I’ve read and heard many things about Marco Polo but I have never previously read a detailed narrative about his adventures. Several years ago I tried to read a version of The Travels of Marco Polo but found it not well written and I didn’t finish. When I learned about his book I decided it was time to give it a try.
I learned from this book why my first attempt at reading The Travels was unsuccessful. The original was written in colloquial French by an Italian who didn't understand French grammar. Subsequent translations and translations of translations resulted in no two ancient manuscripts being identical. Furthermore, there are portions of his story that appear to be missing. It wasn't written by Polo, but rather by a writer of romance tales who transcribed the stories told by Polo. There are indications that this author arbitrarily embellished and/or inserted portions to make it more interesting. Furthermore, Polo himself retold myths and hearsay as if they were fact. Thus it's difficult to determine what’s fact and what’s fiction.
The author of this book attempts to bring order out of this chaos by providing commentary that compares Polo's stories with other historical records. He also comments on the internal evidence within the narrative that give some indication whether Polo experienced the various events first hand or is retelling stories told to him.
It's humorous to notice the detail provided by Polo when describing sexual practices and the value to various commodities, while at the same time completely overlooking the technology of moveable type which later revolutionized European culture. He discussed paper money and other examples of printed material, but made no effort to understand how it was done.
In the end, Polo's book did much to inform Europe about Chinese culture. It's hard to imagine the Renaissance without Polo's adventures being widely reported throughout Europe. The stories of Polo provided the motivation to Europeans to develop the necessary means to trade with the rich eastern lands. Driven by this motivation, Europeans developed sailing technology to the point where they could sail around the world. This together with the subsequent discovery of the Americas had much to do with the ascendancy of the West over the East in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
One of the things that this book points out is that Marco Polo was not the person who introduced pasta to Italy, contrary to popular wisdom. "Marco would not have been surprised to encounter noodles in Mongolia; long before his journey, this type of food had spread from turkey along the Silk Road in both directions. Contrary to myth, Marco Polo did not introduce noodles to Italy; his anonymous predecessors had."
Wikipedia says that it was introduced by Arabs, specifically in Libya, during their conquest of Sicily in the late 7th century, according to the newsletter of the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, thus predating Marco Polo's travels to China by about six centuries."
I learned about this book from the following review from my PageADay Book Lover's Calendar:
WHERE’S THE PASTA?
Marco Polo was not the first European to travel over the Silk Road to the mysterious East. Nor was he the first to write about it. But thanks in part to the writer Rustichello of Pisa, coauthor of Polo’s Travels, he is the man remembered today as the one to first connect East and West. Laurence Bergreen has captured this tale and so much more in what is probably the definitive biography of the amazing trader and explorer. His vibrant account of Kublai Khan and his magnificent empire is not to be missed.
MARCO POLO: FROM VENICE TO XANADU, by Laurence Bergreen (Knopf, 2007)