Arguably the most famous travel book of all time, The Travels of Marco Polo might not even come to be were it not for Rustichello da Pisa, a romance writer and Polo’s cellmate during their imprisonment in Genoa after their fellow Venetians suffered a defeat in a naval battle. As the story goes, long days with nothing to do helped Polo overcome initial disinclination toward writing and he started dictating to da Pisa his memories of a 24-year sojourn in the Orient. What came as a result of these sessions was a volume filled with flamboyant – and sometimes certainly exaggerated – descriptions of the riches and splendor of Kublai Khan’s thirteenth century empire, its exotic architecture, tradition and mores. The book served as an inspiration for generations to come and it is common knowledge that it influenced Christopher Columbus’ decision to try to find a naval route to Asia.
Unfortunately, the original manuscripts of The Travels have been lost, but there are numerous copies and translations to various languages, the oldest of which date back to 1350. Due to misinterpretations and mistakes during translation, not all of them are ascribed the same degree of accuracy. According to experts, there are around 150 copies still existing today.
Critics have given different assessments of the accuracy of Polo’s accounts ever since the manuscripts of The Travels were first collated. His view of Old China ruled by Kublai Khan was simply not in accordance with some earlier reports about Mongols as “barbarians” who primarily seek to destroy civilizations and not preserve and rebuild them. Other issues have also been raised in support of the claim that Polo made some things up – namely, his failure to mention the Great Wall of China and some other well-known elements of the Chinese culture of that time. However, these claims have been refuted by virtue of the fact that some other thirteenth and fourteenth century travel writers made similar omissions; this, in turn, has led some historians to give more credibility to Polo’s accounts and re-examine their own established views of medieval China. The latest (2012) analysis by Hans Ulrich Vogel from the University of Tubingen deals with Polo’s description of revenues, currencies and salt production and argues that his account passes the accuracy test, having been compared with other relevant sources of this information. This is certainly good news for all those who admire the famous Venetian and find inspiration in the tales of his great adventure in the medieval Orient.