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From Venice to Xanadu

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

As the first European to travel extensively throughout Asia, Marco Polo was the earliest bridge between East and West. His famous journeys took him across the boundaries of the known world, along the dangerous Silk Road, and into the court of Kublai Kahn, where he won the trust of the most feared and reviled leader of his day. Polo introduced the cultural riches of China to Europe, spawning centuries of Western fascination with Asia.

In this lively blend of history, biography, and travelogue, acclaimed author Laurence Bergreen separates myth from history, creating the most authoritative account yet of Polo's remarkable adventures. Exceptionally narrated and written with a discerning eye for detail, Marco Polo is as riveting as the life it describes.

Excerpt

Chapter One: The Merchants of Venice  

Then all the charm
Is broken—all that phantom-world so fair
Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread. . . .  

She hid from her enemies amid a seductive array of islands, 118 in all. Damp, dark, cloistered, and crowded, she perched on rocks and silt. Fortifications and spectacular residences rose on foundations of pinewood piles and Istrian stone. In Marco Polo's Venice, few edifices—with the exception of one huge Byzantine basilica and other large churches—stood entirely straight; most structures seemed to rise uncertainly from the water.  

Marco Polo came of age in a city of night edging toward dawn; it was opaque, secretive, and rife with transgressions and superstitions. Even those who had lived their entire lives in Venice became disoriented as they wandered down blind alleys that turned without warning from familiar to sinister. The whispers of conspiracy and the laughter of intimacy echoed through narrow passageways from invisible sources; behind dim windows, candles and torches flickered discreetly. In the evening, cobwebs of mist arose from the canals, imposing silence and isolation, obscuring the lanterns in the streets or in windows overlooking the gently heaving canals. Rats were everywhere—emerging from the canals, scurrying along the wharves and streets, gnawing at the city's fragile infrastructure, bringing the plague with them.  

The narrow streets and passageways, some barely shoulder-width, took bewildering twists and turns until, without warning, they opened to the broad expanse of the Grand Canal, which divided one-half of the city from the other before running into the lagoon and, beyond that, the expanses of the Adriatic Sea.  

In winter, the city hosted Carnival (literally, the playful "bidding farewell to meat" before Lent). Carnival became the occasion for orgies taking place just out of sight behind high courtyard walls and opaque curtains. Rumors of foul play ran rife amid the gaiety and sensuality of the Republic. Venetians bent on evil preferred quiet means of imposing death, such as poisoning or strangulation, and they usually got away with it.  

In an uncertain world, thirteenth-century Venetians could feel certain of a few things. Two hundred years before Copernicus and three hundred before Galileo, it was an article of faith that the Sun revolved around the Earth, that the heavenly spheres were perfectly smooth, and that Creation occurred exactly 4,484 years before Rome was founded. Jerusalem was considered "the navel of the world." Entrances to Heaven and Hell existed, somewhere.   The day, for most people, was subdivided into times for prayer: matins at midnight, lauds three hours later, prime at daybreak, terce at midmorning, sext at noon, none at midafternoon, vespers at sunset, and, at bedtime, compline. In the Age of Faith, science consisted largely but not entirely of spurious pursuits such as alchemy—the effort to transmute so-called base metals into gold—and astrology, which went hand in hand with astronomy.  

People depended on wind, water, and animals for power. In Western Europe, coal had yet to be exploited as an energy source; paper money and the printing press also lay two hundred years in the future. The most advanced technology consisted of ships—considered a marvel of transport, though very dangerous—and devices capable of sawing wood, pressing olives, and tanning hides.  

Throughout Europe, travel was exceedingly slow and hazardous. Crossing the English Channel was a dreaded undertaking; those who completed the ordeal would claim that the effort had impaired their health. Over land, people moved no faster than a horse could take them; the average land journey covered eight to ten miles a day, or under special circumstances, for brief durations, fifteen to twenty miles. Superstition led those who undertook such journeys to seek shelter at nightfall in primitive inns, infested with vermin, where two or three sojourners shared a single bed. It took five harrowing weeks to ride by cart from Paris to Venice.  

