Italian explorer Marco Polo was born on 15th September 1254 and died on the 8th or 9th January 1324. We’re not sure which because in Venetian law the day ends at sunset not midnight, so we only know he died more or less on this day 690 years ago.
‘Roma – Dettaglio del ritratto di Marco Polo – Tiziano – Gall. Doria’, Federico Zeri Foundation, public domain
It was Marco Polo’s book of his travels that introduced Europeans to China and Central Asia. Although he was not the first European to travel to China, he was the first to write about his adventures and so it was his experiences that formed the basis of early European knowledge of the country. For example, Marco Polo brought back the idea of paper money and some think his descriptions of coal, eyeglasses and a complex postal system eventually led to their widespread use in Europe.
Marco Polo’s book inspired Christopher Columbus and other explorers to begin their own adventures. You can find the book under various different titles – Book of the Marvels of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo or Description of the World (in English), Livre des merveilles du monde or Divisament du monde (in French), and Il Milione or Oriente Poliano (in Italian).
Extracts from a beautifully illustrated manuscript of ‘Livre des merveilles du monde’ (French National Library – public domain). For a more conventional and easier to read copy, try the printed version. Or if you want to listen to it in Italian, try the audio book.
Did you know that Marco Polo sometimes confused the animals he encountered in Asia with mythical creatures? It’s not altogether surprising, if you knew about unicorns and then saw a rhinocerous – an impressive beast with a horn – you might confuse them too!
Marco travelled the world (approximately 24,000 km of it!) for 24 years with his father and uncle. On returning to Venice with the riches and treasures they had gathered along the way, they found a city at war with Genoa. Marco joined the war but was captured in 1296 and put in prison. He spent his time telling his cellmate all about his travels. This friend wrote them down, along with some of his own stories. The resulting book, The Travels of Marco Polo, soon spread across the continent. Marco was released in 1299 and became a successful merchant in Venice.
Examples of maps based on Marco Polo’s travels, drawn in 1971, 1700 and 1865.
Did you know there’s a species of sheep named after Marco Polo? Other things named after the explorer include: a ship – the first to sail around the world in less than 6 months; Venice airport; a frequent flyer scheme in Hong Kong; and a video game character in the 2008 game Civilization Revolution.