Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer whose travels to Asia became one of the most well-known adventures of the Middle Ages. His journey opened the doors to a deeper European understanding of the Eastern world.
Mosaic of Marco Polo displayed in the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, Genoa, Italy
In the article below, WHE explores the life and major accomplishments of this Venetian explorer and merchant:
Born into a noble and merchant family in Venice, Marco Polo grew up hearing tales of travel. His father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo, were merchants who had journeyed to China. When Marco was seventeen, he joined them on a journey that lasted 24 years.
The Polos traveled through Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan, and into the Mongol Empire. They eventually reached the court of the powerful Mongol leader, Kublai Khan. Marco won the favor of Kublai Khan and was appointed to various administrative positions in his kingdom. This allowed him to travel extensively throughout Asia, amassing knowledge and understanding of its diverse cultures and traditions.
Detail of the Catalan Atlas depicting Marco Polo travelling to the East during the Pax Mongolica
Marco Polo, a Venetian explorer, journeyed extensively across Asia, serving Kublai Khan and penning “The Travels of Marco Polo”, bridging cultural understanding between the East and West.
Detailed Exploration of Asia: Marco traveled further than any of his European predecessors during his time in Asia. He ventured as far as Mongolia and China, exploring places Europeans had never been.
Service to Kublai Khan: Marco Polo wasn’t just a passive traveler; he served the Yuan Dynasty’s Kublai Khan in various capacities, including as a special envoy.
“The Travels of Marco Polo”: After returning to Venice, Marco was captured during a conflict with the rival city of Genoa. In prison, he narrated his experiences to a fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who penned them down. This account, known as “The Travels of Marco Polo”, or “Il Milione”, became a sensation in Europe. Though some contemporaries expressed skepticism about his tales, the book laid the groundwork for the Age of Discovery by inspiring many, including Christopher Columbus.
Introduction of Asian Goods: The Polos returned with precious goods, including silks, spices, and perhaps most notably, stories of paper money, which was then an unknown concept in Europe.
Cultural Exchange: Marco’s detailed accounts of Chinese culture, governance, economy, and more provided Europeans a first comprehensive insight into life in the East. This fostered a greater understanding and curiosity about the East in Europe.