Marco Polo (September 15, 1254 – January 8–9, 1324) was an Italian merchant traveler whose travels are chronicled in Livres des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300), a book that introduced Europeans to Central Asia and China. He had an education of different skills in accounting, foreign languages, and knowledge of the Christian Church. His background in business and culture and his love for nature made Marco Polo very observant of humans, animals, and plants.
His father, Nicolo, and his uncle, Maffeo, were merchants who began their first eastern journey in 1260. They visited Constantinople and made their way to the domain of the Great Kublai Khan, ruler of China. The Emperor became interested in stories of the native land of the merchants; thus, he sent the Polo’s back to the Pope as his ambassadors with messages of peace and interest in converting areas of China to Christianity.
The merchants remained in Venice for two years and decided to keep their promise of return to Kublai Khan. Large profits from trade with these distant parts also prompted the brothers to return. On this journey, they took the seventeen-year-old Marco Polo with them. After three and a half years of travel, the ambassadors humbly appeared before the Emperor.
China had matured in the arts, both fine and practical, beyond anything found in Europe. Literature was greatly respected. Paper had already been invented; books of philosophy, religion, and politics could be found and a large Encyclopedia had been printed under the supervision of the Emperor. Mechanical devices were not lacking and paper money was the accepted currency in many sections of the empire. It was in this world of advanced wonders that Marco Polo resided for many years.
In total, Marco polo spent seventeen years in China. He not only conducted business, but served the Mongol emperor, Kublai Kahn, as governor of Yangzhou (Jiangsu province). When he visited Northern Song Dynasty’s capital city Hangzhou, referred as Kinsay in his book written after his returning to Venice. He believed that Hangzhou is the most beautiful and elegant city in the world, and expressed his admiration with a sophisticated sentiment: “It’s a Paradise on Earth.” Although, it echoes ancient Chinese saying: “Heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below”. He felt special tenderness while visiting Suzhou (which was referred by the name Suju) because of its numerous water canals that were running through the city as if making it’s own arterial system, reviving and reaching out as Marco’s hometown Venice.
Upon his return to Italy, Marco Polo told of his findings of jade, porcelain, silk, ivory, and other riches of Asia. He described the festival of the Emperor’s birthday in which everything from clothing to ornaments were laced in gold. He also explained how he saw people using black stones for fuel (later known as coal). Unfortunately, all his stories and details of the unimaginable were rejected, and Marco Polo became the “man of a million lies.”
After he retrieved his notes from China, Marco Polo transformed his travels into manuscript form. He was frank, unpoetic in imagination and vision, and constantly spoke of trade, money, risks and profit. However, he wrote in incredible detail of the birds, animals, plants, and other aspects of nature.
Describing his path thousands of miles, through boundless deserts, over steep mountain passes, struggling extreme weathers, to wild animals and very uncivilized tribesmen, Marco’s book has become the most influential travelogue on the Silk Road ever written in a European language, and it set minds thousands of Westerners to follow his steps.
When he was near death, a priest entered his room and asked him if he wanted to admit his stories were false. Instead, Marco Polo replied, “I do not tell half of what I saw because no one would have believed me.”