Italy celebrates the Epic Journey of the Middle Ages and the Silk Route
12 January 2024 | T. Russo
TMA Resources revised Jan 22
“Great Princes, Emperors, and Kings, Dukes and Marquises, Counts, Knights, and Burgesses! and People of all degrees who desire to get knowledge of the various races of mankind and of the diversities of the sundry regions of the World, take this Book and cause it to be read to you. For ye shall find therein all kinds of wonderful things, and the divers histories of the Great Hermenia, and of Persia, and of the Land of the Tartars, and of India, and of many another country of which our Book doth speak, particularly and in regular succession, according to the description of Messer Marco Polo…” The Travels of Marco Polo, Prologue
Opening image is a Portrait of Marco Polo (Anonymous; Venetitian; 16th c.); Title: Ritratto maschile (Ritratto di Marco Polo), painting on canvas (tela),1500-1599; Repository: Collezione privata, Melrose Park (IL), Illinois, Stati Uniti d'America; Collection: Fondazione Federico Zeri (Università di Bologna); ID Number: Entry number: 40969; Inventory number: 94710; Source: Fondazione Federico Zeri - Università di Bologna, Photo Archive. Image date 1986. Access from Artstor with permission from the University of Toronto, Jan. 8, 2024.
Above: Image of Marco Polo on his way across Asia from Abraham Cresque's World Atlas, 1381-- History of Cartography located at the University of California, San Diego. Access from Arstor with the permission of the University of Toronto Library, Jan. 8, 2024.
Marco Polo was born in a merchant family in Venice in 1254 and became a merchant himself at the age of 17, travelling through China and the Far East with his father, Nicolas Polo, and Maffeo Polo, the brother of Nicolas and thus Marco’s uncle. He was famous for embarking on a journey on the Silk Road, a historically important international trade route between China and the Mediterranean, opened by Zhang during the Han Dynasty.
His date of birth is disputed, but scholars conventionally believe that Marco Polo was born on September 15, 1254 and died January 8, 1324, marked as seven hundred years of his death this year in 2024. His father with his brother were merchants already in the Near East and had acquired great wealth. Marco Polo’s mother had passed away; and thus, he was raised by an aunt and uncle while his father was trading with the East. He began traveling during the reign of Baldwin II (de Courtenay) in Constantinople, the last Latin Emperor of Constantinople (1237-1261) when Nicolas with Maffeo were at the city of Constantinople and decided to cross the Great Sea on a venture to trade; bringing jewels with them, they crossed the Sea to Soldala (in the Greek Empire during this time on the SE coast of Crimea and west of Kaffa) and continue to journey to China (The Travels, I.i).
In 1269 his father and uncle returned from this trip and set off back to Asia with Marco in 1271 (The Travels I.10), travelling directly to the Great Khan at the city of Kemenfu (Kaipingfu, meaning “City of Peace,” founded in 1256, four years before Kublai’s reign and his favorite summer residence; also known as Shangdu Keibung in the Middle Ages to the Mongols). Three decades later Marco Polo would pen his experiences in Livres des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo). In Italy the work was known in the Middle Ages and even today as the Millioni, following the description from Marco Polo of the amount of wealth he handled at the court of the Kublai Khan as his ambassador. Thus, he became known as “Marco Millioni” (Mark Million) and his book became known as the Million. He returned to Venice with his father and uncle in 1295 after travelling a recorded 15,000 miles and after gathering many new and rich items from the East.
Marco Polo does not only highlight his trip to China, but also discusses the beauty of many cities. His first is Armenia (today Turkey) which his father traveled before he was 17 years old and which Marco divides as lesser and greater “Hermenia” in his book. In these stories about the cities that his father traveled and he encountered, Marco shares some of his ideas about certain wonders, such as in Armenia he asserts that the Noah’s Ark was located there on top of the mountain:
“And you must know that it is in this country of Armenia that the Ark of Noah exists on the top of a certain great mountain [on the summit of which snow is so constant that no one can ascend; for the snow never melts, and is constantly added to by new falls. Below, however, the snow does melt, and runs down, producing such rich and abundant herbage that in summer cattle are sent to pasture from a long way round about, and it never fails them. The melting snow also causes a great amount of mud on the mountain].” The Travels, Vol.1, chapter III (Description of the Greater Hermenia.)
