Explorer, storyteller or charlatan. A bit of each, really but isn’t any great traveler?
“I did not tell the half of what I saw.”
Marco Polo remained defiant to the end, insisting on his death bed that the stories of his travels were the gospel truth. His family gathered round feared for his soul if he kept up the fabulous stories of images, promiscuous tribes and some kind of magic black rock that you could burn for heat.
Ignorance of coal and paper money aside, Marco Polo’s Venice was one of the most prosperous and influential ports in the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century and he grew up in a commercial family. Business demanding that he be an accomplished linguist, Marco Polo accompanied his father and uncle on their voyage east to establish friendly relations with the Khan of China, learning the local dialects so well that he served under the Khan as an administrator. Or so he claimed.
Historians have long argued about whether Marco Polo really was the explorer extraordinaire that he claimed to be, or just rather an accomplished fake. On one hand he was the first person to introduce many of the Oriental customs that present day anthropologists and historians have proven to be accurate – yet how come he never mentioned the Great Wall of China or green tea?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in Marco Polo’s personality: a businessman, he paid attention only to the economic value of the lands he passed through, spruced with racy anecdotes about the quirks of the locals, stories that he knew would please the great Khan, of whose power he never failed to exalt.
Marco Polo was gone 17 years from Venice and when he returned, he and his father were taken for vagabonds and imposters – the real Polo’s had died somewhere abroad. It was only when they sliced open their rags and released piles of jewels and gold that they were believed. Well, money talks.
But we still wouldn’t have had one of the first great travel books, The Travels of Marco Polo if he hadn’t served for Venice in a war with Genoa. He was captured and, whilst in jail, would you believe it, he found himself in a cell with a novelist, Rustigielo. This was before the invention of the printing press, when the only books in circulation were the bible and a few editions of poetry the Travels (or Il milione) were copied and translated far and wide, though, and for many centuries were the only real information on the lands back east. The first guide book.
Although Marco Polo could have learnt much of the information contained with his Travels, his specific knowledge of military and diplomatic operations make it likely that a good deal of the Travels came from personal experience. And if he was a bit of a charlatan as well as an explorer, it would hardly be anything new.
It takes a great traveler to understand that all reality breaks down into fiction somewhere along the way…
Read more about Marco Polo’s Travels
And more about Marco Polo at Wikipedia.