Marco Polo – the man who brought China to Europe

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.

'Roma - Dettaglio del ritratto di Marco Polo - Tiziano - Gall. Doria', Federico Zeri Foundation, public domain

‘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.

Abbozzo della mappa dei viaggi di Marco Polo nella sala dello Scudo del Palazzo ducale di Venezia, National Library Of France, Public Domain Marked

Carte pour les voyages de Rubruquis, Marco Polo, Jenkinson & ca., Institut Cartogràfic I Geològic De Catalunya, Public Domain Marked

Carte générale de l’Asie dans la seconde moitié du XIIIe siècle… pour… l’intelligence du livre de Marco Polo / exécutée d’après les documents fournis par M. G. Pauthier ; Dressé… par A. Vuillemain… | Pauthier, Guillaume (1801-1873) National Library Of France, Public Domain Marked

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.

5 thoughts on “Marco Polo – the man who brought China to Europe

  1. I live in Genoa and pass every day by the prison where Marco Polo dictated his notes (as they say) to Rustichello da Pisa, who wrote them in French. Why in French? At the end of 1200 (when he was imprisoned) the Italian language was at its beginning (the main poem in Italian was Dante’s “Divina Comedia” at the beginning of 1300).
    The prison was in what is called now “Palazzo San Giorgio”: (obviously in the left part of the palace). It is funny: Marco Polo’s notes is one of the few contributions Genoa gave to European Culture (a part from giving birth to Columbus and Paganini, and founding banking just near the place where Marco Polo has been imprisoned).
    Beyond the items called “Marco Polo” reported here, we should also remark that there is a main-belt asteroid discovered in 1977 and called “Marco Polo” – number 29457:

  2. Hello, I’m Sybil Blackmon, student in England, and I love your article! My question is, the images of Marco Polo’s book pages ( ‘Livre des merveilles du monde’) are those extracts from the original book?

    1. I have the same question, Are those images on Marco Polo’s book really the extracts from the original book? Or is it a later version? Did he really draw the artworks in the book?

  3. My grandparents went to Vince Italy and saw many cool things that are based off of the many things Marco Polo brought bake to Italy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.