But in Venice, conditions were very different. Tiny in size, yet global in outlook, Venice was entering the Late Middle Ages, a period of economic expansion, cultural achievement, and the lowering of barriers to commercial activity. Travel was not the exception, it was the norm. Everyone in Venice, it seemed, was a traveler and a merchant, or aspired to be. Across Europe, political power, formerly scattered among disorganized and crumbling empires reaching back to Roman times, had coalesced in well-armed and well-organized city-states, such as Venice. The growth in commerce among European city-states contributed to rapid advances in art, technology, exploration, and finance. The compass and clock, windmill and watermill—all vital to the smooth functioning of European economies—came into being, and great universities that survive to this day were being founded. As a result of all these advances, Venice—indeed, all of Europe as we know it—began to emerge.  


Venice—seductive, Byzantine, and water-bound—was among the most important centers of commerce and culture in thirteenth-century Europe, a flourishing city-state that lived by trade. Her economy thrived thanks to her aggressive navy, which vigorously defended the city from repeated onslaughts by rapacious Genoese rivals and Arab marauders. Unlike other medieval cities, Venice had no walls or gates. They were not necessary. The lagoon and swamps protected Venice from invaders by land or by sea.  

As the gateway to the riches of the East, Venice gave rise to a sophisticated merchant aristocracy, including the Polo family, known for frequent journeys to the East, especially Constantinople, in search of jewels, silks, and spices. Venice was highly structured, fiercely independent and commercial, and based on a unique combination of feudal obligation, and global outlook.  

Because Venice was compact, hemmed in by the lagoon and by its enemies, the sense of common cause among its inhabitants was strong. "By virtually confining the Venetians to so restricted a space," says the historian John Julius Norwich, "it had created in them a unique spirit of cohesion and cooperation . . . not only at times of national crisis but also, and still more impressively, in the day-to-day handling of their affairs. Among Venice's rich merchant aristocracy everyone knew everyone else, and close acquaintance led to mutual trust of a kind that in other cities seldom extended far outside the family circle."  

As a result, Venetians developed a reputation for efficient and thorough business administration—the most advanced in Europe. "A trading venture," Norwich says, "even one that involved immense initial outlay, several years' duration, and considerable risk, could be arranged on the Rialto in a matter of hours. It might take the form of a simple partnership between two merchants, or that of a large corporation of the kind needed to finance a full-sized fleet or trans-Asiatic caravan." Either way, Norwich concludes, "it would be founded on trust, and it would be inviolable."  



The contractual underpinnings of a journey such as the one undertaken by the Polo family to China were a bit more formal than a mere handshake or oath. Marco Polo came of age in a city teeming with commerce. Venetian merchants had developed all sorts of strategies for dealing with the vagaries of their livelihood, global trade. In the absence of standard exchange rates, the many types of coins in use created a nightmare of conversion. The Byzantine Empire had its bezants, Arabic lands their drachmas, Florence its florins. Venice, relying on the ratio of gold to silver in a given coin to determine its true value, tried to accommodate them all. Merchants such as the Polos sought to circumvent the vexed system of coins, with its inevitable confusion and debasement, by trading in gems such as rubies and sapphires, and in pearls.  

To meet these sophisticated and exotic financial needs, Venice developed the most advanced banking system in Western Europe. Banks of deposit on the Continent originated there. In 1156, the Republic of Venice became the first state since antiquity to raise a public loan. It also passed the first banking laws in Europe to regulate the nascent banking industry. As a result of these innovations, Venice offered the most advanced business practices in Europe.  

Venice adapted Roman contracts to the needs of merchants trading with the East. Sophisticated sea-loan and sea-exchange contracts spelled out obligations between shipowners and merchants, and even offered insurance—mandatory in Venice beginning in 1253. The most widespread type of agreement among merchants was the commenda, or, in Venetian dialect, the collegantia, a contract based on ancient models. Loosely translated, the term meant "business venture," and it reflected prevailing customs of the trade rather than a set of consistent legal principles. Although these twelfth- and thirteenth-century contracts seem antiquated, they are startlingly modern in their calls for precise accounting. Contracts like these reflected and sustained a rudimentary form of capitalism long before the concept came into existence.  

