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History Makers: Marco Polo

He changed the way the Western World looked at the planet, but we may never have heard of him at all, if it weren’t for a serendipitous meeting in jail, writes Mel Sherwood


The learned traveller as immortalised in this glass mosaic, a gift from his home city of Venice to Genoa

For Italian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa, being locked up in a Genoan prison near the end of the 13th century was a blessing in disguise for, in his cell, he stumbled across a story that is still in print today. His cellmate was Marco Polo, the story: the tale of the merchant’s travels. In that dank prison, the 40-something Venetian traveller let his exotic stories of Jerusalem, China, India and beyond unfurl. The caged wordsmith lapped them up. A cosmographycum-memoir, originally entitled Divisament dou Monde (‘Description of the World’) now commonly called The Travels of Marco Polo, was born.

The book was a sensation – it created ripples in Italian society that would, over the years, turn into tidal waves, with his story inspiring many adventurers of the Age of Exploration.

But Marco Polo’s real story begins long before the narrative of the book, with a young lad in the most prosperous and sophisticated city in the known world.


Growing up in a wealthy merchant family during 1250s Venice, Marco’s childhood was a mixture of fortunes. His home life would have been very comfortable and his education, thorough. He would have learned to read and write, with extra emphasis on mathematics and bookkeeping. Such an education was hardly common for the working classes at this time. And where he grew up was hardly common, either. In the 13th century, Venice was in its heyday. Considered the cultural centre of the Western World, the proud Venetians called their city la serenissima – ‘the most sublime’. Venice’s port was the main gateway to Asia, and with oriental fashions at a peak in Europe, this made for a prosperous place.

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June 2015 issue of History Revealed