Who Was Marco Polo?

Marco Polo’s Travels, as we all agreed in class today, is a fairly impersonal text.  Precisely this impersonality has given rise to all sorts of speculations about it, including most recently a heated scholarly argument about whether Marco Polo even visited China.  Some people hold that Polo (who was undoubtedly a real person; his last will and testament from the early fourteenth century survive) only got as far as Persia, and copied the rest of his book from preexisting sources.

We’ll discuss these theories a little later.  For the moment I simply want to ask whether you feel that it is, in fact, possible to derive any insights into Marco Polo’s personality from the narrative?  Are there any telling passages that provide insight into his character?  And what about Kubilai Khan?  He’s not a big player in this story, and at any rate we won’t get to China until next week, but what do we learn about him so far?

6 responses to “Who Was Marco Polo?

  1. I believe it is possible to form an impression of Marco Polo in general based on the details he chose to include in his account. He seems detail-oriented with little emphasis on the adventure or intrigue he would have encountered. The text reflects a certain religiousness, as well. He seems interested in the people he encounters and the differences between them. While it would be unfair to make specific assumptions about his life, I think it is fair to say we get a general understanding of Polo through this narrative.

  2. I believe it is difficult to characterize Marco Polo as a person at this point in our reading of the novel, but not impossible. Clearly, this is an extremely intelligent man and most likely matured quickly, considering he left home at such a young age to travel with his father and uncle. On page 48, it says that Marco “was wise and far-sighted above the ordinary, and the great Khan was very well disposed to him because of the exceptional merit and worth that he detected in him.” Having the Great Khan’s unwavering approval was probably a major feat for a young man. Aside from direct quotes about Marco Polo, we can piece together parts of his personality by looking at the stories he decides to share and the judgments he makes of the people he encounters. For example, Marco Polo observes the ways of the kingdoms of Persia and describes them as “brutal and bloodthirsty” people, which indicates Marco Polo was likely not a violent person himself. He seems to be very religious-oriented and speaking of which, the middle paragraph on page 61 has me a little confused. It describes how careful the merchants must be in traveling through these lands because they can be killed by groups of local rebels. He states that he can “assure you that they all observe the law of Mahomet their prophet.” Who is they? Is it the merchants and he is pitying their deaths because they were religious people? Or is Marco Polo making a sarcastic comment on Islam, saying that the people of Persia practice their religion, yet do not live out good morals? Afterall, if Marco Polo was a Catholic and never previously exposed to other religions, wouldn’t it be normal for him to have somewhat of a religious bias?

  3. From what I have read so far, I think some of the character of Marco Polo can be inferred through the anecdotal stories he tells. These stories break up the rapid “listing” of places and features that Polo cycles through. For some reason, he chooses to include these stories, such as the one about the shoemaker who moved a mountain with his prayers, or the story of the three magi and the holy fire, or the experiment with the soil from Persia that turned everyone violent. These interruptions usually have to do with mystical or miraculous events, and serve to add a bit of fiction and magic to Polo’s otherwise realistically grounded travels. I believe these stories are one reason why the book is so popular, because there is always an air of fantasy surrounding Polo’s travels. The inclusion of these anecdotes show that Polo was a man who liked to entertain others; his Travels were a way to do that, and also a way for him to gain a bit of “fame” in the eyes of Western civilization.

  4. We can find tidbits of Polo’s personality throughout the narrative, and if not character traits, we can certainly pick up on some of his biases and opinions. In class we spoke quite a bit about religion, and established Polo as a Latin Catholic. From this we can infer that he is biased towards his own religion, but beyond that, over and over, Polo chooses to pass judgement on certain characteristics of the idolaters. Numerous times he comments on the nature of marriage in a particular culture. For example, he tells that in Kamul husbands are fine with guests staying in their houses and doing “what [they] will with [their wives]… just as she were [their] own wife.” (88) And shortly thereafter, he notes that in Kan-chau “they marry anything up to thirty wives… according to what each man can afford.” (91) Now, are these simply observations, or do they pass judgement? Does the inclusion of these details reveal anything about Polo’s character, or are they simply so unusual as to be noted? When we know nothing of Polo’s personal or family life, can we infer anything from the inclusion of these details about marriage in his world description?

  5. Throughout the prologue and the first two chapters, we can get a relatively good sense of what kind of a person Marco Polo was. After all, he chose what was to be included in his story, which directly reflects his personality. One of the main components of Marco Polo’s personality presented in his Travels is his desire to please and impress the Great Khan, Kubilai. Every city that he describes in succeeding chapters, he includes some interesting facet or detail that the Khan would enjoy. For example, Messer Marco describes the “floating pillar” of Samarkand, how the Saracens demanded the base stone of a pillar in a Catholic and how Christ removed the stone and made the pillar float (81). Kubilai would have been fascinated by this story and bestowed great praise upon Marco Polo. In regards to Kubilai Khan himself, Marco Polo illustrates the Khan as a great, intelligent, and just ruler. The vast size of his empire alone was enough to persuade any European of his prominence. However, the most prominent detail of Kubilai’s personality is his curiosity, for he would scold his emissaries for not bringing back information on the cultures and traditions of the people they visited, which Marco Polo accomplishes again and again (41).

  6. I believe that we can pick up on Marco Polo’s personality from the text, but it must be done so with a grain of salt. It is important to remember that Rustichello da Pisa, Polo’s cell mate, was the author of the text. I feel that the few insights we have into Marco’s personality, scattered throughout factual descriptions of various lands, must be accepted as being his personality type throughout his stay in the cell. As da Pisa wasn’t Marco’s companion on these journeys, he wouldn’t be able to notice the personality changes, which I’m sure would occur, over the course of Polo’s travels. How couldn’t so many sights and experiences change a man? By the time the text was written, Polo seemed to be a very conceited man; either that or one held in high approval by da Pisa. In the Prologue, it says, “I assure you for a fact that before he had been very long at the Great Khan’s court he had mastered four languages with their modes of writing. He was wise and farsighted above the ordinary, and the Great Khan was very well disposed to him because of the exceptional merit and worth that he detected in him” (Latham, 40). So I wonder, are these compliments to Polo’s intellect something that were inferred by da Pisa, or did Polo really speak of himself in such a manner?

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