Marco Polo (1254 - 1324) was a Venetian merchant, traveller and writer, best known for his travels from Europe along the Silk Road to Asia. His best-known legacy is the book Il Milione or ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’.
Whilst Marco was not the first European to traverse this famous route, he was the first to chronicle his journey to the Far East which, during Medieval times, was unknown territory for most Europeans.
Marco Polo was born to a family of merchants in Venice, then a wealthy trading city. His experiences of childhood are unknown, although he was raised by his aunt and uncle following his mother’s death. Aged seventeen he set off to Asia along with his father and brother, both experienced travellers. Along the way, they visited Jerusalem, the Hindu Kush mountains and the Gobi desert.
After four years on the road, he arrived at the court of Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan in China. Khan was so impressed with the young Marco, he employed him as the country’s foreign emissary to India and Burma. Marco was equally impressed with China, marvelling over the opulence on display around him, the exotic food and strange animals which contrasted so differently to his homeland.
Marco stayed in the role for seventeen years, all the time documenting his travels all over China. Aged 41, Marco and his fellow travellers decided to return to Venice with many treasures from his journey. One of these was asbestos, taken from a mine and eventually gifted to the Pope. After leaving Kublai Khan, the Polos sailed from China to Persia, travelling on land to Turkey and finally, Venice. It has been calculated they travelled 15,000 miles in total.
Upon returning to his homeland, Marco joined the ongoing war against the Genoas for which he was imprisoned. Whilst in prison, he regaled his cellmate (Italian Romance author Rustichello da Pisa) with stories of his travels which da Pisa later collated into a manuscript, Il Milione.
Many scholars have since questioned the legitimacy of his travel stories. However, historians generally agree with the authenticity of the work. After its release, the book was hugely successful, later influencing 15th century global traveller Christopher Colombus and the Venetian cartographer Far Mauro, known for producing the most detailed map of the world at the time.
Marco Polo would settle in Venice for the rest of his life, having fallen in love with the city of his birth.
After a short illness, Marco Polo died at home aged seventy, a very elderly age in Medieval times. As requested on his deathbed, he was buried in San Lorenzo church in Castello, Venice. It is said on his deathbed he professed to have only told the world about half of the things he saw on his great adventures.
Marco Polo’s legacy is unwavering. There are statues erected of him in Hangzhou, China and Rome, Italy. Venice’s international airport is also named after him. To this day, he is still considered one of the most famous travellers in history.