For Venetians, the world was startlingly modern in another way: it was "flat," that is to say, globally connected across boundaries and borders, both natural and artificial. They saw the world as a network of endlessly changing trade routes and opportunities extending over land and sea. By ship or caravan, Venetian merchants traveled to the four corners of the world in search of valuable spices, gems, and fabrics. Through their enterprise, minerals, salt, wax, drugs, camphor, gum arabic, myrrh, sandalwood, cinnamon, nutmeg, grapes, figs, pomegranates, fabrics (especially silk), hides, weapons, ivory, wool, ostrich and parrot feathers, pearls, iron, copper, gold dust, gold bars, silver bars, and Asian slaves all poured into Venice via complex trade routes from Africa, the Middle East, and Western Europe.  

Even more exotic items flowed into the city aboard foreign galleys. Huge marble columns, pedestals, panels, and blocks piled up on the docks, having been taken from some ruined temple or civic edifice in Constantinopole, or another Greek or Egyptian city. These remnants of antiquity, the very headstones of dead or moribund civilizations, would wind up in an obscure corner of the Piazza San Marco, or on the façade of some ostentatious palazzo inhabited by a duke or a wealthy merchant of Venice.  

The variety of goods moved Shakespeare to observe, through the character Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, that "the trade and profit of the city / Consisteth of all nations." Venetian trade was synonymous with globalization—another embryonic concept of the era. To extend their reach, Venetians formed partnerships with distant governments and merchants that cut across racial and religious divisions. Arabs, Jews, Turks, Greeks, and eventually the Mongols became trading partners with Venice even when they seemed to be political enemies. The Polos were not the first merchants to travel from Venice to Asia, but thanks to Marco Polo's exploits, they became the most celebrated.  



Wherever Venetians went, they announced themselves with their distinctive accent and dialect, veneto. This tongue, like other Romance languages, was based on Latin, and it incorporated vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation from other languages-some German and Spanish (in the form of the Castilian s, pronounced "th"), and some Croatian. There was even a little French thrown into the mix. There are lots of x's and z's in veneto, but almost no l's. Lord Byron, who claimed to have enjoyed two hundred women in Venice in as many consecutive evenings, called veneto a "sweet bastard Latin." To further complicate matters, veneto had numerous variants. The Polos of Venice would have strained to understand the dialect spoken elsewhere in the area by the inhabitants of Padua, Treviso, or Verona.  

Some distinctive words in Marco Polo's world have leapt from veneto to English. Venetians of Polo's day bade each other ciao—or, to be more precise, s ciavo or s ciao vostro—which means, literally, "I am your slave." (The word came into the Venetian language from Croatian.) Gondola is another Venetian word, although it is not clear when the long, elegant, black vessel itself came into use. It is likely that in Marco Polo's day, a wide variety of small craft, including sailboats, rowboats, and galleys, jostled one another in the city's winding canals.  

And "arsenal," or a place where weapons are manufactured and stored, entered the Venetian language by way of the Arabic term dar al sina'ah, meaning "workshop." When Europeans of Marco Polo's era employed this word, they meant the Arsenal in Venice, renowned as a center of shipbuilding. Here shipwrights operated an early assembly line devoted to turning out galleys at a furious rate from standardized, prefabricated components such as keels and masts. A Spanish visitor named Pero Tafur described the precisely choreographed activity devoted to launching the galleys: "out came a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows they came out to them, from one the cordage, from another the bread, from another the arms, and from another the ballistas and mortars, and so from all sides everything that was required. And when the galley had reached the end of the street all the men required were on board, together with the complement of oars, and she was equipped from end to end."  

Tafur counted the launching of ten "fully-armed" galleys within a six-hour span: one new warship every thirty-six minutes. No wonder that the speed with which the Arsenal of Venice could turn a bare keel into fully rigged craft was admired throughout Europe. And commanders could have their galleys in any color they wanted—as long as it was black.  

