The Travels of Marco Polo

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Book of the Marvels of the World
Marco Polo, Il Milione, Chapter CXXIII and CXXIV.jpg
A page of The Travels of Marco Polo
AuthorRustichello da Pisa and Marco Polo
Original titleLivres des merveilles du monde
CountryRepublic of Venice
LanguageOld French
Publication date
c. 1300
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Book of the Marvels of the World
Marco Polo, Il Milione, Chapter CXXIII and CXXIV.jpg
A page of The Travels of Marco Polo
AuthorRustichello da Pisa and Marco Polo
Original titleLivres des merveilles du monde
CountryRepublic of Venice
LanguageOld French
Publication date
c. 1300

Book of the Marvels of the World (French: Livre des merveilles du monde) or Description of the World (Divisament du monde), in Italian Il Milione ("The Million") or Oriente Poliano and in English commonly called The Travels of Marco Polo, is a 13th-century travelogue written down by Rustichello da Pisa from stories told by Marco Polo, describing Polo's travels through Asia, Persia, China, and Indonesia between 1276 and 1291 and his experiences at the court of the Mongol consort Kublai Khan.[1][2]

The book was written in Old French by Rustichello da Pisa, a romance who worked from accounts which he had heard from Marco Polo when they were imprisoned together in Genoa.[3] There has been incredulity over Polo's sometimes fabulous stories from the beginning and scholarly debate in recent times. Some questioned whether Marco had actually traveled to China or was just repeating stories that he had heard from other travelers.[4] Supporters of the book's basic accuracy have replied in even greater force. Economic historian Mark Elvin concludes that recent work "demonstrates by specific example after specific example the ultimately overwhelming probability of the broad authenticity" of Polo's account. The book is, "in essence, authentic, and, when used with care, in broad terms to be trusted as a serious though obviously not always final, witness."[5]


The route Polo describes.

The source of the title Il Milione is debated. One view is that it comes from the Polo family's use of the name Emilione to distinguish themselves from the numerous other Venetian families bearing the name Polo.[6] A more common view is that the name refers to medieval reception of the travelog, namely that it was full of "a million" lies.[7]

Modern assessments of the text usually consider it to be the record of an observant rather than imaginative or analytical traveler. Marco Polo emerges as being curious and tolerant, and devoted to Kublai Khan and the dynasty that he served for two decades. The book is Polo's account of his travels to China, which he calls Cathay (north China) and Manji (south China). The Polo party left Venice in 1271. They left China in late 1290 or early 1291[8] and were back in Venice in 1295. The tradition is that Polo dictated the book to a romance writer, Rustichello da Pisa, while in prison in Genoa between 1298–1299; Rustichello may have worked up his first Franco-Italian version from Marco's notes.

The book was then named Devisament dou monde and Livres des merveilles du monde in French, and De mirabilibus mundi in Latin.[9]


The Travels is divided into four books. Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco encountered on his way to China. Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan. Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and the east coast of Africa. Finally, Book Four describes some of the recent wars among the Mongols and some of the regions of the far north, like Russia.

Portrayal of religion[edit]

Nicolo and Maffeo Polo with Pope Gregory X in this 14th-century miniature

The Christian audience of the text caused Marco Polo to appeal to Christians in his writing. Upon finding Christians on his travels he often places them in a positive light. An example of this is after Kublai Khan defeats a Christian rebel. Marco Polo makes a point of showing Khan's consolation of the Christians among his own army saying "'If the cross of your god has not helped Nayan,' he said, ' it was for a very good reason. Because it is good, it ought not to lend its aid except in a good and righteous cause. Nayan was a traitor who broke faith with his liege. Hence the fate that has befallen him was a vindication of the right. And the cross of your god did well in not helping against the right.'"[10]

Marco Polo, a Christian himself, is often considered to have been flawed by his contemporary bias against some of the religions he encounters along the way. Most notable of these is his depiction of Buddhism as "Idol-worship", partaking in both sexual indulgence and the taking of multiple wives. Often reported is a comment regarding a Muslim, which, by a simple read, is clearly not regarding his religion but rather his personal behaviour. In Book II Polo wrote: "Among these [advisors] was a Saracen called Ahmad, a man of great energy and ability, who surpassed all the rest in his authority and influence over the Great Khan... this Ahmedd used to bewitch the Emperor by his black arts to such purpose that he won a ready hearing and acceptance."[11] Any cultural bias attributed to Polo seems unjustified in the light of the person's notoriety; the named Ahmad was a multiple rapist and murderer who was regarded as evil-doer by a large number of the populace. Most scholars would not credit the revisionist suggestion that Polo's unfavorable description of this advisor, though superstitious, had anything to do with his religion, especially seeing as how he depicts other followers of Islam in a very positive light.[12]

One of the many instances in which Polo demonstrates his respect and admiration towards followers of other religions occurs in his description of the "Bramins", whom he claimed were "the best and most honourable merchants that can be found. No consideration whatever can induce them to speak an untruth, even though their lives should depend upon it. They have also an abhorrence of robbery or of purloining the goods of other persons. They are likewise remarkable for the virtue of continence..."[13]


Handwritten notes by Christopher Columbus on the Latin edition of Marco Polo's Le livre des merveilles.

The Travels was a rare popular success in an era before printing.

