Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Travels of Marco Polo

From fiction to fiction. That's the path followed by The Travels of Marco Polo over the last 700-ish years. 

When Marco Polo published his book, presumably as a guide for merchants, most people thought he was exaggerating. At one point, the Catholic Church included it in its Index despite Polo's praises to the Christianity and his comparisons between Kublai Khan's deeds and manners and an "ideal" Christian ruler. (arguing that a pagan was as good as a Catholic in order to get the approval of the Vatican was not uncommon: Comentarios Reales de los IncasInca Garcilaso de la Vega presented Incas as monotheist worshipers of the Sun as a way to "legitimize" his book and his Inca parents before his Catholic and Spanish audience). Polo also mentions that Kurds, Muslims, and Tibetans are brute and mostly thieves.

Today, we obviously know what parts of Polo's accounts are historic facts and what are myths. And the book is written in such a business-like style that it's hardly an engaging reading. The value of the book lies in the sensation it leaves to the reader's mind. Marco Polo was one of the first Europeans to make the trip, so everything for him was brand new. At a time when it is possible to travel from one side of the planet to the other in 36 hours at most, reading a book where getting from Italy to China takes 3 years makes the reader wonder what it would be like to be in Polo's shoes. 

Only two documents written by Marco Polo have survived until today. One is obviously his Travels (Il Milione, in Italian); the other is his will, where he frees a Chinese slave, which he probably brought from there. Polo had a good heart for the standards of the time.

I found this documentary on Marco Polo. The most interesting part is the comparison between Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, which starts around minute 38.

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