Who was Marco Polo?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Editor Candace Gibson joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey Candace.

Candace Gibson: Marco.

Jane McGrath: Polo.

Candace Gibson: Marco.

Jane McGrath: Polo.

Candace Gibson: I actually know where Jane is and we're not in a pool.

Jane McGrath: Yeah.

Candace Gibson: We're talking about Marco -

Jane McGrath: And we're clothed.

Candace Gibson: We're talking about Marco Polo because he is our topic today and he's not only the name sake of that very famous pool game but he's also an established author and traveler and some even say a political advisor, supposedly.

Jane McGrath: That's right and he was sort of like the original Indiana Jones. He lived back when basically Europe didn't know a whole lot about the world around it and for a point of reference; this is about the 13th and 14th Centuries.

Candace Gibson: And he grew up in Italy, in Venice, specifically and his father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo or Maffeo, I'm not quite sure how it's pronounced, M-A-F-F-E-O, they were travelers and traders. They were very, very shrewd businessmen and they anticipated that there was this changing political climate in Constantinople that might enable them to get in on the gem trade and so they hopped on board. And they were able to make a pretty good amount of money traveling back and forth along the Silk Road, which was a series of trade routes that connected merchants from Central Asia to Europe.

Jane McGrath: That's right, and unfortunately, because his father was such a traveler, his father and his uncle, they were gone for much of Marco Polo's life until he was about a teenager and - but when his father and uncle did come back, they discovered that his mother was dead. And - they decided to have Marco continue the family business, in sorts, so he actually ended up joining his father and uncle on their next trip back to China.

Candace Gibson: And the trip took them, in total, about 24 or 25 years. Historians debate that point but 17 of those years were spent in the Court of Kubla Khan. And that was primarily the reason that they went back to China was because Kubla Khan had asked them to bring back Christian missionaries and holy oil that had been blessed by the pope and of course the Polo's obliged. I mean, how do you say no to Kubla Khan?

Jane McGrath: That's right. Although they weren't totally successful in bringing back the religious men who were supposed to come back and explain and defend Christianity to the Khan and when they tried, - the pope actually assigned two friars to come with the Polo's and pretty soon after the Polo's set out, the friars were, like, forget it, I'm heading back. This is too much for us.

Candace Gibson: Well, it's pretty intimidating because if you think about who Kubla Khan was, he was the mongrel leader and you remember probably another Khan that we've talked about before, Genghis Khan, and these are people who essentially took over this part of China and established their own empire and they were - they're formerly nomads and then they realized that if they wanted to have a successful empire, they were going to have to be rooted and stay in place and establish themselves as merchants and traders and craftsmen and so that's exactly what they did. So, they had this very wealthy establishment but Kubla Khan was interested in learning more about Christianity and also just business skills from outsiders.

Jane McGrath: That's true and it was pretty fortunate considering what you're saying about how important they were in their area that they showed favored to the Polo's. They saw them as, oh, the special Europeans are coming and we're going to favor you and you need to tell us about your culture and have us learn about everything.

Candace Gibson: And they really liked Marco Polo especially because he was young, he was bright and he was witty and apparently he was really good at picking up languages and he just really appealed to Kubla Khan and, again, this is debatable but he was either made a political advisor or some sort of courier, low level government official by Kubla Khan and he was given a golden passport which meant that he could travel to the ends of China and back.

Jane McGrath: That's right, and because of that, he was able to see all these things that no European had seen before and just go to the ends of the empire there and that's why he was able to write about so many amazing things later on.

Candace Gibson: So, he spent, like we said, about 17 years in Kubla Khan's court and we know that as he and his uncle and father traveled from Venice back to China, they covered about 24,000 miles and they would've passed through the Middle East and Central Asia and then through China and supposedly there were a lot of new goods that they discovered or that they saw for the first time along the way.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And legend is didn't he take back pasta for the first time to - introduced it to Italy and a lot of people today think that oh, you know, that originated in Italy. They associate spaghetti with Italy but it was actually Marco Polo who introduced it from China.

Candace Gibson: Isn't that wild?

Jane McGrath: Yeah.

Candace Gibson: So, in addition to pasta, he saw porcelain and silk and coal and his very first compass and also paper money. And paper money turned out to be a real biggie because later on in his memoirs when people were debating whether he had actually seen all of the things that he said, they were asking, well, you know, you were in China, where are the mentions of the Great Wall or of foot binding, that practice of foot binding.

Jane McGrath: That's right because he left those things out.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, but he did mention paper money and, later on, Europeans did see paper money and they realized, oh, well, then Marco told us that this was coming and he was right.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: And even despite acquiring malaria or some other serious illness along the way, he was a hearty little trooper and once he got to Kubla Khan's court, he was - not rustless per se but he wasn't just a sedentary European who came over to soak in the culture. He was very active in communicating with the people and traveling the land and trying to not only discover what all was available out there but also to keep the trade, the Polo's trade alive, that business.

Jane McGrath: That's true and they were pretty successful. They were able to get a lot of riches on the way and, like you said earlier, he picked up on languages so well. I read that the Khan actually sent him on, like, fact finding missions when he went off to the ends of empire and that must have been a cool life just, like, hey, find out this for me and this crazy fact and he goes and he does it.

Candace Gibson: That'd be pretty nice. I'd kind of like a position like that today. But the thing is, after a while, there was some unrest that started brewing between the Mongols and the Chinese and the Polo's wanted to leave because they saw that things were about to get nasty.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, not only that but Kubla Khan was getting kind of old and once he died, the Polo's, you know, they had been shown favor with the Kubla Khan but once he left, you know, they would not be secured of any favor from the next empire.

