A Venetian explorer Marco Polo is no stranger to our world. People around the world recognize him for his brave journey to China and giving a glimpse of the Far East to the curios minds of Europe.
However, despite his fame in history and geography, there is also a great mystery about his life and adventure.
To reflect light on Marco Polo’s famous but mysterious past, we gathered 23 interesting facts about him.
There is no information about Marco Polo’s childhood.
As we already know, the lives of so many historic figures remain in mystery, so does Marco Polo’s life.
The majority of sources agree that he was born in Venice, Italy in 1254 to a rich merchant family. And he was raised by extended family.
Because his mother died when he was a child, and his father, a jewel merchant, Niccolo Polo was out in Asia for trade and returned only when he was 15 years of age.
Instead of giving childhood care, Marco’s father gave him an inspiration and a chance to travel to China in his late teenage years. So, the father and son bond was pretty strong.
Marco Polo’s journey to China began with his father and uncle (Maffeo Polo).
When Polo brothers Niccolo and Maffeo returned to Venice, they brought with them first-hand information about the Asian culture. More specifically, while in China, they had established a warm connection with the Mongol Dynasty ruled by Kublai Khan.
In the 13th century, Kublai Khan was a pretty popular figure in China. He was the grandson of famous conqueror Genghis Khan.
Primarily, Kublai Khan is known for conquering southern China’s Song Dynasty and founding the Mongols’ the Yuan Dynasty there.
Supposedly, during the first trip, Niccolo and Maffeo could spark interest in Kublai Khan towards Christianity. Thus, the Khan asked them to bring 100 priests and holly water to China from Europe.
So, this time, the Polo brothers decided to take 17-year-old Marco with them. Young and energetic Marco Polo gladly joined the second journey of his father and uncle.
However, instead of 100, priests they could recruit only two priests, both of whom gave up to go any further because of harsh and exhaustive conditions of the trip.
So, only the three-member team of Polos continued their way to China.
There is no known portrait of Marco Polo.
That means we will never see his true face. Everything we see in popular literature is the portrayal of Marco Polo shaped artists’ imagination.
It is quite a mystery that as famous and rich Marco was, no one attempted to create his portrait.
This leads to another debatable question. Did Marco Polo really exist or was he a legendary traveler who came out of someone’s imagination as well.
A big portion of information about Marco Polo comes from his own book.
There is no much information about Marco Polo in the historical documents.
However, some legal documents confirm that a citizen named Marco Polo really existed in Venice. But, strangely, there is no single document that mentions his heroic trip to China.
He might have been from another nation originally and relocated Venice later.
That may explain why there are no consistent documents that firmly confirm Marco Polo’s achievement.
During all these years, historians may have been looking for his biography from the wrong places and digging wrong archives.
Marco Polo inspired Christopher Columbus to explore the Americas.
Columbus was inspired by the stories of Polo about the booming Far Eastern trade. As a merchant and favorer of spreading Christianity, Columbus could organize voyage to the Far East.
Unlike Marco Polo, Columbus planned to reach Indies and the lands of Cathay (China) by sailing westwards from the coast of Spain.
When he sailed he was under the assumption that he wouldn’t encounter another continent between Asia and Europe. So, he sailed westwards in the Atlantic Ocean, hoping to reach directly to China and India.
Columbus was wrong, so were the maps that existed at that time. Instead of reaching China, he reached the coast of the Americas. And unintentionally made a discovery, which was far greater than his original intention.
Unfortunately, Columbus died as a broke and disappointed man. He left the world without fully knowing what land he discovered.
Some suggest that Marco Polo was a conman who never set foot on China.
Critics suggest that there is no solid evidence that Marco Polo had really visited the Far East. For instance, there are no records of his journey in Venetian files nor in the Chinese/Mongol documents.
However, critics agree that he was a good story-teller, who could narrate the stories of others about China in a more entertaining fashion.
Marco Polo as conman with skills
If Marco Polo really was a conman as critics say, then, he was a good one. Because he could attract millions of readers to his famous book and showed himself as a great adventurer simply using his creative imagination.
However, the critics can be wrong too. In fact, the majority of experts supports his authenticity. National schools taught lessons portraying him as a truly historic character.
Even though Marco Polo’s journey was not properly documented, experts believe his description of Chinese culture, society, and people are not far the reality.
Historians believe to produce such a precise adventure book, someone would have to be in those places and witness those events personally.
Marco Polo’s trip from Venice to China took about 4 years.
He started his journey in 1271 with his father and uncle. They walked on all types of terrains and crossed both pleasant and harsh territories along the way.
He crossed Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan, Pamir mountains, and Gobi Desert to reach the Mongol Empire in China. At that period, China was known as Cathay for foreigners.
While Marco Polo was crossing the territory of Afghanistan, he contracted a serious disease.
Some speculate he was sick with malaria. No matter what the disease was, he was unable to continue his travel in that condition.
Polos decided to seek refuge in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan until Marco gets better. The situation delayed their trip for an extended period of time.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t the only hardest section of the travel for young Marco. Gobi Desert welcomed them with harsh surprises as well. Polo described the desert as the place of drought where “nothing at all to eat”.
Marco Polo understood that all that effort wasn’t made in vain when he reached the destination.
Polos were accepted well in China by Kublai Khan. Marco immersed himself into the life of the Dynasty and found their culture very pleasing.
Originally, Polos planned to stay in China for several months. However, they ended up staying there for over 17 years.
They were housed well and treated as close companions of the Kublai Khan. As a return, Polos served the Khan, sharing their European knowledge and expertise.
