marco polo: a name that everyone associates with travel and discovery.
much research has been done on the fabulous account of his journey to china in the 13th century, but not much is known about the setting itself.
Venice, his homeland, has baptized its airport with his name, but what traces of the traveler remain in the city?
so let’s take a walk around venice to find out more about marco.
who was marco polo? the cut of the million
The polo family was first documented in Venice in the 11th century. the family had two branches: one lived in the parish of san geremia, and the other near the church of san giovanni crisostomo. this branch of the family was known as “polo emilioni”, hence the name “corte del milion” given to the two little squares that can be found near the church of san giovanni crisostomo, not far from rialto bridge. here was the house of the polo family; unfortunately it was destroyed by fire in 1598 and later replaced by a theater.
recent archaeological excavations in the area have found traces of a large medieval mansion, and many stone-carved decorations around the cut date from the 13th century.
Nicolò, Marco’s father, and his uncle Maffeo, left Venice in 1260 to go to his brother’s house in the Crimea: many Venetian merchants settled some family members in Constantinople or on the Black Sea. from there the two major poles would begin their first journey along the silk road.
Marco, born in 1254, would not see his father again until his return to Venice in 1269.
Niccolò and Maffeo stayed in Venice for a few years waiting for the right moment to leave again. That time came in 1271, and they took the 17-year-old frame with them on an expedition to the court of the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan.
The travelers did not return to Venice for 25 years and, as we can easily imagine, they had many extraordinary stories to tell upon their return. Therefore, the old surname “Emilione” changed to “Milion” (meaning “one million”) in reference to the treasure trove of stories and riches that Marco had brought back from Asia. Even the account of his voyage, compiled years later while he was a prisoner in Genoa, was originally titled “le devisement du monde” (“the description of the world”) but became popularly known in Italy as strong>“one million”.
how did the poles get to china? the martian library and the ducal palace
Niccolò, Maffeo and Marco sailed for the first time from Venice to Ayas (now called Yumurtalik, in southeastern Turkey). from there they traveled overland through central asia, crossing the karakorum to reach the summer palace of kublai khan, north of peking, in 1275.
On their return voyage in 1291, they sailed through Southeast Asia and around India to Hormuzz in present-day Iran. from there they traveled to the black sea by land and finally returned to venice.
In the so-called “map room” of the Doge’s apartment, we can find a map that commemorates Marco’s journey: you can follow his path through Asia… from right to left! in fact, the map was painted upside down, with south at the top. why?
we go to the nearby martian library to clear up the confusion and get our bearings again. In the antechamber of the main room of the library you can see the “map of the world” by Fra (Fray) Mauro, which dates from around 1450. It is an impressive representation of the world known to Europeans before the discovery of the American continents, with many inscriptions describing different places and peoples. and it’s backwards. this is because many 15th century maps and compasses were derived from Islamic models, which placed south at the top.
fra mauro used many different sources to gather information for his work: from greek and roman geographers to medieval traders and travelers, including, of course, marco polo. Various “billion” passages are written on the map to describe places in Central and East Asia.
geographer giovan battista ramusio created a commemorative map for the doge’s palace in 1540. believing that fra mauro had seen a map drawn by the same frame, ramusio likely used the friar’s world map as a model for his own. Even when Francesco Griselini redrew Ramusio’s map in the 18th century, he maintained the original orientation.
why did they leave? the perfume museum in palazzo mocenigo
Trade relations between Europe and China had existed since at least Roman times, but trade was normally conducted through the mediation of Middle Eastern merchants. Central Asia, China, and Southeast Asia were sources of luxury items such as silk, spices, and precious gems, but rice would also have been imported from Asia to Europe. Poles weren’t the first Europeans to reach China (the first travelers were missionaries, namely Giovanni da Pian del Carpine in 1245), but their undertaking was definitely unusual, pioneering, and forward-thinking.
by the late 1200s, attacks by Tatar tribes on the eastern borders of the weakened Byzantine Empire had begun to become a serious threat to the usual trade routes. This, coupled with the political instability in Venice, led merchants such as Nicolò and Maffeo Polo to try to establish new commercial relations directly with the court of the Kublai Khan.
Marco Polo never makes it clear what kind of assets his family managed. this is partly because the merchants often traded in different items, but also because they preferred not to let other people know about their business. Regardless, from various documents about Marco (such as his will and court records) we know that he possessed a considerable amount of musk , the gland of an animal called musk deer, which was extremely important. . in the production of perfumes.
the museum of the palazzo mocenigo houses an entire section dedicated to the art of perfumery in venice.
what did they find in china? the ducal palace and st. treasure of frames
one of the stone capitals on the south façade of the ducal palace is decorated with reliefs of human faces, one of which shows distinctive Mongolian features.
at the time of marco polo’s voyage, china was under the rule of the mongols, kublai khan had defeated the han chinese song dynasty in 1279. he was commissioned by the young marco kublai khan to travel to the newly subjugated lands and report what he found.
Although the Han considered them to be barbarians, the Mongols actually admired the refinement of the Song dynasty. And for good reason: some of the most elegant works of art in Chinese history were produced under his reign.
tradition has it that a small porcelain vase and a glass plate in the treasury of st. Marco’s Basilica was brought to Venice by Marco Polo himself. Although not yet dated, the small white treasure vase could be a product of the Song period, and while it may have arrived in Venice much later as a gift from an Ottoman sultan, the idea that we can still see a memory tangible experience of Marco’s travels around China is definitely fascinating.
where is marco resting? the church of san lorenzo
In addition to the account of his trip, the other document we have about Marco Polo is the will he wrote in 1324, the same year he died. The will lists his possessions, including, of course, silk, musk, spices, Chinese robes and headdresses, yak hair (!), and the gold tablets given to him by Kublai Khan.
it also says that marco wanted to be buried in the church of san lorenzo in the castello neighborhood. unfortunately that church was deconsecrated in 1920 and consequently abandoned. there is apparently no trace of the famous traveler’s grave: another mystery to be solved!
related itineraries: piazza san marco merchants of venice
further reading: “marco polo”, marina montesano, salerno editrice, 2014. “marco polo digitale”