Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) was a medieval Venetian merchant, though he is more prominent as a world renowned writer and traveller.Together with his father Nicolas and his uncle Maffeo, Marco Polo was amongst the first Europeans to travel the famous Silk Road trade route, stretching from the Middle East to China.
Significantly, Polo is reputed to have been born in Korcula itself, although evidence to support this thesis is at best sketchy.
Notwithstanding, Korcula town still boasts Marko Polo’s alleged house of birth. Despite its rather featureless interior, the houses’ tower (loggia) allows for a panoramic vista of Korcula, stretching from east to west. The house is under the protection of the Korcula Town Hall and it will soon be turned into a Museum of Marco Polo.
If Marco’s place of birth is somewhat ambiguous, it is certain that he was taken prisoner by the Genoese in the naval battle of Korcula, between the Venetian and Genovese states. Having been captured and taken to a Genoese prison, he wrote his book Million (see below) about his travels to China.
Yet it was Marco’s cellmate, Rusticello who would later produce a book The Travels of Marco Polo‘. This made Marco’s travelling exploits famous throughout the world. The work caused a sensation in western society when published, since many Europeans were for the first time vividly immersed into the exotic and hitherto unknown culture of the Far East.
Polo noted down the use of coal and ceramics in China, centuries before they became widespread in Europe.
However, many of Polo’s stories seemed so far fetched that people thought that he had made them up. Some of his claims have never been verified. Nevertheless, many merchants would follow Polo’s routes, and many more travellers and explorers, including one Christopher Colombus, were to be inspired by Polo’s achievement.
There are many readable books featuring Marco Polo and his travels, but one among them is truly unique: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Here is an extract:
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
But which is the stone that supports the bridge? Kublai Khan asks.
The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,
Marco answers, but by the line of the arch that they form.
Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Eventually, the Great Khan adds: Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me!
To which Polo retorts: Without stones there is no arch
As can be appreciated by the above-noted extract, Calvino’s book Invisible Cities is strange and extraordinary at the same time. It describes dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the Oriental emperor he met on his travels.
The Great Khan is tired of the stories brought to him by his messengers across the empire, though not the stories told by Marco Polo. It appears that Marco’s vivacious and truly surreal stories of the metaphorical cities he visited during his travels kept the Great Khan interested.
Calvino’s book is short in length, though it has to be read at a leisurely pace to be truly appreciated.
Janette Winterson has written about this book: “If you are taking just one book on holiday this year, take the book I would choose as pillow and plate, alone on a desert island….Read more about what Janette Winterson says about Invisible Cities