Making Marco Polo

Almost everything we think we know about Marco Polo - traveller, explorer, the man who brought the wonders of the East to the West - is being questioned. Tony Luppino searches for the real man and story behind the legendary wanderer, and discovers someone even more interesting and unexpected.
Illustration from the "The Travels of Marco Polo" ("Il milione"), by Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa, originally published during Polo's lifetime (c. 1254 - January 8, 1324). (Wikipedia)
Listen to the full episode54:00

Almost everything we think we know about Marco Polo - traveller, explorer, the man who brought the wonders of the East to the West - is being questioned. Tony Luppino searches for the real man and story behind the legendary wanderer, and discovers someone even more interesting and unexpected. **This episode originally aired January 21, 2016.

How Marco Polo supposedly met his co-author in prison 0:55

For some people, Marco Polo conjures up images of the exotic, the East, Kublai Khan and medieval Europe, of exploration and a clash of cultures.

Today we like the Marco Polo who is an adventurer and a storyteller and maybe even an orientalist — these western fantasies about the east and about western travellers in the East often involving sensual experiences of both food and sex and powerful governments...that's the Marco Polo that survives today. – David Perry

For others, Marco Polo is just a children's pool game.

You can get an app for your phone that will let you find your missing phone. If you say "Marco", the phone will say "Polo" back to you.  They know the children's game. They know the idea of the traveller.  But not many people know much about the story...about the text and how much it circulated since the first days it was produced. – Suzanne Akbari

We really don't know much about Marco Polo himself, other than what he told us in a short prologue in his book. Incidentally, we call it The Travels of Marco Polo although it has other names in other languages, all of them with slightly different nuances of meaning.  

We do know that Marco Polo was a 13th Century Venetian who grew up in a wealthy merchant family. As a young man he travelled with his family to the Mongol Empire in what is now China, in search of trade goods. He impressed Kublai Khan and became a sort of bureaucrat for the Mongol Empire. Polo was sent to other parts of the Empire, and beyond, to India and Ceylon and Burma and other lands. He closely observed the lands and the people and their customs and reported back to the Great Khan. 

Mosaic of Marco Polo displayed in the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, in Genoa, Italy. (Wikipedia)

Later, back in Venice, he told his tales again, to a professional writer named Rustichello da Pisa. No one knows who exactly thought to put the tales into a book.  It's not even clear which language it was written in, but it wasn't Italian — Italy didn't exist yet — or Latin.  Scholars believe it was probably done in a hybrid of French and Venetian. 

Creating a book in any language in 1298 was not easy — printing wouldn't appear in Europe for another 150 years. So every manuscript and all copies were hand-written.  Although Marco Polo scholar David Perry says, "In his own time…I don't think we have any evidence he was particularly well known." The first copies started popping up within a few years. It was soon translated into Tuscan, Venetian and Latin.  

Unfortunately the original manuscripts disappeared almost immediately. But there are about 150 very early manuscripts of Marco Polo's book in existence. That doesn't sound like many, but it's evidence that it was a bestseller for the time, and a book that immediately sparked  imaginations. The tales — most of them solid and factual; some outright fanciful — have fuelled a kind of Marco Polo cult that has lasted over 700 years. Scholars have argued for centuries whether he went to all those places, whether his stories are true.  

But there is a particularly potent story about Marco Polo on his death bed.  

Someone offers him the chance to save his soul if he will just admit that what he wrote was mostly lies. "I haven't told you the tenth of it," was Polo's reply.  And although that story is pure myth, it comes close to the essence of the story of Marco Polo. He is the promise that there will always be marvels in the world left to discover.

Participants in the program:

  • Simon Gaunt, Professor of French Language and Literature at Kings College, London, author of Marco Polo's Le Devisement du Monde: Narrative Voice, Language and Diversity, 2013.

  • Suzanne Akbari, Professor of English and Medieval Studies, Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, and co-editor of Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West, 2008.

  • Sharon Kinoshita, Professor and Chair of Literature, Co-Director, Center for Mediterranean Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz.

  • David Perry, Associate Professor and Director, Catholic Studies Minor, Dominican University, River Forest Illinois. 

  • Suzanne Yeager, Associate Professor of English and Medieval Studies, Fordham University, New York.

  • Laura Morreale, Associate Director of the Department of Medieval Studies, Fordham University, New York.
  • Teresa Shawcross, Associate Professor of History, Princeton University.

** This episode was produced by Dave Redel 


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