Sunday, February 21, 2010

Marco Polo

"Marco Polo, a wise and learned citizen of Venice, who states distinctly what things he saw and what things he heard from others."
- Travels of Marco Polo, Book One

The Travels of Marco Polo is the usual English title of Marco Polo's travel book, nicknamed Il Milione (The Million) or Le Livre des Merveilles (The Book of Wonders). The book is a description of his travels and stays in the Orient, including Asia, Persia, China and Indonesia, between 1271 and 1298 is also known as Oriente Poliano or Description of the World. It was a very famous and popular book in the 13th century and has remained in print to this day. The text claims that Marco Polo became an important figure at the court of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan. However, modern scholars debate how much of the account is accurate and whether or not Marco Polo ever actually traveled to the court or was just repeating stories that he had heard from other travellers. The book was actually written in French by a romance author of the time, Rustichello da Pisa, who was reportedly working from accounts which he had heard from Marco Polo when they were in prison in Genoa having been captured while on a ship.

The title Il Milione comes from the Polo family's use of the name Emilione to distinguish themselves from the numerous other Venician families bearing the name Polo. Modern assessments of the text usually consider it to be the record of an observant rather than imaginative or analytical traveler. 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 and were back in Venice in 1292. 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 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 KhanKublai 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.*

The edition that I own and have read beginning when I was in high school was published in 1948 by Doubleday & Company. It is the version originally translated & edited by William Marsden and re-edited by Thomas Wright. In this version Books Three and Four are combined into a Book Three that includes the sections included in Book Four (above). This is an exciting tale of Polo's travels, and no matter how historically inaccurate it may be it provides a window into the Orient during an era that Europe was just beginning to awake from the slumber of the "Dark ages".

The Travels of Marco Polo The Venetian trans. by William Marsden. Thomas Wright, editor. Doubleday & Company. 1948.
*source: Wikipedia

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