The impact of Polo's book on cartography was delayed: the first map in which some names mentioned by Polo appear was in the Catalan Atlas of Charles V (1375), which included thirty names in China and a number of other Asian toponyms.[14] In the mid-fifteenth century the cartographer of Murano, Fra Mauro, meticulously included all of Polo's toponyms in his map of the world. Marco Polo's description of the Far East and its riches inspired Christopher Columbus's decision to try to reach Asia by sea,[citation needed] in a westward route. A heavily annotated copy of Polo's book was among the belongings of Columbus. Polo's writings included descriptions of cannibals and spice growers.

Subsequent versions[edit]

Marco Polo was accompanied on his trips by his father and uncle (both of whom had been to China previously), though neither of them published any known works about their journeys. The book was translated into many European languages in Marco Polo's own lifetime, but the original manuscripts are now lost.

The oldest surviving Polo manuscript is in Old French heavily flavoured with Italian;[15] for Luigi Foscolo Benedetto, this "F" text is the basic original text, which he corrected by comparing it with the somewhat more detailed Latin of Ramusio, together with a Latin manuscript in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Other early important are R (an Italian translation first published in the sixteenth century), and Z (a fifteenth-century Latin manuscript kept at Toledo, Spain). A total of about 150 copies in various languages are known to exist. However during copying and translating many errors were made, so there are many differences between the various copies.[16] The first English translation is the Elizabethan version by John Frampton, The most noble and famous travels of Marco Polo.

The first attempt to collate manuscripts and provide a critical edition was in a volume of collected travel narratives printed at Venice in 1559.[17]

The editor, Giovan Battista Ramusio, collated manuscripts from the first part of the fourteenth century,[18] which he considered to be "perfettamente corretto" ("perfectly correct"). He was of the opinion, not shared by modern scholars, that Marco had first written in Latin, quickly translated into Italian: he had apparently been able to use a Latin version "of marvelous antiquity" lent him by a friend in the Ghisi family of Venice.

The edition of Benedetto, Marco Polo, Il Milione, under the patronage of the Comitato Geografico Nazionale Italiano (Florence: Olschki, 1928), collated sixty additional manuscript sources, in addition to some eighty that had been collected by Henry Yule, for his 1871 edition. It was Benedetto who identified Rustichello da Pisa,[19] as the original compiler or amanuensis, and his established text has provided the basis for many modern translations: his own in Italian (1932), and Aldo Ricci's The Travels of Marco Polo (London, 1931).

A. C. Moule and Paul Pelliot published a translation under the title Description of the World that uses manuscript F as its base and attempts to combine the several versions of the text into one continuous narrative while at the same time indicating the source for each section (London, 1938).

An introduction to Marco Polo is Leonard Olschki, Marco Polo's Asia: An Introduction to His "Description of the World" Called "Il Milione", translated by John A. Scott (Berkeley: University of California) 1960; it had its origins in the celebrations of the seven hundredth anniversary of Marco Polo's birth.

Other travellers[edit]

Although Marco Polo was certainly the most famous, he was not the only nor the first European traveller to the Mongol Empire that subsequently wrote an account of his experiences. Other thirteenth-century European travellers who journeyed to the court of the Great Khan were André de Longjumeau, William of Rubruck and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine with Benedykt Polak. None of them visited China except Marco Polo. The Moroccan merchant Ibn Battuta travelled through the Golden Horde and China subsequently in the early-to-mid-14th century. The 14th-century English author John de Mandeville wrote an account of journeys in the East, but this was probably based on second-hand information and contains much apocryphal information.


  1. ^ Polo & Latham 1958, p. 15.
  2. ^ Boulnois 2005.
  3. ^ Jackson 1998.
  4. ^ Wood 1996.
  5. ^ "Preface," in Hans Ulrich Vogel, Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013), p. xix
  6. ^ Sofri (2001) "Il secondo fu che Marco e i suoi usassero, pare, per distinguersi da altri Polo veneziani, il nome di Emilione, che è l' origine prosaica del titolo che si è imposto: Il Milione."
  7. ^ Lindhal, McNamara, & Lindow, eds. Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs'. Vol. I. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000. p. 368.
  8. ^ The date usually given as 1292 was corrected in a note by Chih-chiu & Yung-chi (1945, p. 51) reporting a ???
  9. ^ Sofri 2001.
  10. ^ Polo & Latham 1958, p. 118.
  11. ^ Polo & Latham 1958, p. 131.
  12. ^ Polo & Smethurst 2005, p. 149.
  13. ^ Polo & Smethurst 2005, p. 340.
  14. ^ The exhibition in Venice celebrating the seven hundredth anniversary of Polo's birth L'Asia nella Cartographia dell'Occidente, Tullia Leporini Gasparace, curator, Venice 1955. (unverifiable)
  15. ^ Bibliothèque Nationale MS. français 1116. For details, see, A. C. Moule and Paul Pelliot, Marco Polo: The Description of the World (London, 1938), p.41.
  16. ^ Kellogg 2001.
  17. ^ Its title was Secondo volume delle Navigationi et Viaggi nel quale si contengono l'Historia delle cose de' Tartari, et diuversi fatti de loro Imperatori, descritta da M. Marco Polo, Gentilhuomo di Venezia.... Herriott (1937) reports the recovery of a 1795 copy of the Ghisi manuscript, clarifying many obscure passages in Ramusio's printed text.
  18. ^ "scritti gia piu di dugento anni (a mio giudico)."
  19. ^ "Rusticien" in the French manuscripts.

Further reading[edit]

General studies
Journal and newspaper articles

External links[edit]