The Venetian traveler and writer Marco Polo (ca. 1254-ca. 1324) left Venice for Cathay, or China, in 1271, spent 17 years in Kublai Khan's realm, and returned to Venice in 1295. His account of his travels is one of the most important travel documents ever written.
The scion of a noble family of Venetian merchants, Marco Polo began his long experience with Cathay through the adventures of his father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo Polo, partners in a trading operation at a time when Venice was the world leader in foreign commerce. Marco's trip to China was preceded by the prolonged odyssey of his father and uncle all the way to Peking and back. In China they were well received by the recently established Mongol prince Kublai Khan in 1266. The Polos impressed Kublai Khan with their intelligence and their familiarity with the world. For these reasons he retained their services for several years. In 1269 he sent them to Rome as his envoys with a request that the Pope send 100 Europeans to share their knowledge with him.
The Polos' mission received little attention in Rome, but in 1271 the Polo brothers, in search of further profit and adventure, set out to return to China. It was this second trip that provided the occasion for the 17-year-old Marco Polo to make his debut as a world traveler. The return to China, over land and sea, desert and mountain, took slightly more than 3 years.
Despite the failure of their mission to Rome, the Khan welcomed the Venetians back and again took them into his service. He became increasingly impressed with the youngest Polo, who, like his father and uncle, demonstrated not only his ability in travel but also his facility for the Mongol language and for using his remarkable powers of observation.
Under the benevolence of Kublai Khan, the Polos initiated widespread trading ventures within his domain. While on these business trips around the empire Marco Polo first demonstrated his perceptiveness and his ability to relate what he saw in clear, understandable terms. His reports, which formed the basis of his famous account of his travels, contained information on local customs, business conditions, and events. It was in these reports that he displayed his talent as a detached and accurate observer. Kublai Khan read and used these reports to keep abreast of developments within his empire.
All three of the European visitors were maintained as envoys and advisers. Marco was used on several extended missions that sent him traveling over much of China and even beyond. By his own account he skirted the edge of Tibet and northern Burma. This business-diplomatic relationship between the Polos and Kublai Khan lasted more than 16 years, during which Marco served as the Khan's personal representative in the city of Yangchow.
Although the Polos enjoyed the profits of their enterprise, they began to long to return to Venice to enjoy them. They were detained primarily because of the unwillingness of Kublai Khan to release them from his service. Their chance to return to Europe came in 1292, when they were sent on a diplomatic mission, first to Persia and then to Rome. The assignment represented the Khan's way of releasing them from their obligations to him. In Persia they were to arrange a dynastic marriage between one of the Khan's regional rulers and a Mongol princess. They were detained in Persia for nearly a year when the prince died and a new marriage had to be arranged. From the Persian court, the Venetians continued their journey home, arriving in 1295, after an absence of nearly a quarter century.
Marco Polo did not return to Asia again. He entered the service of Venice in its war against the rival city-state of Genoa. In 1298 Marco served as a gentleman-commander of a galley in the Venetian navy. In September 1298 he was captured and imprisoned in Genoa. His fame as an adventurer had preceded him, and he was treated with courtesy and leniency. He was released within a year. Little is known of Marco Polo's life after his return to Venice. He apparently returned to private life and business until his death about 1324.
During his captivity in Genoa, Marco Polo dictated the story of his travels. The man he told his story to was a fellow prisoner named Rusticiano, a Pisan who wrote in the romantic style of 13th-century literature. A combination of Marco Polo's gift of observation and the literary style of Rusticiano emerged in the final version of Marco Polo's travels. The book included Marco Polo's personal recollections as well as stories related to him by others.
In his book, which was translated into most languages, Marco left a wealth of information. His cartographical information has proved remarkably accurate when tested by modern methods. His observations about customs and local characteristics have also been verified by subsequent research.
Ronald Catham translated The Travels of Marco Polo (1958). The standard biography is Henry Hersch Hart, Venetian Adventurer: Being an Account of the Life and Times and of the Book of Messer Marco Polo (1942), updated and reissued as Marco Polo: Venetian Adventurer (1967). Other works on Polo include Maurice Collis, Marco Polo (1960), and Hildegard Blunck, Marco Polo: The Great Adventurer (1966).