The Venetian manner, then as now, was correspondingly brusque, efficient, and commercial. It took a Venetian to possess the practical knowledge, the sophistication, and the confidence to finance large expeditions or caravans to the East, to deal profitably with Muslim and Orthodox Christian adversaries, and to manage complex partnerships. Venetian laws enforced the smooth operation of business. A merchant returning to Venice was legally required to present his partners with his accounts within one month, and to divide the profits forthwith. As a further incentive to trade, taxation in Venice was among the lowest in Europe, and merchants kept nearly all the profit they made.

Just about everyone in Venice engaged in commerce. Widows and orphans invested in merchant activity, and any young man without means could describe himself as a "merchant" simply by launching himself in business. Although the risks were great, riches beyond imagining lured the adventurous, the willing, and the foolish. Fortunes were made and lost overnight, and Venetian family fortunes were built on the success of a single trade expedition to Constantinople.


From the Hardcover edition.
Laurence Bergreen|Author Q&A

About Laurence Bergreen

Laurence Bergreen - Marco Polo

Photo © Sigrid Estrada

Laurence Bergreen is a prize-winning biographerand historian. His books have been translated into fifteen languages worldwide. His last book, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, was a New York Times "Notable Book" for 2003 and a bestseller. He has written for many national publications including Esquire, Newsweek, and The Chicago Tribune. Mr. Bergreen graduated from Harvard in 1972. He is a member of PEN American Center, and is a trustee of the New York Society Library. He lives in New York.  

Laurence Bergreen is represented by the Knopf Speakers Bureau (http://www.knopfspeakersbureau.com).

Author Q&A

Q: When did you know you wanted to write about Marco Polo? And Why?
A:
When I began to conceive of writing about explorers some years ago, Marco Polo was the first person who came to mind, because of his renown and his influence on the Age of Discovery in general, and explorers such as Magellan and Columbus in particular. It's only now that I'm getting around to writing about his exploits and huge legacy, but the idea has been gestating for years. Beyond the obvious fascination of his life, and its exotic elements, I was struck by the lack of works for adults about him, and his travels. One other thing impelled me to write about Marco Polo now: my conviction that his Travels are timely. I began this book by immersing myself in the thirteenth century, but I ended it by realizing that his world is very similar to our own. Human nature and geography haven't changed, and the religious systems he encountered are still with us as potent presences. China, and trade with China, exerts as much fascination for us in the West as it did in Polo's day. After a while, I asked myself, "Has anything changed since then?" Obviously, a great deal has, but his Travels seem as useful, fresh, and provocative as up-to-date reportage.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the book and how long did it take you?
A:
Researching this book has been a great challenge and often exhilarating. My travels in pursuit of Marco Polo took me to his home town, Venice, and across China, visiting places he described, including Beijing in the east, Hangzhou to the south, and Kunming to the west. I also visited Shanghai and Taiwan in pursuit of Marco Polo scholars and artifacts. Another trip took me to Mongolia, where I lived in a simple ger camp, as Mongols did in Marco Polo’s time and still do. (During Polo’s day, the Mongols, led by Kubla Khan, ruled China.) This was really the best way, perhaps the only way, to experience Asia and the Mongol mystique as Marco Polo did. The challenges were considerable. Significant sources for Marco Polo are in English, French, Italian, Persian, Latin, Mandarin, and Mongolian, among others. I relied on several translators for the more exotic tongues, and handled the French and Latin myself. Then there is the problem of pre-Gutenberg era sources, which are often jumbled and contradictory. There are, for instance, thirteen or fourteen early manuscripts of Marco’s book, but no authoritative source. Nor did he write it himself; it was ghostwritten for him when he was in jail. So it is no wonder questions
about the nature of Marco Polo and his account abound. Part of the reason I wrote this book was to explore some of these questions, lay some to rest, and test the others for significance.

