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Who Was Marco Polo?

Updated on July 14, 2011

Marco Polo: more than just a swimming pool game

The first Europeans to visit China, as far as we know, were Niccolo Polo and Maffeo Polo. They were the father and uncle, respectively, of the famed Marco Polo. Niccolo and Maffeo decided to go to China in 1254 and, after adventures in Constantinople and other locations, actually arrived in China many years later. Their intent was trade, though they certainly enjoyed the exotic nature of such a far-away port. After some time the men returned and told young Marco Polo all about China and its Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan.


In 1271, the men again left their comfortable lives in Venice, Italy. Their journey had been one over both land and sea and had taken 3 years. When they arrived, the Emperor Kublai Khan welcomed them with open arms. Kublai Khan quickly grew to have great respect for young Marco, who swiftly learned Chinese. This respect was so high that Marco Polo was shortly thereafter offered employment by the Khan. This enticed Marco traveling all over China, allowing him to see a great deal of that antique land. There in China Marco, his father, and his uncle remained for seventeen years. Then they went home.


Upon returning to Italy, Marco Polo continued his adventurous life by fighting in a war against the Italian city state of Genoa (the home of another, future explorer, Christopher Columbus). During the war he was taken prisoner, yet this would prove to be to his benefit, much like Cervantes, who, nearly 4 centuries later would famously take advantage of the free time that prison afforded him. Marco Polo set to work at writing about his seventeen years in China. He did this with the help of Rustichello da Pisa, a fellow inmate. Rustichello had heard enough of Polo's Chinese adventures to be enamored by the tales and so gladly helped to write and edit Marco's famous book, The Travels of Marco Polo.


The Travels of Marco Polo describes much of what Marco Polo saw and experienced in Imperial China. However, so much of what was described was so very alien to the Europeans that they felt it was all just lies. This became such a constant theme amongst Polo's readers that he started to be called "Il Milione," he who's told a million lies.


Of course, we know today that Marco Polo spoke the truth when he described novel items like gunpowder, fireworks, and paper money. One of his followers who surely did believe Marco was Christopher Columbus, who read and probably cherished The Travels of Marco Polo, by "Il Milione." So, in a small sense, at least, Marco Polo had his hand in the discovery and continuous visitation of North and South America.


This story was adapted from pages 24 & 25 of the article "Why is Marco Polo Famous?" from the book What a World 2, by Milada Broukal.


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