Knowing nothing more than common lore, I imagined Marco Polo as something like a Medieval travel writer/Scheherazade, globe trotting across Asia and spinning tales of the exotic East for a European audience hungry for novelty. I knew he’d brought back artifacts and curiosities—spices, gunpowder?, silk. I knew he was Venetian. I knew little–all right, nothing–else.
Laurence Bergreen’s admirable biography shines revealingly on the life and times of this important link between the amazingly separate worlds of the Middle Ages (not the Medieval. My ignorance.).
Bergreen opens his book at a point where Marco, in his forties early in the fourteenth century, is sailing a warship in a Venetian attack on the Genoese fleet. He is captured and tossed in prison. He lives in comparative luxury for a prisoner, and it is here that he is able to consolidate his notes and dictate what would become the opus of his travels to a contemporary professional author. Without this jail time, we would likely have only fragments of the chronicles that have become known as The Travels. The document, completed before Europe knew of moveable type (but one of the inventions the Asians had already mastered), has been worked over and distorted through multiple handwritten copies and commentaries through the ages. But Bergreen’s version seems about as accurate and compelling as we’re liable to get. And it’s more than good enough for me.
It turns out that Polo was not a solo act, nor was he an entirely willing voyager. His father and his uncle preceded him to the court of Kublai Kahn, Venetian merchants looking to make a buck along what later became known as the Silk Road. The story of their first journey, the one without Marco, which involved the Pope and wise men and a vessel of holy oil from the temple in Jerusalem is in many ways as fascinating as that of later one when they returned from Venice with the seventeen-year-old Marco in tow.
The Polos were feted and favored in the Mongolian Court, and they served as officers and messengers throughout the great Kahn’s kingdom, which included most of Asia. Gengis Kahn–Kublai’s predecessor, but not his father. Can’t recall exactly his relationship. Great Uncle or something. The Kahn’s were both polygamous and prolific–conquered much of the Asian mainland. His troops–hundreds of thousands strong and possessed of amazing skills in arms, horsemanship, discipline, and organization–literally erased whole cities and countries. Kublai built a polyglot, heterogeneous empire out of countless conquered peoples. He did so, as the Romans later learned to do, by inclusion. By honoring and often adopting local gods and customs, he encouraged people to accept rather than resist his rule. Of course, the iron hand was always waiting in the shadows in the form of troops and spies to discourage the discontented, but he ran a by and large peaceful and prosperous and happy empire as empires go.
Kublai gave Marco a gold seal that ensured him safe passage throughout the kingdom, and he ran both commercial and political errands at the behest of his emperor–from collecting taxes to delivering damsels to their betrothed. In his travels he observed and commented on the dress, habits–eating, sexual, matrimonial, political, etc.–appearance, flora and fauna, and behavior of a huge number of tribes and countries that fell under the thrall of the great Kahn. His observations are as trenchant as De Toqueville’s about America, and have proved remarkably accurate despite the scoffing ridicule they received from many audiences on his own continent. He had his prejudices, of course, and since he came of age during his travels, his opinions and focused changed as he matured. So what has come down to us is a record not only of a time and place in history, but of a man and his changing eyes ant attitudes.
Delightful though this opportunity was, and willing though Marco was to take full advantage of it, his golden ticket was good only within the Kahn’s realm. Attempts to go beyond the borders would carry dire consequences not only for Marco himself, but for the family he left behind. They needed to all go or none. Thus, they lived as pampered and favored lap dogs for over twenty years before they were able to contrive safe passage away from a Kahn whose power and powers were waning back to Venice, where their family had pretty much given up on them and moved on in terms of relationships and property. How they dealt with all that is a story in itself.
My only reservation about From Venice to Xanadu is that Bergreen spends too much time filling in gaps, correcting inaccuracies, and speculating about whether Marco’s version of events is fact or fiction, that I never got the sense of the inner life of Marco Polo. Something I expect from a biography. So, fascinating and instructive as the story is, it remains a story about externals rather than about the soul and heart of an individual. Still and all, that could be just me. According to one on-line bio of the author, Marco Polo is slated to become, as they say, a major motion picture with Matt Damon in the lead. Maybe Holllywood will correct any gaps in Bergreen’s scholarship. And maybe Osama Bin Laden will become a Franciscan monk.
Whatever expectations of mine Bergreen failed to fulfill, he more than made up for with the full story of a remarkable time and man whose contribution to western civilization is little known and even less appreciated