It was a perfect November day, but there was not much information about Marco Polo. Yes, there were restaurants, bars, and shops bearing his name, but not much to satiate our curiosity. We left feeling privileged to have peaked into the enchanted lives of the year-long residents, but a bit disappointed we did not learn more about the famous traveler.
That was not the case on our next visit when we arrived by sailboat on a warm summer day in August, the height of tourist season on the Adriatic. The plan was to once again tour the city for a few hours and then take the ferry to Split.
“The ferry tickets are for sale next to the Marco Polo store,” we were told after we left the boat in the busy marina and headed toward town.
At the mere mention of Marco Polo, we almost jumped up and high-fived each other. What a coincidence! Finally, we were on the right track. The long banner on the shop just inside the city center confirmed the location – the name Marco Polo stood out in a bold sea-faring script in dark colors, evoking a historic mystique. It was hanging from the corner of the house where Marco Polo was or was not born, and is now a stylish souvenir shop and museum. Marco Polo’s imprint had emerged and it was now firmly embedded in Korcula. I couldn’t wait to pull the Kuna currency out of my wallet and start a spending spree on licensed memorabilia. Little did I know then that there was no rush – the exact same store graced many streets in the small city.
Once we were back on our original mission to learn more about Marco Polo in Croatia, we spent the rest of the morning talking to locals about their most famous historical figures. What I was able to discern without any question was that Marco Polo was born in 1254 somewhere in Croatia or nearby Venice, that he was from a Venetian noble family, and that his father and uncle (Niccolo and Maffeo) were merchants trading with the Far East along the Spice Road. It is also pretty much confirmed that the older men took young Marco Polo with them on a trading trip to China. The length of time he was gone is in dispute, but it could have been as long as twenty-four years. His father and uncle had made a previous trip that took nine years so to me it made sense the second trip would be even longer. It is for sure the three men ultimately came home to Venice with jewels and not as paupers.
Three years after their return from China, Marco was captured at sea, most likely when war erupted between Venice and Genoa over possession of Korcula. He was forty-four years old. The Genovese imprisoned him for a year and that is when his life took a new twist. It was while in prison that Marco fortuitously met Rustichello of Pisa, another prisoner who, crazily, happened to be a romance writer. I didn’t even know they had romance writers in the 1200s. Given a lot of time and nothing else to do, Marco told Rustichello exciting and spellbinding stories about his time on the Spice Trail and in China with Kublai Khan. Rustichello knew a good story when he heard it.
With plenty of uninterrupted time to write (that might be a solution for me), Rustichello became the ghost-writer for Marco Polo and with the flair of a romance writer, put the fascinating stories on paper in his romance-style writing, as opposed to something that would be scientific and boring. It was a good move. The manuscript is known today as The Travels of Marco Polo was an immediate success and at the top of whatever the equivalent of the bestseller list was at the time in Europe. It stayed there for a long time. In fact, two centuries later Christopher Columbus read it, inciting him to leave Spain and heave-ho to China, admittedly making a slight miscalculation in direction. You can still get a version today on Amazon, although the original manuscripts, probably now worth a jillion dollars, are out of stock. After the story was published Marco became a celebrity, hit the talking circuit, married a Venetian patrician’s daughter, and had three daughters. It sounds a lot like the successful authors of today.
But, as we all know, fame often courts controversy and as fate would have it, poor Marco was to be wrapped up in controversy the rest of his life. Cynics could not wait to crawl out of the woodwork and ruin a good story, and they did it with a venom that matches the worst of today’s tabloids. They said he could not have gone all the way to China – he probably just went part of the way and collected stories from travelers he met who were on their way home. They said he made up stories and the stories were too fanciful to be true. They said if he really knew about China he would have talked about chopsticks. Really? Europeans still ate by stabbing their meat with sticks. Who cared about chopsticks when he had stories about Kublai Khan? Who cared that he did not mention the Great Wall? Everyone was building crazy rock walls at the time. Instead, he talked about the things that excited him and ignited the curiosity of the readers. How can that be bad?
To be clear, I am a Marco Polo believer. As a travel writer, I know that when you return home from an extraordinary trip your family and friends listen to your stories up to a point – but eventually, they have had enough. The success of Marco Polo’s book was too much and it made him a target for those men in very hot Venetian suits with puffy sleeves and lots of velvet who wanted to suck all joy out of someone else’s travel to an exotic location, especially when they were home working. I confess I can get that way myself on a Monday morning. Even worse, the critics probably included the kind of guys who say things like “Why go to the Caribbean when we have a perfectly good beach at the levee down the road?” or “There is no way a Paris cafe is better than our local coffee shop.”
They were relentless, even going so far as to refer to the manuscript, also called “Il Milione”, as “a million lies”. The mean-spirited moniker was to follow Marco until the end of his life. It is said that even at his deathbed his family and friends brought the Priest in and begged Marco to retract his stories. I cannot imagine how that made him feel. But, Marco Polo, my hero, is said to have risen from his deathbed said this to them: “I have not told half of what I saw”. It must have been a big disappointment to all those assembled to hear his confession. I say it is and should be considered one of the most famous quotes of all time.
His story is a lesson to us all. What started as a wonderful tale of faraway places became over-shadowed by words from critics who never set a foot on the Silk Road, much less visited China. Now, we will never know what else he could have told us. Marco Polo was an early version of the wonderful, but skittish, writers who stop after their first book – unable to take the ugliness that comes with fame. Some end up as hermits hiding from people who stalk them.
Poor Marco Polo. He couldn’t have seen what was coming and that it would never stop. Times have really not changed – once something is in writing you can’t ever erase it, even if you want to do so. It is one of those universal truths – policy from up above.
Not only did I learn about the traveler’s critics, for the record I also learned about the quintessential swimming pool game named simply “Marco Polo”. One story, I believe the best, is that the young Marco Polo fell asleep on his horse on the trip to China and was accidentally left by the caravan. He became lost and sick, and began to hear voices in the dark calling to him “Marco”. He would respond with “Polo” each time. He explained that it was really a hallucination he had while he was sick – strikingly similar to the hallucinations he described men having in the Gobi Desert. That is why he would answer “Polo” rather than “over here”. It makes sense that the game’s premise is someone trying to find another lost person and, truthfully, “Polo” is a lot more fun to say than “over here”. I think the game as we play it follows a similar course as what happened to his stories. It begins with the expectation of great fun and joy but ends with a fight and a whining child who keeps getting tagged and proclaiming that he or she hates the game Marco Polo. That sounds uncannily like his critics.
The reality is that even if our parents finally put an end to the pool game, Marco Polo’s name and stories will still swirl around the globe, albeit with skepticism periodically kindled by researchers, professors, and graduate student thesis papers. I say, forget the pundits and doubters – seven hundred years later The Travels of Marco Polo remains the first and greatest travel manuscript of all times – brought alive and to the world by an imprisoned romance writer. What a legacy!