Showing posts with label Marco Polo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Marco Polo. Show all posts

9 January 2024

Marco Polo - merchant and explorer

Venetian trader who described travels in China 

A 19th century portrait in mosaic of Marco Polo at Palazzo Tursi in Genoa
A 19th century portrait in mosaic of
Marco Polo at Palazzo Tursi in Genoa
The Italian explorer Marco Polo, who achieved a place in history as the first European to write in extensive detail about life in China, is thought by many historians to have died on or close to this day in 1324 in his home city of Venice.

Accounts of his final days say he had been confined to bed with an illness and that his doctor was concerned on January 8 that he was close to death. Indeed, so worried were those around his bedside that they sent for a local priest to witness his last will and testament, which Polo dictated in the presence of his wife, Donata, and their three daughters, who were appointed executors.

The supposition has been that he died on the same evening. The will document was preserved and is kept by the Biblioteca Marciana, the historic public library of Venice just across the Piazzetta San Marco from St Mark’s Basilica. It shows the date of the witnessing of Polo’s testament as January 9, although it should be noted that under Venetian law at the time, the change of date occurred at sunset rather than midnight.

Confusingly, the document recorded his death as occurring in June 1324 and the witnessing of the will on January 9, 1323. The consensus among historians, however, is that he reached his end in January, 1324.

Born in 1254 - again the specific date is unknown - Marco Polo was best known for his travels to Asia in the company of his father, Niccol├▓, and his uncle, Maffeo.

Having left Venice in 1271, when Marco was 16 or 17, they are said to have reached China in 1275 and remained there for 17 years. Marco wrote about the trip in a book that was originally titled Book of the Marvels of the World but is today known as The Travels of Marco Polo. It is considered a classic of travel literature.

A map showing the journeys said to have been  made by Marco Polo on his travels to China
A map showing the journeys said to have been 
made by Marco Polo on his travels to China
The book, which was written in prison after he had been captured during a war between the rival republics of Venice and Genoa upon returning to Italy, describes his experiences in China in terms of first-hand accounts. Sceptical experts have suggested some of the stories might have been appropriated from other explorers and merchants and passed off by Polo as his own. Yet although some of his descriptions of the exotic animals he ecountered seem somewhat fantastical, the accuracy of much of what he described has generally been confirmed in subsequent years.

The book, which Polo dictated to Rustichello da Pisa, a fellow prisoner of the Genoese who happened to be a writer, introduced European audiences to the mysteries of the Eastern world, including the wealth and sheer size of the Mongol Empire and China, providing descriptions of China, Persia, India, Japan and other Asian cities and countries.

Polo’s father and uncle had traded with the Middle East for many years and had become wealthy in the process. They had visited the western territories of the Mongol Empire on a previous expedition, established strong trading links and visited Shangdu, about 200 miles (320km) north of modern Beijing, where Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty, had an opulent summer palace, and which was immortalised by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as Xanadu.

Their journey with Marco originally took them to Acre in present-day Israel, where - at the request of Kublai Khan - they secured some holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They continued to the Persian port city of Hormuz and thereafter followed overland routes that later became known as the Silk Road.

Travelling through largely rough terrain, the journey to Shangdu took the best part of three years.  Marco Polo’s long stay owed itself partly to Kublai Khan taking him into his court and sending him on various official missions.  In that capacity, he extended his travels to include what is now the city of Hangzhou and may have crossed the border into India and what is now Myanmar.

A painting of unknown origin of Marco Polo's father and uncle presenting a gift to Kublai Khan
A painting of unknown origin of Marco Polo's
father and uncle presenting a gift to Kublai Khan
The Polos left China in around 1291 or 1292, given the responsibility to escort a young princess to Persia, where she was to marry the Mongol ruler. Their route from Persia took through parts of what is now Turkey, to Constantinople, and then north along the Adriatic to Venice.  They arrived home in 1295.

It was during the second of four wars between Venice and their trading rival Genoa that Marco Polo was captured.  He remained a prisoner until 1299, when a peace treaty allowed for his release.  Thereafter, he continued his life as a merchant, achieving prosperity, but rarely left Venice or its territories again until his death.

His book, known to Italians under the title Il Milione after Polo’s own nickname, introduced the West to many aspects of Chinese culture and customs and described such things as porcelain, gunpowder, paper money and eyeglasses, which were previously unknown in Europe. Contrary to some stories, his discoveries did not include pasta, which was once held widely to have been imported by Marco Polo but is thought actually to have existed in the Italy of the Etruscans in the 4th century BC. 

Christopher Columbus and other explorers are said to have been inspired by Marco Polo to begin their own adventures, Columbus discovering the Americas effectively by accident after setting sail across the Atlantic in the expectation of reaching the eastern coast of Asia.

