polo and teaching them Italian at the same time.


You can view a copy of a hand-written manuscript of Marco Polo's stories from 1400, added to an existing manuscript from earlier, in England, written in French and decorated with miniatures by Johannes and school.  This link is to the Bodleian Library's on-line copy of the manuscript.  You must go to page/folio 218 because that is where The Books of the Great Khan (Li Livres du Graunt Caan) begin and continue to the end of the manuscript at page/folio 271.  I show some of the miniatures below.

Italian Explorers at Wikipedia

Giovanni da Plano Carpine Wikipedia who traveled to the Tartars (Huns or Mongols) before the Polos by order of the Pope, and wrote about it

Giovanni's account of his travels via Adelaide University, to read online


Here are some of the miniatures from a rare manuscript of Marco Polo's Travels from 1400, now at the Bodleian Library and available to view on-line (from page/folio 218-271).  The artwork is by a Johannes and his school of artists. 


This painting supposedly shows the Polos leaving Venice to return to the east, with Marco in tow.  Look to the right, next to the giant swans, and you can see Marco (in red) with his father and uncle, about to board a very small boat.

Venice, as painted by Flemish artists who knew only certain things about the city, tends to look a lot like Brugges.  The add the famous 4 horses in what is supposed to be St. Mark's Cathedral (left-top), and the arches on the ground floor of the Doges Palace, with what looks like the Doge and his wife on the balcony, watching the Polos leave.



Here the Polos receive a golden passport from the Khan.  It's amazing to see the background and floor paintings in this miniature artwork, as well as the frame decorated with stars.  And the flowers around the image are filled with metallic ink.  After the next image, I include an image of an entire page, so you can see just how small these miniature paintings really are.  Mind-boggling.



Here Marco and his uncles are giving the Khan the oil from Jerusalem and the messages from the Pope.  Again, the background, floor and frame are stunning in detail, as are the robes of the Khan and courtiers.  Much of the detail was certainly painted with single-haired brushes.  I include an image of the whole page, so you can see just how small the images really are.

It is curious to see that they had no idea what a Khan (or Caan as they call him in the French, it was written Kaan in the English translations) would look like.  They guessed a scrawny guy with a wispy beard.  They got the beard part so-so, but the Khan was certainly not scrawny, judging from the images we have of him, but stocky with a round head.

The red texts are Marco Polo's chapter headings.  The black texts are the chapter contents.  This manuscript is in French.




This Adoration of the Magi depicts the scene described by Marco Polo, as told to him by people in Persia, about the Three Kings visiting Mary, Jesus and Joseph.  Joseph is my favorite here, shunted off in the far right, on a hard stool, left out of the whole gift-giving thing.  Mary has a crown and regal robes.  All Joseph has is a plain robe.  I don't know who, but the three open boxes fascinate me.  I want one of those boxes.  The backgrounds are jewel-like.




The Khan goes hunting with his falcons, dogs and staff.  His palace has a decided medieval look to it.  I've included in this image the following capital letter, illuminated with a Mongol soldier inside the 'Q', armed with shield and sword, and a dragon spewing out the letter.





This is my favorite miniature, not just because the Khan is getting dressed in European armor (not Mongol war armor, and not just because he has Renaissance tents rather than Mongol tents as he prepares for battle. 

This is my favorite painting because of the Flemish artists' depiction of a Mongol war elephant.  They clearing have no idea of the size of elephants, and only know that the animal has big ears and a long snout.  So here we have a cow with big ears and a long snout, smaller than the horses.





Here the Khan receives tributes from representatives from all his conquered lands.  The detail is, again, a thing of wonder.  I've included the following capital letter so you can see another Mongol warrior with weapon and shield, and the creature that makes up part of the letter.  Some of the dots are applied with the head of a needle.





This is the banquet scene as described by Marco Polo.  The Khan is at the head table alone, only surrounded by Barons who served him his food and drink.  The Khan's wives are seated at a lower table to his right.  All the service is of gold.  Marco also describes a drink dispenser that other later visitors to Mongols-Tartars describe too, the fountain filled with drink. 

The artist put the musicians that Marco described at these events, in the border.  The musicians played every time the Khan drank, so that everyone else would stop and pay tribute to the Khan throughout the meal (the kneeling men).




Here the Great Khan is going hunting with his dogs.  At the right are the wild animals, a deer, boar and a funny-looking bear.  I personally prefer Dino the dinosaur on the capital letter that follows.



Here the Khan's barons are helping him keep his accounts.




Here the Mongols are fighting with an enemy, using catapults and cannons.




This lovely image depicts Marco and his father and uncle in India, where pearl-divers collect the jewels from the oysters below the water.  One hands the jewels to the uncle, while another is still below the water collecting jewels.



These two images are from Yule's translation in two volumes of Marco Polo's book.

This first is Marco, his father and uncle arriving at their old family home after 26 years abroad.  Marco, at that time, had spent more years abroad than in Venice!  It's said that the three men's ability to speak fluent Venetian was poor, and that they had taken on the aspect of the easterners with whom they had lived.  The image shows that the family refused to let them in.  I like the inclusion of the Mongolian hound as detail.



This image shows Marco Polo in a Genoese prison, dictating his story to Rustichello (or Rustician in Latin) of Pisa.  Here they are show both in leg irons, but some scholars dispute the story that Rustichello was still a prisoner at that time.  They think he had been ransomed/released and remained in Genoa and assisted his prison friend, Marco Polo, write his book as a commission for a local merchant.  A copy was made daily from Rustichello's transcriptions, and an early translation into Latin was made about this time, too.  Marco kept a copy as well, which he later used as the source to have copies made for his friends and visiting dignitaries to Venice.


Even today, spices are given a prize showing in Venice.  This is a famous shop just off the Rialto Bridge, on your way to the Rialto Market.