Marco Polo

Marco Polo
Marco Polo - costume tartare.jpg
Polo wearing a Tatar outfit, date of print unknown
presumably Venice, Republic of Venice
Died8 January 1324(1324-01-08) (aged 69–70)
Resting placeChurch of San Lorenzo
45°26′14″N 12°20′44″E / 45°26′14″N 12°20′44″E / 45.4373; 12.3455
OccupationMerchant, explorer, writer
Known forThe Travels of Marco Polo
Spouse(s)Donata Badoer
ChildrenFantina, Bellela and Moretta

Marco Polo (/ (About this soundlisten), Venetian: [ˈmaɾko ˈpolo], Italian: [ˈmarko ˈpɔːlo]; 1254 – January 8–9, 1324)[1] was a Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer.[2][3][4][5][6] His travels are recorded in Livre des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300), a book that described to Europeans the wealth and great size of China, its capital Peking, and other Asian cities and countries.

Marco learned the mercantile trade from his father and his uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who travelled through Asia and met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia, returning after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa; Marco was imprisoned and dictated his stories to a cellmate. He was released in 1299, became a wealthy merchant, married, and had three children. He died in 1324 and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Venice.

Though he was not the first European to reach China (see Europeans in Medieval China), Marco Polo was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience. This book inspired Christopher Columbus[7] and many other travellers. There is substantial literature based on Polo's writings; he also influenced European cartography, leading to the introduction of the Fra Mauro map.


Family origin

Corte del Milion is still named after the nickname of Polo, "Il Milione".

Marco Polo was born in 1254[8][nb 1] in the Republic of Venice,[9] though the exact date and place of birth are archivally unknown.[10][11] Marco Polo's birthplace is generally considered to be Venice,[11][12] but some also claimed Constantinople[13][11] and the island of Korčula as his birth place.[14][11][15][16] There is dispute as to whether the Polo family is of Venetian origin, as Venetian historical sources considered them to be of Dalmatian origin.[8][11][17][18] The lack of evidence makes the Korčula theory (probably under Ramusio influence)[19] as a specific birthplace strongly disputed,[9] and even some Croatian scholars consider it merely invented.[20]

Early life and Asian travel

Mosaic of Marco Polo displayed in the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, in Genoa, Italy

In 1168, his great-uncle, Marco Polo, borrowed money and commanded a ship in Constantinople.[21][22] His grandfather, Andrea Polo of the parish of San Felice, had three sons, Maffeo, yet another Marco, and the traveller's father Niccolò.[21] This genealogy, described by Ramusio, is not universally accepted as there is no additional evidence to support it.[23][24]

His father, Niccolò Polo, a merchant, traded with the Near East, becoming wealthy and achieving great prestige.[25][26] Niccolò and his brother Maffeo set off on a trading voyage before Marco's birth.[8][26] In 1260, Niccolò and Maffeo, while residing in Constantinople, then the capital of the Latin Empire, foresaw a political change; they liquidated their assets into jewels and moved away.[25] According to The Travels of Marco Polo, they passed through much of Asia, and met with Kublai Khan, a Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan dynasty.[27] Their decision to leave Constantinople proved timely. In 1261 Michael VIII Palaiologos, the ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, took Constantinople, promptly burned the Venetian quarter and re-established the Eastern Roman Empire. Captured Venetian citizens were blinded,[28] while many of those who managed to escape perished aboard overloaded refugee ships fleeing to other Venetian colonies in the Aegean Sea.

Almost nothing is known about the childhood of Marco Polo until he was fifteen years old, excepting that he probably spent part of his childhood in Venice.[29][30][22] Meanwhile, Marco Polo's mother died, and an aunt and uncle raised him.[26] He received a good education, learning mercantile subjects including foreign currency, appraising, and the handling of cargo ships;[26] he learned little or no Latin.[25] His father later married Floradise Polo (née Trevisan).[24]

In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice, meeting young Marco for the first time.[29] In 1271, during the rule of Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo, Marco Polo (at seventeen years of age), his father, and his uncle set off for Asia on the series of adventures that Marco later documented in his book.[31] They returned to Venice in 1295, 24 years later, with many riches and treasures. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).[26]

Genoese captivity and later life

San Lorenzo church in the sestiere of Castello (Venice), where Polo was buried. The photo shows the church as is today, after the 1592 rebuilding.