Marco Polo is buried at the church of San Lorenzo
Marco Polo is buried at the
church of San Lorenzo
Travel tip:

One of the wishes Marco Polo expressed on his deathbed was that he be buried in the church of San Lorenzo in the Castello sestiere of Venice, about 850m (930 yards) on foot from Piazza San Marco. The church, whick dates back to the ninth century and was rebuilt in the late 16th century, houses the relics of Saint Paul I of Constantinople as well as Marco Polo’s tomb. Castello is the largest of the six sestieri, stretching east almost from the Rialto Bridge and including the shipyards of Arsenale, once the largest naval complex in Europe, the Giardini della Biennale and the island of Sant’Elena. Unlike its neighbour, San Marco, Castello is a quiet neighbourhood, where tourists can still find deserted squares and empty green spaces.

Arched Byzantine windows thought to have been from the Polo family home
Arched Byzantine windows thought to
have been from the Polo family home
Travel tip: 

The Polo family home in Venice, which was largely destroyed in a fire in 1598, was in the Cannaregio sestiere close to where the Teatro Malibran now stands, in Corte Seconda del Milion, one of two small square that recall Marco Polo’s nickname, Il Milione, which may have been coined as a result of his enthusiasm for the wealth he encountered at the court of Kublai Khan in China or as a result of his being from the Polo Emilioni branch of the family. The Byzantine arches visible in Corte Seconda del Milion are thought to have been part of the Polo house.  The Teatro Malibran was originally inaugurated in 1678 as the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, opening with the premiere of Carlo Pallavicino's opera Vespasiano.  It was renamed Teatro Malibran in 1835 in honour of a famous soprano, Maria Malibran, who was engaged to sing Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula there but was so shocked as the crumbling condition of the theatre that she refused her fee, insisting it be put towards the theatre’s upkeep instead. 

Also on this day:

1878: The death of Victor Emmanuel II, first King of Italy

1878: Umberto I succeeds Victor Emanuel II

1944: The birth of architect Massimiliano Fuksas

2004: The death of political philosopher Norberto Bobbio


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9 March 2018

Amerigo Vespucci – explorer

Medici clerk who discovered a new world


Amerigo Vespucci began exploring as an observer at the invitation of the King of Portugal
Amerigo Vespucci began exploring as an observer
at the invitation of the King of Portugal 
Explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci was born on this day in 1454 in Florence.

Vespucci was the first to discover the ‘new world’, which later came to be called the Americas, taking the Latin version of his first name.

He was the son of a notary in Florence and a cousin of the husband of the beautiful artist’s model, Simonetta Vespucci. He was educated by his uncle, Fra Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, a Dominican friar, and he was later hired as a clerk by the Medici family.

He acquired the favour of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, who sent him to the Medici office in Cadiz in Spain to investigate the managers, who were under suspicion.

Later, as the executor of an Italian merchant who had died in Seville, Vespucci fulfilled the deceased’s contract with Castile to provide 12 vessels to sail to the Indies. He then continued supplying provisions for expeditions to the Indies and was invited by the King of Portugal to participate as an observer on several voyages of exploration.

Although letters have been forged and fraudulent claims have been made about his discoveries, Vespucci is known to have taken an active part in at least two real voyages of exploration.

Vespucci's arrival in the 'new world', as imagined by the  Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry
Vespucci's arrival in the 'new world', as imagined by the
Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry 
In 1499, on a voyage intended to round the southern end of the African mainland into the Indian ocean, Vespucci is believed to have crossed the Atlantic, hitting land in what is now Guyana on the South American mainland, then sailed southwards, discovering the mouth of the Amazon river and seeing Trinidad and the Orinoco river, before returning to Spain.

In 1501, he was on a voyage which reached the coast of Brazil and sailed along the coast of South America to Rio di Janeiro’s bay. He wrote in a letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici that the land masses were ‘larger and different from the Asia described by Marco Polo and, therefore, must be a new world, a previously unknown fourth continent.’

In 1507, an author of a geography book, Martin Waldseem├╝ller, suggested the name America, especially for the Brazilian part of the new world, in honour of the ‘illustrious man’ who discovered it. This is how the names for North America and South America originated.

Vespucci was made chief navigator of Spain in 1508 by King Ferdinand and was commissioned to start a school of navigation, where he developed a rudimentary method of determining longitude. He died in 1512 at his home in Seville, aged 57.

The church of San Salvatore di Ognissanti is the parish church of the Vespucci family
The church of San Salvatore di Ognissanti
is the parish church of the Vespucci family
Travel tip:

The parish church of the Vespucci family is the Church of All Saints - Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti - in Borgo Ognissanti, close to the Santa Maria Novella railway station. In the Vespucci Chapel, a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio depicts the Madonna della Misericordia protecting members of the Vespucci family. It is believed to show Amerigo Vespucci as a child among them. Vespucci later named a bay in Brazil, San Salvatore di Ognissanti, which is the origin of the name of the city of Salvador in Brazil.

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The statue of Amerigo Vespucci by the Ufizzi
The statue of Amerigo
Vespucci by the Ufizzi 
Travel tip:

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence has a posthumous portrait of Amerigo Vespucci, which has been attributed to Cristofano dell’Altissimo. Outside the gallery there is also a statue of Amerigo Vespucci. The Uffizi is one of the most important art galleries in the world and attracts so many visitors it is vital to book a ticket in advance to avoid a long wait. The complex of buildings that make up the gallery was designed by Giorgio Vasari as offices - uffizi - for the Medici family in 1560.