Q: It's surprising that for such a well-known person, so little has been written about Marco Polo. Why do you think that is?
A:
It is an unlikely situation. And I was as surprised as anyone else to find that this was the case. There are books for young readers, and a vast trove of scholarly articles of varying usefulness, but next to nothing for the general adult reader, despite Marco Polo's fame. Even now, I'm not sure of the reason for this oversight, but I think Polo's unique and unclassifiable personality, reflected in his work, has something to do with it, as does his incredible range. He covers so many countries, continents, cultures, and languages that it is difficult to approach him in his cross-cultural entirety. In addition, Marco Polo did a fine job of speaking for himself. He seemed to need no introduction, but that was five hundred years ago. Now his work needs background and context to explain the circumstances out of which this unique work arose.

Q: How did Marco Polo come to be so famous in his own time?
A:
Marco’s stories might have been nothing more than evanescent rumor were it not for the unlikely fact that he was captured in battle against Genoa and jailed with a romance writer and notary named Rustichello of Pisa. A compulsive talker by all accounts, Marco told his stories to Rustichello, who wrote them down. Marco then took to promoting the manuscript, but his renown came gradually. In the fifteenth century, Sir John Mandeville, who wrote an entirely fictional and reasonably enjoyable account of his travels, outsold Marco Polo by five to one. Marco wanted his name to live forever as the greatest traveler of all time, and he had a difficult time convincing skeptical Venetians that he had actually seen as much of the world as he claimed and even served Kublai Khan, the most powerful emperor in the world. He might have been relegated to the mists of obscurity were it not for the fact that scholars and others began to confirm that nearly all of what Marco discussed was true. In the nineteenth century, his reputation underwent a major overhaul, and he was finally seen for what he was: a chronicler rather than a fantasist. Vindication took a long time in coming, centuries, in fact.

Q: How do you sort fact from fiction when writing about a man who was such a notorious storyteller?
A:
That was not as troublesome as I expected, because I tapped into a large body of Marco Polo scholarship beginning in the nineteenth century which has done just that: verifying the travels, and pointing out where it diverges from other records, or chronology. The nineteenth-century French historian M. G. Pauthier painstakingly compared Marco's account against Chinese annals, and in almost every instance found independent verification of the people and deeds of which the Venetian wrote. Similarly, Henry Yule and Henri Cordier, who issued a popular English-language edition that is still popular today, corresponded with a global network of experts, most British, who diligently tracked down people, places, and things about which Marco wrote. Again, they generally found independent confirmation. One needs to be careful, however, to separate Marco's facts from his collaborator's fiction. Rustichello saw his job, in part, as one of sensationalizing the Venetian's account. So Rustichello interpolated accounts of battles and Christian miracle stories, some of them borrowed word for word from his other writings. Once you understand Rustichello's approach to the collaboration, it is relatively easy to distinguish between his embellishments and actual events. Actually, I think of their collaboration as being rather uneven, and it seems apparent to me where Rustichello imposes his literary conceits on Marco's account. Their literary voices and intentions did not blend; Nordhoff and Hall they were not. I must add one additional thought: Marco had a vivid imagination, and in the book, I speculate that it might have been fueled by his use of opium during his time in Afghanistan, the center, then as now, of the opium trade. As a result, much of his writing has a visionary or imaginative dimension, because he has a highly associative mind. One way to appreciate Marco's powers of perception and description is to compare his record with those left by other travelers of the same era. He captures so much more; it's a three-dimensional representation rather than one-dimensional.

Q: What did you learn in writing this book that most surprised you about Marco Polo?
A:
How much his observations applied to the world today, to international trade, diplomacy, global strife, and the waxing and waning of political and financial systems. That would be one point. Another, related aspect concerns the way he has been classified. Marco Polo has always been seen as the archetypal medieval traveler. But the late medieval period in which he came of age was extremely fertile and dynamic; it was not a changeless, monolithic era by any means. And Venice was one of the most advanced areas in Western Europe; simply being there placed him on the cutting edge of his era. While there are trappings of the medieval mindset in his account, Marco is all about overcoming limits, and confounding orthodoxy. He was extraordinarily blasphemous by the standards of his day. Although he does not say so explicitly, he considers man the measure of all things, and so belongs more to the Renaissance, in my view.