While in China, Marco Polo learned 4 new languages and went to diplomatic trips, representing the empire of Kublai Khan.
Service under the Kublai Khan was a great opportunity for young Marco to explore the lands that no Europeans have visited before. Namely, some of those places were India, Tibet, and Burma.
Personally, Marco Polo never explicitly said what language he knew. However, thanks to his detailed writings, historians could determine that those languages were Arabic, Mongol, Persian, and Turkish.
Interestingly, he never learned Chinese even though he spent over two decades of his life there.
Marco Polo was served as a governor to one of the Chinese cities.
Supposedly, Kublai Khan liked the intelligent character of Marco. He served as a diplomat and governor of the city of Yangchow.
In his last years in China, Marco was promoted to be an official of Khan’s Privy Council, the position usually given to the close circle of the Khans.
However, after years of service and living in a foreign land, Polos decided to leave for their homeland.
Kublai Khan did not like their decision since he already grew dependent on the services of Polos. But he let them go with one condition.
The condition was to escort the Mongol Princess Kokachin to Persia, where she was destined to marry Kublai khan’s great-nephew Il-Khan, who was the ruler of Persia at the time.
Marco Polo escorted the Mongol princess to Persia.
That was the last service Polos has done for the Mongol Empire. But it was not the easy one.
From China, Marco Polo, his father, uncle, and Princess Kokachin along with several hundred passengers and sailors set sail towards Persia.
The voyage was not as safe as a land-based trip. Their vessel suffered a series of storms while some passengers and sailors died of lethal diseases.
When they reached Persia, only 18 passengers were alive, which included Marco Polo, his father, uncle, and the princess.
Unfortunately, the princess who was supposed to marry the princess died by the time they got there. The situation extended Polos’ length of stay in Persia until they found a good match for the princess to marry.
When Polos returned back to Venice being gone for 24 years, no one could recognize them.
Even their close relatives resisted to accept them into their homes. They looked like strangers with their outfits and facial hair. Also, they grew twenty-three years older since they left.
Some sources state that they even failed to speak Italian as they had not used the language over two decades.
According to legends, when Marco Polos returned to Venice, he cut open his sleeves and marvelous jewels and riches spilled out of his garment.
Since there is no evidence to legitimize this legend, it probably was an exaggerated story.
However, Polos brought back exotic spices, gun powder, silk, jewels, and other Asian goodies that are totally new to European countries.
Although there are some claims that pasta gained popularity in Italy after Marco Polo brought noodles from China, most people do not agree with those claims. Because pasta was already in Italian cuisine even before Marco Polo was born.
Marco Polo mistook animals of Asia for mythical creatures.
Undoubtedly, Marco Polo may have encountered exotic animals during his journey, if he really went that far.
Seeing those creatures for the first time in his life, Marco mistook them for mythical creatures.
For instance, he described crocodiles as sharp-clawed giant serpents, while he thought that the rhinoceros were the mythical unicorns.
Marco Polo was the first person to introduce the paper money to Europe.
In one chapter of his book, he described how Kublai Khan used paper money made with the bark of a mulberry tree.
And, he went on to explain how the Dynasty preserved the power of that currency by imposing strict rules and regulations. For instance, according to Marco, anyone who attempted to forge that money was punished by death.
Circulating that paper money in the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan could control his empire and linked all of the districts economically.
Concisely, Polo’s stories about Chinese paper money sparked a great interest in Europe towards the concept of paper money.
Marco Polo fought against Genoa after he returned from China
Not long after he returned to Venice, he found himself in the midst of the conflict that erupted between Venice and Genoa.
As a true patriot, Marco Polo commanded a Venetian galley against the Genoan army. Eventually, he was captured and put into the Genoan prison, where he stayed as a war prisoner between 1296 and 1299.
Marco Polo did not write his book himself, someone wrote it for him.
The book titled the Travels of Marco Polo is the major source that informs about the experiences and adventures of Marco Polo.
It includes his first-hand records of events, encounters, and experiences he had gone through during his travel to China.
While in prison, he met romantic author Rustichello da Pisa. Right from his prison cell, Marco Polo started telling the stories his journey to China to prison guards and his fellow prisoners.
Being mesmerized with the stories that were totally new to Europeans, Rustichello wrote them down. By the time they got out of prison in 1299, the collection of stories was big enough to produce a book.
The original manuscript was called the Million and was translated into French, Latin, and Italian languages.
Unfortunately, the original copies of the manuscript did not come to our days. Because mass-production was not popular at the time. The printing press was invented in 1440, which is 200 hundred years after the time of Marco Polo.
Original copies were hand-written and prone to writing mistakes. Therefore, some sections of the current book are inconsistent with the earliest version.
A little is known about Marco Polo’s life after the Journey.
After he got out of prison in Genoa, he returned back to Venice and lived an ordinary life. Some sources mention that he grew his wealth becoming a full-time merchant.
Marco’s family remains a mystery except for the fact that he got married to Donata Badoer around 1300, and they had three children named Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta.
Marco Polo never went back to China.
Because right after he got Venice, Kublai Khan passed away. Losing its powerful ruler, the Mongol Dynasty could not keep up with external threats and internal conflicts.
Long story short, after Kublai Khan’s death, China did not seem a safe destination for Marco Polo. So, instead of going back, he got married in Venice and continued to do trading until the last days of his life.
Marco Polo died at the age of 70 from the natural causes.
He died in 1324 in the presence of his close friends. At his death bed, some of his acquaintances tried to pull out his confession about his journey. They wanted him to admit that his voyage was just a product of imagination before he died.
However, he stood firm on his position and protected his reputation. His last words were “I have not told half of what I saw”.