Marco Polo returned to Venice in 1295 with his fortune converted into gemstones. At this time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa.[32] Polo armed a galley equipped with a trebuchet[33] to join the war. He was probably caught by Genoans in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta[34] and not during the battle of Curzola (September 1298), off the Dalmatian coast.[35] The latter claim is due to a later tradition (16th century) recorded by Giovanni Battista Ramusio.[36][37]

He spent several months of his imprisonment dictating a detailed account of his travels to a fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa,[26] who incorporated tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China. The book soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form, and became known as The Travels of Marco Polo. It depicts the Polos' journeys throughout Asia, giving Europeans their first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan.[38]

Polo was finally released from captivity in August 1299,[26] and returned home to Venice, where his father and uncle in the meantime had purchased a large palazzo in the zone named contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo (Corte del Milion).[39] For such a venture, the Polo family probably invested profits from trading, and even many gemstones they brought from the East.[39] The company continued its activities and Marco soon became a wealthy merchant. Marco and his uncle Maffeo financed other expeditions, but likely never left Venetian provinces, nor returned to the Silk Road and Asia.[40] Sometime before 1300, his father Niccolò died.[40] In 1300, he married Donata Badoèr, the daughter of Vitale Badoèr, a merchant.[41] They had three daughters, Fantina (married Marco Bragadin), Bellela (married Bertuccio Querini), and Moreta.[42][43]

In 1305 he is mentioned in a Venetian document among local sea captains regarding the payment of taxes.[24] His relation with a certain Marco Polo, who in 1300 was mentioned with riots against the aristocratic government, and escaped the death penalty, as well as riots from 1310 led by Bajamonte Tiepolo (by mother side grandson of Trogir count Stjepko Šubić) and Marco Querini, among whose rebels were Jacobello and Francesco Polo from another family branch, is unclear.[24] Polo is clearly mentioned again after 1305 in Maffeo's testament from 1309–1310, in a 1319 document according to which he became owner of some estates of his deceased father, and in 1321, when he bought part of the family property of his wife Donata.[24]


In 1323, Polo was confined to bed, due to illness.[44] On January 8, 1324, despite physicians' efforts to treat him, Polo was on his deathbed.[45] To write and certify the will, his family requested Giovanni Giustiniani, a priest of San Procolo. His wife, Donata, and his three daughters were appointed by him as co-executrices.[45] The church was entitled by law to a portion of his estate; he approved of this and ordered that a further sum be paid to the convent of San Lorenzo, the place where he wished to be buried.[45] He also set free Peter, a Tartar servant, who may have accompanied him from Asia,[46] and to whom Polo bequeathed 100 lire of Venetian denari.[47]

He divided up the rest of his assets, including several properties, among individuals, religious institutions, and every guild and fraternity to which he belonged.[45] He also wrote off multiple debts including 300 lire that his sister-in-law owed him, and others for the convent of San Giovanni, San Paolo of the Order of Preachers, and a cleric named Friar Benvenuto.[45] He ordered 220 soldi be paid to Giovanni Giustiniani for his work as a notary and his prayers.[48]

The will was not signed by Polo, but was validated by the then-relevant "signum manus" rule, by which the testator only had to touch the document to make it legally valid.[47][49] Due to the Venetian law stating that the day ends at sunset, the exact date of Marco Polo's death cannot be determined, but according to some scholars it was between the sunsets of January 8 and 9, 1324.[50] Biblioteca Marciana, which holds the original copy of his testament, dates the testament in January 9, 1323, and gives the date of his death at some time in June 1324.[49]