Q: Is it true that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy??
A:
Not really. It is now believed that some form of noodles developed in Asia Minor, and spread along the Silk Road in both directions. Marco returned to Venice with news of extremely influential inventions, such as paper money and coal and gun powder, but not pasta. Or gelato.

Q: How much was Marco Polo a product of Venice and its unique geography and history?
A:
At the beginning of his travels, and of his account, Marco saw the world as a traditional Venetian might. He observed customs, often disdaining them, and abhorred other religious practices. One can sense fear and mistrust coupled with smugness in his opinions. But Marco was gone for over two decades and came of age on the Silk Road. Inevitably, his mind opened to possibilities he could scarcely imagine back in Venice. Still, he remained the merchant through and through, trading, counting, assessing. He must have been an expert salesman.

Q: When you went on a business trip in Polo's day you might be gone for ten plus years! What was life like for a merchant along the Silk road? How dangerous were the times?
A:
Life on the Silk Road was one of hardship and constant stress, as Marco Polo writes. Bandits posed a constant threat to life and property, and the Polo company had several narrow escapes. In fact, bandits posed such a great danger that much of the Silk Road was shut down until the Mongols brought a militaristic sort of peace - the Pax Mongolica - to it. Then there was the weather. Marco described the difficulties of climbing the Pamirs, the so-called Roof of the World, a region so high that no birds flew, and fires starved for lack of oxygen. Snowstorms also tried the patience and strength of Venetians accustomed to warmer weather. Lightning and earthquakes were constant menaces, as were poison wells, poison insects, and flash floods. But life on the Silk Road had its peculiar compensations and diversions. Every few miles, caravanserais offered travelers respite from the hardship of life on the Silk Road. Within, they could find food and shelter for themselves and their animals. Marco also writes that some remote towns were exceptionally hospitable to travelers, offering them bed, and board, and
women.

Q: Marco Polo’s relationship with the great Kublai Khan is an important and fascinating one. Why and how do you think they became so close? How much did their relationship shape European perceptions about Asia?
A:
Marco and Kublai Khan needed each other. As Marco makes readily apparent, he distinguished imself as a candid reporter and intelligence gatherer, and the Khan was glad to have the benefit of his perceptions. And Marco, in turn, needed the Mongol emperor for protection in the vast and wild Asian continent. Marco could be very charming, and he knew how to charm Kublai Khan. That was a special gift. Marco’s travels had everything to do with shaping European perceptions of China. I can’t think of another account to match its influence. Although it took a while to spread, especially in the pre-Gutenberg era, when accounts such as this went from hand to hand in manuscript form.

Q: A movie is in the works based on Marco Polo’s life, with Matt Damon slated to star. Are you involved in that process?
A:
I'm consultant for the movie, which is produced by Warner Brothers, with a script written by William Monahan, who also wrote "The Departed." From time to time, I'm asked about the plausibility of potential story lines, but the movie, being a movie, has a life of its own. As a writer, I have the luxury of being able to spin out a complex story over several hundred pages, but a movie is necessarily somewhat compressed. In my mind, these are separate entities, and I naturally see things in terms of how they work on the page.

Q: For most of us, our first exposure to the name Marco Polo is the kids swimming pool game. When and where did that originate?
A:
Search me! It has nothing to do with the real-life Marco Polo, or even with early legends surrounding him.

Q: You have written about Magellan and about voyaging to Mars and now about Marco Polo, what draws you to the idea of explorers and exploration? Is biography its own form of exploration? That is to say, do you find that you and your subjects share similar character traits?
A:
When I was younger, I tended to believe that I should write about people with whom I identified in some way, or about whose life and worlds I knew, at least in passing. That impulse led me to a figure like James Agee. Eventually, I realized that approach was rather limiting, and it was more challenging, exciting, and gratifying to explore people, and worlds, who were different. Escaping, if only temporarily, the limits of self is, for me, one of the luxuries of writing history and biography. To alter the familiar maxim, I start out writing about something I don't know, but by the end of the project, I feel as if I know it as well or better than myself. But I never confuse myself with my subjects, and if we have any traits in common, I'm not aware of them. Or maybe I prefer not to be aware of them.

