Playing Marco Polo…WITH Marco Polo: S&R Honors

Marco Polo is one of our most renowned travelers and explorers. Yet there is controversy about whether he actually went where he says he did. If only he’d taken a selfie stick and set up an Instagram account….

Marco Polo dressed as a Tatar (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Marco Polo dressed as a Tatar (image courtesy Wikimedia)

On my book shelves are several of the nicely bound sets of what used to be termed “classics” (i.e., books considered sacrosanct members of the Western Canon) that were all the rage many years ago when the American middle class aspired to be like their betters and give the appearance of being cultured – back when part of being cultured meant being well read, of course. Please do not misconstrue my intent here; owning a handsome set of “classics” is not the same as having read them. Lea and I have bought most of these sets in used book stores and antique shops and found almost all of the volumes in a given set in mint or near mint condition (after all, sitting on bookshelves year after year does cause some slight aging, as does being moved from the prominent bookshelves in the den to the ratty ones in the basement).

Thus it is that I have, as mentioned above, several sets of these “collections of ready made culture” (I have mentioned one popular collection in another essay). The set from which the book that is the subject of this essay, Travels of Marco Polo, The Venetian, is taken is called, interestingly, “The Programmed Classics,” and is published by Doubleday. It’s a handsome book, though the translation by 19th century “Orientalist” William Marsden is, at best, creaky.

So, to Marco Polo’s travels…real or made up….

Before we dive into the controversies that rage (rather pointlessly, ultimately) about the extent of Polo’s travels and the veracity of what he reports, let me say a few things about the work itself.

Polo did not write Travels of Marco Polo, The Venetian. The book itself was written by a “romance” writer of the 13th century, Rustichello da Pisa, who is known to have plagiarized from his own romances for some of the scenes in the work. Rustichello, who worked with Polo while both were in prison in Genoa, Polo having been captured by the Genoese during a war between Venice and Genoa, Rustichello having been captured some years earlier during a war between Pisa and Genoa. Polo evidently was fond of offering up his reminiscences about his Eastern travels and Rustichello saw a potential gold mine in a travel book based upon Polo’s tales. Polo, a merchant, saw money to be made as did Rustichello, a writer.

The Art of the Deal personified, one has to conclude.

What Polo himself thought of Rustichello’s “embellished” version of the traveler’s reminiscences is not recorded. Polo himself was literate, so one wants to believe he read it. We’re talking about the 13th century, though, so one can’t be certain. But it is known that after his release by the Genoese that Polo returned to Venice, married, had four daughters, and became a wealthy merchant. It seems plausible that he was able to parlay his fame as “author” of Travels of Marco Polo, The Venetian into financial success. Of course, as a world traveler and all-around gifted schmoozer he may have been able to use skills (and trade connections) he acquired in Persia, China, India, etc., to his advantage.

We’ll never know. In fact, arguing about what we do/don’t know about Marco Polo and his travels seems to be a cottage industry.

Polo’s account explains that his father, Niccolo Polo, and his uncle, Maffeo Polo, went on a long trading journey while his mother was pregnant with Marco. They traveled first to Persia, then on to Cathay (China) where they (supposedly) met Kublai Khan and (supposedly) returned as his emissaries to the Pope. By long journey I mean long journey: Marco was 15-16 depending upon – surprise! – the argued about date of the Polo brothers’ return to Venice and Niccolo’s first meeting with his son. Either a year (or two years) later (Marco, born in 1254, was 17), in 1571, Marco accompanied his father and uncle on another long trading journey. This journey was even more epic in both geographic scope and time duration. Marco did not return to Venice until 1294.

Much of Travels of Marco Polo, The Venetian, especially in Book 3, reads like a geography book. Book 3 is largely composed of descriptions of the various provinces (think countries) under the Great Khan’s rule. We are told about the topography of each place Polo visits, its economy, its natural resources, the appearance of the region’s people, and their religious practices. (It is interesting to note that Christianity in its Nestorian form had penetrated even into China in the 13th century.) Here is where some of the interest in the influence of Rustichello on the narrative lies: Polo begins to address some of the more sensational aspects of each province’s character in descriptions of each region’s cultural behaviors (some of the peoples are cannibals, always good for a thrill, and the sexual peccadilloes of some regions appeal to, shall we say, less than scholarly interests). One can almost hear Rustichello asking Marco, “But what about the women? Aren’t there any ‘girls gone wild’? I’ve heard some of these people eat human flesh – did you see anybody served as dinner?” Book 3, then, becomes the titillation reward for those who’ve waded patiently through the more prosaic Book 2 with its descriptions of Kublai’s luxurious palaces and his management of his empire.

What about Book 1, you ask? Book 1 is “How I spent my summer vacation” – if one’s summer vacation lasted 23 years. It is a travel chronicle of the trip from Venice to Cathay with some descriptions of the sights along the way. It is interesting, in the way a travel book is interesting: it’s a slightly slicker version of the after dinner slide shows of their vacations people used to foist on one another back in the fifties and sixties.

But what about the controversies? You promised controversies!

So I did. And you shall have them.

Noted British historian Frances Wood has argued that the Marco Polo book is simply a collection of traveler’s tales that Polo and Rustichello concocted to – well, make money (see above Art of the Deal reference). She notes that Polo never mentions either foot binding or the Great Wall of China (which, one supposes, though it can’t be seen from space, is still pretty big and so would be difficult to miss). She takes special exception to Polo’s claims that he served as a regional governor for Kublai Khan and notes that Polo is not mentioned in the Yuan (Kublai’s) dynasty annals or records.

Noted British-American historian David Morgan disagrees, however, and points out the following: the main part of the Great Wall wasn’t built until about 200 years after Polo visited China. It was another of the many beautiful creations of the Ming dynasty and was designed to keep the Mongols out. Since Kublai Khan was the great (about 5 generations of greats there, I think) grandson of the first Khan, that guy Genghis, he was a Mongol and so it would be not such a good idea to build a wall to keep himself out. Morgan, who is author of the definitive work on Genghis, et al., The Mongols, also notes that foot binding was rare in the China Polo visited and even rarer among the Mongols.

Another noted British historian, Stephen G. Haw, has identified some inaccuracies in Wood’s claims about Chinese records, noting that the Yuan dynasty records are far from complete and that the Mongols were fond of giving “Franks” as all Europeans were known more suitable Mongol or Chinese names. Haw also notes that there is far more evidence that Marco Polo did visit China than there is that he didn’t. He was probably treated as most “outsiders” were, Haw posits: he may have been liked, but he was unlikely to have been anything but a trusted merchant in Kublai’s eyes. Haw notes, though, that being a merchant trusted by the Great Khan was a pretty big deal – just not a big enough deal to get any real mention in the Yuan dynasty records.

Haw concludes that Rustichello, whom Haw is credited as identifying as Polo’s ghost writer, prodded Marco (see above) to exaggerate his importance for the sake of his European audience as he probably exaggerated his tales of the behavior of some of the peoples in places he visited. “We need to punch this up for the hoi polloi,” one can hear Rustichello telling Marco. “If we want big sales, this story has to be epic, baby.”

So. What do we know?

Marco Polo most probably went to China and India and a lot of other places and saw and experienced some amazing things and made up some more amazing things to go with the ones he saw and experienced. He also probably made a lot of shit up so that his book would sell.

As any 21st century author will tell you, publishing seems to have rediscovered this approach to book creation. Marco Polo would feel right at home.