Showing posts with label Trade. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Trade. 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, Niccolò, 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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24 April 2017

Luigi Lavazza - coffee maker

From a grocery store in Turin to Italy's market leader


Luigi Lavazza - former peasant farmer and humble shop worker who built a dynasty
Luigi Lavazza - former peasant farmer and
humble shop worker who built a dynasty
Luigi Lavazza, the Turin grocer who founded the Lavazza Coffee Company, was born on this day in 1859 in the small town of Murisengo in Piedmont. 

He had lived as a peasant farmer in Murisengo but times were hard and after a couple of poor harvests he decided to abandon the countryside and head for the city, moving to Turin and finding work as a shop assistant.

The Lavazza brand began when Luigi had saved enough money to by his own shop in Via San Tommaso, in the centre of Turin, in 1895.  He sold groceries and provisions and where other stores simply sold coffee beans, he had a workshop in the rear of the store where he experimented by grinding the beans and mixing them into different blends according to the tastes of his customers.

He travelled to Brazil to improve his knowledge of coffee and his blends became an important part of the business, after which he moved into wholesale as well as retail as a coffee merchant.  When the first automatic roasting machines went into production in the 1920s, he was one of the first in Italy to buy one.

The economic climate in Italy improved after the First World War, Turin in particular enjoying prosperity after Fiat opened its factory in Lingotto.

Luigi Lavazza's original Turin grocery shop
Luigi Lavazza's original Turin grocery shop
Luigi Lavazza S.p.A. was formed in 1927, with its headquarters in Corso Giulio Cesare, to the north of the city. Luigi, his wife Emilia, and children Mario, Pericle and Giuseppe set up the company, with share capital of 1,500,000 lire. They bought a fleet of vans and trucks and began to sell all groceries all over Turin province.

The coffee side of the company’s business stalled in the 1930s after the League of Nations imposed economic sanctions against Italy, a consequence of the Mussolini regime’s aggression towards Abyssinia.  Coffee beans was one of the commodities that could not be exported to Italy.

Production did not resume in earnest until after the Second World War, when the company was effectively relaunched as a coffee specialist.  Luigi has retired in 1936 but in the hands of his sons the business boomed. They commissioned the design of branded Lavazza packaging, introducing the distinctive logo with the large middle ‘A’. As well as paper packaging, the company introduced vacuum packed tins to preserve their product's freshness.

Lavazza's familiar silver and  red packaging
Lavazza's familiar silver and
red packaging
In 1950, the first Lavazza television commercial was aired with the slogan “Lavazza – paradiso in tazza” – “Lavazza – heaven in a cup”.

Luigi Lavazza died in 1949 at the age of 90 and did not witness the huge expansion that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The company’s new headquarters in Corso Novara - on the north-western outskirts of the city began to produce 40,000kg of coffee per day, outstripping other Italian coffee producers, and in 1965 Lavazza opened Europe’s largest roasting plant in Settimo Torinese, from which the company’s Qualità Rossa blend was introduced in 1971.

Today, run by the fourth generation of the Lavazza family, the company is the seventh largest coffee roaster in the world and the retail market leader in Italy with more than 47 per cent of sales, employing 2700 staff in six production sites, four in Italy and two abroad, and sells coffee in more than 90 countries.

Travel tip:

Luigi Lavazza’s original store in Via San Tommaso is now a coffee shop and restaurant, aptly called San Tommaso 10 Lavazza. The café’s coffee corner is the place in which to taste the company’s major blends, while the restaurant at the rear, offering modern Italian dishes, almost doubles as a museum, with displays of photographs tracing the history of the company. Via San Tommaso is in the heart of Turin’s commercial centre, a short walk from the elegant grandeur of Piazza Castello.



Murisengo is in the hills to the east of Turin
Murisengo is in the hills to the east of Turin
Travel tip:

Murisengo, where Luigi Lavazza was born and grew up in the farming community, has a population of under 1,500 today but used to be much larger and was a thriving spa town in the 1700s, when visitors came to take the sulphurous waters from the Fontana Pirenta, which supposedly could cure gastric disorders and treat skin conditions.  The village, in the hills to the east of Turin at 338m (1,100ft) above sea level, also has the remains of a castle that originated in the early 13th century.


More reading:


Michele Ferrero - the man who invented Nutella

How fruit farmer Karl Zuegg made a fortune from jam

Francesco Cirio - market trader who pioneered food canning

Also on this day:


1966: The birth of AC Milan footballer Alessandro Costacurta