Candace Gibson: Definitely not. So, they wanted to go ahead and get out of town but Kubla Khan said no and he was really insistent that they were going to stay and, you know, what were they to do? They were outnumbered. It was three against all the Mongols but, luckily, fortune smiled on them because a Persian diplomat came over and said that Khan's great nephew wanted a princess from the Mongol tribe to marry and so Khan agreed to let the Polo's escort her back to Persia.

Jane McGrath: So, this was their ticket back to Italy afterwards?

Candace Gibson: Yes.

Jane McGrath: Okay.

Candace Gibson: And once they get out of China, they went ahead and went on home to Venice afterward.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I read one place - I'm not sure if this is true but actually as soon as they set foot on Christian soil again, they actually got robbed - the Polo's got robbed of their riches that they had spent, you know, 20 years acquiring in China and that must have been terribly disappointing.

Candace Gibson: I'm sure, I'm sure because they were representatives of that culture.

Jane McGrath: Um-hum.

Candace Gibson: And bringing the ideals to the Mongols.

Jane McGrath: But at least he carried with him what he saw.

Candace Gibson: There you go. And here is where this story gets kind of fishy and we've been saying words, like, supposedly and debatably and the reason for that is because there are a lot of scholars and historians, both contemporary to Marco Polo and today, who debate the authenticity of his accounts. And we should mention that his accounts were titled The Description of the World, or ultimately titled, The Travels of Marco Polo. And these were not slight books or a slight book rather, it was a pretty heavy tomb and Marco Polo didn't write it himself.

Jane McGrath: That's right. He was actually imprisoned when he got back to Italy, which it happened because he got involved in a battle between the Venetians and the Genoas and, at this time, before Italy was unified or - and everything like that, these were actually two republics and they were rivals at the time so he was imprisoned by the Genoas and while he was in prison, he actually met up with a popular writer at the time, he wrote romances and so he would - Polo would dictate what he saw in China, his travels and the writer actually wrote it down for him.

Candace Gibson: And the writer's name was Rusticcello and he was a member of - I think the French Court and so he would've been writing to entertain nobles and so some people think that he embellished Marco Polo's stories and they were translated first into French and then into, I think a 150 different languages or disseminated to 150 different countries and so you can imagine it's almost like that game of telephone that you play when you're a child, you pass along the secret from one ear to the next. By the time you get back to the person who originated the secret, it's been altered in some way.

Jane McGrath: That's right and there's no original manuscript for which to refer back to and this is even assuming that Rusticcello actually wrote down faithfully everything that Polo said. It's possible, because he was such a - you know, he was a writer of romances that he might have embellished things that Polo said.

Candace Gibson: Precisely. And, so, by the time it got through with several different editors and translators, this story was not in its original form by any stretch but then Marco Polo later on his death bed, he was asked to retract the things that he had said and he commented, I only told half of what I saw.

Jane McGrath: That's right. He stuck to his story.

Candace Gibson: He did. And not only that, he said, you know, if I had told you really what I had seen, you guys wouldn't have believed me anymore than you believe what I did tell you. And that's true because you think about the fact that China was such a mystery to the Europeans, not only was it far away but they were isolated by treacherous terrain and mountains and oceans and they had no idea what was going on over there except for the goods that they saw come down the silk road.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And it should be noted, like, to sort of defend Polo but also to explain maybe some inaccuracies in his story was that he didn't talk about everything he saw. Like, everything he wrote in the book weren't things that he personally saw but he got secondhand descriptions from people he met there. And, so, if those were wrong, he wouldn't have known but he told his side of the story, what he knew.

Candace Gibson: Right. And whether or not it is true, all of the accounts, it forever changed how Europe regarded China. It gave rise to the first maps that Europe made of parts of Asia and of China and even influenced later explorers like Christopher Columbus who was trying to find the Orient based on the descriptions and coordinates that Marco Polo gave and in 1492, I think we all know where he ended up.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: Not the Orient. So, - and one of my favorite parts of the Marco Polo story is a little bit juicy and tawdry and pulpy really because we know from most accounts that he married a Venetian woman named Donata and he had three daughters but there are some accounts or some legends rather that say he didn't marry an Italian woman, he married a woman that he met in Kubla Khan's court, actually, his daughter, Haldang, and supposedly Haldang traveled with him and his uncle and father and then returned with Marco to Venice and she was ostracized by the people because she was so different so she would lock herself in her room and sing, which was her only comfort. She had a beautiful singing voice. And then we know that Marco came to be arrested. And in this version of the story, he wasn't arrested for leading an uprising against the Genoas; he was arrested because he married a non-

Christian in the end the Catholic Church had been eyeballing himJane McGrath: Scandalous.

Candace Gibson: And it gets even more.

Jane McGrath: That's an interesting story. Okay.

Candace Gibson: Even more scandalous because then, supposedly, his sister Lucia lied to Haldang and said that he had died and she was so upset that she set her clothes on fire and hurled herself into the canals.

Jane McGrath: Wow.

Candace Gibson: So, if you're in Venice today, you can hear her singing.

Jane McGrath: Oh, this is a ghost story there. Right.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, it's a ghost story. Yeah, you can hear her singing by the canals.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, okay. I remember [inaudible]. Okay.

Candace Gibson: Yeah.

Jane McGrath: I'll have to go there and check that out.

Candace Gibson: Exactly that. I'm actually on my way right now so we're going to have to cut this short but the point being, you know, we don't know definitively whether or not Marco Polo's accounts were true and we don't know definitively all the details of his biography. So, we've done a quick history of Marco Polo.

Jane McGrath: And it only takes a click of a mouse to go to our website and learn about anything from Marco Polo; the History of China, or anything under the sun.

Candace Gibson: Even Genghis Khan, the man who said it all before Kublai and that's on howstuffworks.com.

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