It seemed natural to go from people who explored the farthest reaches of their artforms, people such as Louis Armstrong, to actual explorers. Their journeys seemed a good working metaphor for the process of writing a book. For twenty years, between books, I thought of writing about explorers, but somehow I never got past the most familiar figures. When I was writing about NASA, scientists there kept mentioning Ferdinand Magellan to me, and eventually I became intrigued with his circumnavigation, and I was launched on a new venture. Magellan led back to Marco Polo, in part because Magellan's Venetian chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, wrote in emulation of the Travels. One could argue that the entire Age of Discovery was inspired by Marco Polo's Travels.

Q: This story is very much about commerce as a universal language--everybody was willing to make a deal--and in that sense it's a very timely story. In what other ways was Polo's world similar to ours today?
A:
On one level, this is a book about global commerce, and as such it is quite timely. Marco Polo intended his stories to join a recognized if specialized genre, that of tips and tricks for commercial travelers on the Silk Road. Diplomats had their official papers, soldiers had their orders, religious figures had their sacred texts, and Marco wanted those like him to have a field book for doing business with Asia, incorporating everything from local political systems, items worth trading (especially gems), comfortable stopovers, and the disposition of the locals. Although Marco feigns disapproval, he diligently points out where the weary, and lonely, traveler on the dusty reaches of the Silk Road is likely to find feminine companionship or a spiritual community, depending on his mood. In any case, Marco seems equally interested in both realms, which adds to his appeal, and helps to make him fully human in a way that anticipates the Renaissance. At times it seemed to me that he was writing a "Rough Guide" to
Asia, that is, a slightly offbeat, personal tour of the Mongol Empire and the Chinese. Once you peel away the literary conventions of the genre, you can see that he was mainly interested in offering commercial advice and boasting of his exploits. He very much wanted to be seen as the high roller returning in triumph to Venice with the spoils of commerce. There's a bitter irony to his wish, because in Venice, he did not stand out. He was another traveler returned from Asia, bragging of his exploits. His family was wealthy, but not part of the small clique that controlled affairs of state for the Republic. It was only his marvelous travels that set him apart. Contemporaneous accounts of Marco Polo often have a distinct air of skepticism and condescension.

What else is like today? Well, China was seen then as a sleeping giant just beginning to awaken, a land of extraordinary and underutilized resources; that certainly has a contemporary ring. The Mongols were seen as sweeping out of the East, across Europe on the way to global conquest, another belief that has a familiar unnerving ring. And Marco Polo's Venice was roughly comparable to the large commercial centers of today, such as New York and London, or perhaps Paris in the nineteenth century - a magnet for those seeking wealth and status, a glittering civilization that was also merciless and, underneath, soulless. Indeed, there's a lot of indirect evidence that Marco found it stifling; the wide open spaces of the Asian Steppe beckoned him, and ultimately liberated him. When he returned to Venice - to skepticism, rather than glory - I was intrigued to note that he became so much less interesting and individualistic. Ultimately, he joined that which he had managed to escape, by which I mean highly stratified Venetian society. Today, we value Marco the Prodigal son of the Travels, not Marco the curmudgeonly paterfamilias that he became in later life.

Q: Is there anyone today who reminds you of Marco Polo?
A:
There are more Marco Polos today than ever before. I’m referring to global businessmen who are pioneering trade between East and West, and discovering, like Marco before them, that commerce is a type of universal language, and cuts across religious, political, and geographical boundaries.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Sumptuous. . . . A full-blooded rendition of Polo's astonishingh journey. . . . Richly researched and vividly conveyed.” —The Washington Post Book World“Fascinating. . . . Richly detailed and illuminating, a window into the most exotic of places and times.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer“As enthralling as a rollicking travel journal. . . . The world [Polo] encountered was stranger than any fable.” —The New York Times Book Review “With his polished, authoritative storytelling, Bergreen makes the world of Marco Polo very permanent.” —Entertainment Weekly

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