Marco Polo's journey, truth or fiction?

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From April 6th to September 29th, 2024, the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) in Venice will host an exhibition centered around a man whose name is synonymous with travel and exploration: Marco Polo.

With over 300 exhibition pieces collected from all over the world on display, “The Worlds of Marco Polo. The Journey of a 13th-century Venetian Merchant” will offer a journey that will bring you closer to Marco Polo and his discoveries than ever before, while also providing a glimpse into the evolution of Venice during his time.

But, what made Marco Polo so special in the first place?

Which amazing places did he visit and who did he meet along the way? In order to help you better understand what you will be looking at during the exhibition, allow us to teach you more about the father of exploration!

The beginning

Born sometime around 1254, Marco Polo was born as the son of wealthy merchants who were, however, not the ones who raised him. His father set off on a voyage to the far east before Marco was born, and his mother died while he was still young. Consequently, he was raised by his aunt and uncle, who provided him with a good education before his father returned from his travels. Marco met his father for the first time when he was 15 years old, and only 2 years later, in 1271, he decided to join his father and his uncle on their next trip to Asia which would serve as the basis for his book “The Travels of Marco Polo”.

Marco’s father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, didn’t travel to Asia without a clear goal: During their last journey, they met Kublai Khan, the grandson of the famous Genghis Khan who was well on his way to conquering China during the late 13th century. The Khan had a great interest in Christianity and asked the Polo brothers to bring him 100 priests and holy water… without much success. Only two priests originally agreed to go along with Niccolo and Maffeo, but both decided to return home soon after the journey began.

Travelling to China

The journey to China was a tough one… VERY tough, in fact! In his book, Marco Polo wrote about the illnesses, heat and lack of food that made traversing the desert in particular a seemingly impossible task. But after 4 years of travel, the Polos had finally arrived in Shangdu, where Kublai Khan resided. The long journey was certainly worth it: The Khan soon grew very fond of the young Marco Polo and even appointed him as foreign emissary to both India and Burma. What was supposed to be a short stay turned into 17 years spent in China, a time during which Marco traveled through countless different lands while observing and documenting cultures previously completely unknown to the west. He shared his stories and findings with Kublai Khan who was so enamored with the Polos, in fact, he didn’t allow them to return home for multiple years, despite their requests.

Making-off the bestseller

It took until 1291 that Marco Polo, his father and his uncle were finally able to make their way back home, and in 1295, after 24 long years of travel and exploration, they arrived back in Venice. Venice, in the meantime, had entered into a war against the city of Genoa, and Marco Polo did not waste any time in joining the fight. Eventually, he was captured by the Genovese and thrown into prison, an event that later turned out to be quite a fateful one! It is believed that it was during Marco Polo’s prison sentence that he met a writer named Rustichello, to whom he described his travels in great detail while locked up. Rustichello would end up bringing Marco Polo’s incredible stories from the far east to paper, resulting in the aforementioned book “The Travels of Marco Polo”, known in Italian as “Il Milione”.

The book became a huge success, and the name Marco Polo soon spread like wildfire throughout Europe. However, not everyone reacted favorably to the tales of the man from Venice who explored the unknown lands and cultures of the far east. Many considered “The Travels of Marco Polo” to be mere fiction, thought up by a man who some claimed didn’t even travel to Asia at all. Others claimed that what Marco Polo said was indeed true, but they weren’t his own experiences. It’s possible that the contents of the book are retellings of what he heard from travelers that he met along the way.

Truth or lies?

Marco Polo passed away in 1324 in Venice, and allegedly, even on his deathbed people were urging him to admit that the book was pure fiction. Marco Polo, however, never admitted to fabricating his stories, going as far as saying: "I have not told half of what I saw."

Even today, the true origins of Marco Polo’s stories are a bit of a mystery. However, a great amount of his claims were later proven to be incredibly accurate: For example, he described in great detail the Khan’s incredibly complex communication system which was key to the Mongol empire. Polo also displayed incredible knowledge of far-eastern cultures and customs, most of which must have been a complete mystery to Europeans at the time.

Whatever the case may be, Marco Polo’s story had an incredible impact on aspiring explorers for centuries to come: It is said that Christopher Columbus, a legendary traveler in his own right, carried with him a copy of Polo’s book while looking for a new way to reach the Orient.

The abovementioned exhibition helps you to even better understand the legacy of Marco Polo, his travels and his impact, all while celebrating his openness to unknown lands, religions and cultures. You will also get a glimpse into the life of Venetian merchants of the time period, as well as the incredible world of cartography, which Marco Polo is said to have had a big impact on as well.

Sounds interesting to you? Then feel free to contact us for a guided tour following the footsteps of Marco Polo or through the new exhibition in the Doge's Palace!

Image source: Giovanni Grevembroch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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