Marco Polo’s wandering story

Special to The Times

MARCO POLO was only 17 when he departed for China in 1271 with his father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo. Those two merchants of Venice were known to the boy primarily as storytellers of their fabulous exploits, writes award-winning biographer and historian Laurence Bergreen, for they had been absent more than 16 years, Marco’s entire childhood. The pair had followed trade routes east, encountered exotic countries and customs and survived many perils; they had even lived for a time at the court of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Empire. Eventually they agreed to accompany his emissary west to the pope, vowing to return to Cambulac (Beijing) with several items the Great Khan had requested.

Ironically, Niccolo and Maffeo, who endured this arduous round-trip journey twice, are barely remembered today. They play minor roles in Marco’s account, which, Bergreen notes, might never have been written if Venice’s fleet had defeated Genoa at the Battle of Curzola in 1298. By that time, Marco had been home for three years. He was wealthy enough to finance and command a war galley -- although he relied on the expertise of skilled mariners -- in an attempt “to surround himself with glory in the eyes of his fellow Venetians, who regarded his tales of China with skepticism.”

But Genoa prevailed. Marco, along with 8,000 others, was captured. He “thrived” in jail, however, “metamorphosing into a middle-aged male Scheherazade who earned his keep with tales of his adventures.” Another prisoner -- Rustichello of Pisa, “a prolific writer of Arthurian romances” -- knew great material when he heard it and persuaded Marco to collaborate with him on a popular account of the latter’s travels.

Many challenges faced them. First, "[o]nly French, the language of romances . . . would do.” But Marco seems not to have known French, and Rustichello’s rudimentary grasp of its grammar and spelling led to confusion and discrepancies. Second, although Marco sent for his notes, they were disordered and sketchy at best. There were no printing presses in the 13th century, and the original handwritten manuscript of “The Travels of Marco Polo” is missing. Portions of copies surface occasionally, but these transcriptions comprise more than 100 separate versions, some translated into different languages, none complete or fully consistent with another.


From such jumbled sources, which have taxed scholars’ skills for centuries, Bergreen has put together a coherent and engrossing chronological commentary. He usually presents Marco’s statements as credible but cites problems and repeatedly warns of exaggerations and “blind spots.” His narrative moves fluidly and includes much interesting information, without getting bogged down in excessive detail. For example, he reminds readers that there was no formal Silk Road in Marco’s day; that alluring name dates from the late 19th century. Instead, “Dealers trading in gems, spices, and silks and other fabrics traveled along a casual but ancient network of tracks, trails, and mountain passes snaking across Central Asia and China.”

The Polos sometimes joined caravans -- karvan means “company” in Persian -- that stopped at caravansaries, which were combination dormitory/barns roughly a day’s journey apart. These structures were built around a courtyard and fountain, providing shelter and food for travelers upstairs and bedding and fodder for animals below. Bergreen nicely puts this ambitious pilgrimage into less daunting perspective: “Caravans usually included both camels and donkeys, handled by a trainer . . . who rode atop the first camel. A sure-footed donkey often preceded the camel, whose head was tied to the donkey’s tail. With this simple but practical method of travel, merchants trekked thousands of miles across Asia.”

The trio finally arrived at Cambulac (Bergreen gives three dates: 1272, 1277 and 1275, one of his text’s few unresolved contradictions), where Kublai Khan welcomed them.

They would remain in his realm, “privileged guests who were also prisoners,” until 1292, during the Pax Mongolica, the pinnacle of this wondrously advanced civilization. As a messenger and tax collector/assessor, Marco visited much of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent during this period.


Bergreen considers how this “incomplete and inconsistent . . . unfinished masterpiece” reflects the maturing Marco. More than once, the famous wanderer is compared to a chameleon. First Christian, then Mongol, then Buddhist, Marco “evolved from apprentice merchant and traveler (and bumbling student of history) to pilgrim and explorer of the spirit.” His years with Kublai Khan, Bergreen believes, raised the historical value of the “Travels” to inestimable worth. Far more than a mere sightseer, Marco “led a charmed existence at the juncture of two civilizations, acting as intermediary and, best of all, living to tell the tale.”

Irene Wanner has written for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times and High Country News.