Marco Polo, a Venetian traveller, born about 1254, died about 1324. His father Nicole and his uncle Maffeo sailed shortly before Marco's birth on a trading voyage to Constantinople, there exchanged their merchandise for jewels, crossed the Black sea to the Crimea, and travelled overland to Bokhara, where they passed several years. Thence they went to Cathay, where Kublai Khan treated them with great honor, and intrusted them with an embassy to the pope. Beaching Italy after 19 years' absence, they found the papal chair vacant, and after waiting two years for a new pontiff to be chosen, they set out for the East again in 1271, accompanied by Marco. They passed through Palestine, and at Ptolemais (St. Jean d'Acre) met the newly elected pope, Gregory X., who gave them presents and letters for the khan. Traversing the northern part of Persia, they journeyed by the city of Balkh and visited many parts of Tartary; but as they followed no direct track, it is impossible to describe their route. In Badakhshan Marco fell sick, and the party were detained a year.
Resuming their journey toward the northeast, they proceeded to Kashgar, Yarkand, and Khoten, and reached the city of Lop or Lok on the borders of a great desert of the same name (the desert of Gobi). Crossing this desert, they arrived at Shatchen in Tangut, travelled to the city of Karakorum, and when in 1275 they came within 40 clays' journey of Cambalu (probably Peking), the capital of Cathay, they were met by an escort and conducted to the imperial city. The khan appointed Marco to an office about his person, and subsequently despatched him on embassies to neighboring chiefs, which he conducted with such prudence that he rapidly rose to higher distinctions. The northern provinces of China, eastern Thibet, the city of Lassa, and the province of Khorasan were successively visited by Marco, who generally found the khan's favor a passport to the most secret and sacred places. In southern China he saw tke capital Kinsai, with its vast parks, gardens, market places, and open spaces, which is probably the modern town of Hangchow. For three years Marco filled the office of governor of a large city in this part of the empire, and his father and uncle had meanwhile made themselves useful to the khan by instructing him how to make catapults and by other services; so that when the three Venetians asked leave to revisit their native country Kublai at first refused, but finally dismissed them loaded with wealth and promising to return.
They accompanied a Persian embassy which had just obtained the daughter of Kublai Khan for their king, and, being unable on account of war to travel by land, sailed in a fleet of 14 ships of four masts. They touched at Borneo, Sumatra, the Nicobar and Andaman islands, Ceylon, and the Carnatic, proceeded up the Persian gulf, landed the princess (1292), and were magnificently entertained by the government for nine months. They then went by land through Kurdistan and Mingrelia to Tre-bizond on the Black sea, and taking ship arrived at Venice in 1295. Bronzed by the sun, dressed like Tartars, and speaking their native language with difficulty, it was long before they could persuade their friends of their identity. To convince them, they invited all their old associates to a magnificent entertainment, and received them in gorgeous oriental dresses of crimson satin. Putting these off after the guests were seated, they appeared handsomely clad in crimson damask, which was exchanged after the first course for rich suits of crimson velvet. At the end of dinner they were seen in the ordinary garb of the time, and the discarded dresses were divided among the guests.
When the cloth was removed Marco exhibited the coarse Tartar garments which they had worn on their travels, and ripping them open took out a profusion of jewels. They were now overwhelmed with distinctions, and received every mark of respect except having all their stories believed. Even on his deathbed Marco was urged to retract his alleged falsehoods; but he solemnly reaffirmed all his statements, and there is now no doubt that he spoke substantially the truth. He was the first to make known to Europeans the existence of Japan. Maffeo became one of the principal magistrates of Venice. Marco was put in command of a galley in the fleet sent against the Genoese, off the coast of Dalmatia, was wounded in the ensuing engagement and carried prisoner to Genoa, and after four or five years' detention was liberated and returned to Venice, where he married and had two daughters. During his captivity he dictated to a fellow prisoner the account of his travels, which was finished in 1298. It was probably written and first published in French, and translated into Latin during Marco's lifetime; but it is impossible to determine which of the several discrepant texts in French, Italian, and Latin deserves the name of original.
The French and Latin were published by the Paris society of geography in 1824, and the French, after three inedited manuscripts in the national library at Paris, with explanatory notes and commentary, by Guillaume Pauthier, in 1865 (2 vols, large 8vo). The work has appeared repeatedly in all the principal European languages. One of the best English versions is Marsden's, published with notes and commentaries in Bohn's "Antiquarian Library." The latest English version is "Book of the Kingdom and Marvels of the East," new translation and notes by Col. H. Yule (2 vols. 8vo, London, 1871; revised ed., much enlarged, 1875).