Seven hundred years later, archeologists believe that they may have discovered the final location of Noah's ark on Turkey’s Mount Ararat. This discovery was made with soil samples as data from the Durupinar formation on top the highest peaks in Turkey which reveal human activity with marine materials. The dating of the rock and soil from the location match with Biblical dates and timing of Noah's Ark (Newcomb, 2023). This finding correlates to Marco Polo’s assertion in The Travels when discussing modern day Turkey.
Marco’s first encounter of the East was the Court of the “Great Kaan” where Marco learned several languages and the customs of the Tartars. With these studies and knowledge, Kublai Khan sent Marco as an ambassador representing his court. After the first ambassage, the Khan stated (according to Marco Polo), “If this young man live[s], he will assuredly come to be a person of great worth and ability,” and from that time forward, Marco writes that he was given the title Messer Marco Polo (The Travels I. 15-16).
Marco Polo Visits the Great Kublai Khan; Date [n.d.]; Location China; French miniature which illustrates the story of the Venetian traveller shows a mulberry bark coin bearing the imperial seal; Data from: University of California, San Diego; Access from Artstor with permission from the University of Toronto, Jan 8, 2024.
Arriving to this court, the Polos traveled the Great Silk Route, which consist of Northern China, Eastern and Western Turkistan (Central Asia), Iran, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. At the time of their travels the most powerful country was the Mongolian empire, and their route to the “Great Kaan” took them through Israel to the Persian Gulf, then to the north through Iran to Amu Darya, and on the Aral Sea through the Pamir mountains to Sinkian (an Uigur area) and then through the Gobi Desert to Shangtu, the summer capital of the Yuan Dynasty of China. The Polos were the first Europeans to visit Bokhara (Bukhara) in 1264 before Marco Polo joined his father and uncle, but it is Marco who describes what the two brothers saw in the city with high towers, light-blue domes and mosques decorated with colorful mosaic. The city was a busy trade center with silk, porcelain, ivory, spices, and metal ware. Marco also writes in chapter 29 that the best cotton cloth for making undergarments came from Bokhara (The Travels, Bk I).
During his twenty-four years of traveling, he continued to be a confident of Kublai Khan and documented the traditions, palaces, his own experiences of China and various cities in his The Travels of Marco Polo. In regard to China, Marco Polo notes in his book that he described half of what he saw, reflecting the vastness of his experience and remarkable nature of his travels at that time in the Middle Ages. Marco Polo describes the country’s power and the cities that China conquered, the country’s great wealth, complex social structure, and the economy with iron manufacture, porcelain, and silk. The chapters on China provided Medieval Europe with their first comprehensive account of China during the Yuan Dynasty.
The Grand Canal © Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage, see UNESCO World Heritage Convention (open access, https://whc.unesco.org/). Marco Polo described the Great Canal but not the Great Wall in The Travels.
He returned to Venice to marry Donata Badoer and had three daughters. He died almost 70 years of age and was buried under the church of San Lorenzo, though his tomb is now missing.
For a few months prior to January 8, 2024, Italy has been celebrating 700 years of his death. However, this was not the first celebration looking back at Marco Polo’s travels and experience as a diplomat for an Asian country. In 1994 the World Tourist Organization with UNESCO organized “The Great Silk Road” seminar that took place in Uzbekistan to bring to life the Silk Road and its trade centers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. At the international conference, Marco Polo was named the first tourist to pass through the Silk Road.
Resources for teachers
UNESCO “Silk Roads Programme”: https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/
Silk Road Interactive Map at UNESCO: https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/silkroad-interactive-map
The Grand Canal: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/thegrandcanal
Columbia University” Asia for Educators: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ (includes geography, history, literature, art, music, and religion)
A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization: https://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/
Tim Newcomb’s “Archeologists Think They Might have Found the Real Noah’s Ark,” Popular Mechanics (science), Nov. 1, 2023; https://www.popularmechanics.com
The Travels (Penguin Series)
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How to cite this blog:
Russo, Teresa. "The 700th Anniversary of Marco Polo’s Death: Italy celebrates the Epic Journey of the Middle Ages and the Silk Route," Teaching the Middle Ages. January 12, 2024; resources revised 22 Jan 2024, https://www.teachingthemiddleages.com/post/the-700th-anniversary-of-marco-polo-s-death.