“…his primary motive for leaving the court [of Kublai Kahn] and all its intrigues was his insatiable desire to see more of the world than anyone before him.”
–of Marco Polo, from Laurence Bergreen’s Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu (Knopf, October 2007)
Before reading Laurence Bergreen’s newly-released Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, I associated the book’s subject with little more than that the childhood game I’d play with pals in the swimming pool (Marco?…Polo!). Okay, so maybe I knew that Marco Polo was known for his travels in Asia and that he had something to do with the Silk Road, but Bergreen’s book did more for me than fill in the historical gaps.
Begreen reconstructs Marco Polo’s history in a way that would inspire even the most adventurous of travelers. The author draws from Marco Polo’s Travels, as recorded by Rustichello of Pisa while the renowned writer was stuck with Polo in a Genoese jail (the two were prisoners of war). Bergreen’s travels along Polo’s route in Mongolia and China also color his account, along with other original sources. Bergreen follows Marco Polo from Venice, where in 1271—at age seventeen—he begins his overland journey to the court of Kublai Kahn. Marco Polo remains for nearly twenty years in service of the Mongol leader before returning to Italy via India. Throughout the story, Bergreen adds relevant details about the history of falconry, opium, silk production, and life in the court of Kublai Kahn. These deviations enrich the story, but Marco Polo remains its focus and most intriguing character.
Of the dangers that Marco Polo and his two traveling companions faced en route to Asia, Bergreen lists: “…A drought; a sandstorm, a debilitating disease; a renegade squad of murderous thieves; jealous rivals; predators alerted by the approaching travelers’ scent; poor directions; a poisonous spring; the lethal bite of a snake, insect, or scorpion; a parasite lurking in food or underfoot; a sudden snowstorm or bolt of lightning—any of these common occurrences could have brought the expedition to a sudden end.” Just to drive home the point, Bergreen adds: “no rescue party would have come looking for them, and few in Venice would have mourned their passing.” Sure, there are still many untouched places on our planet. But Bergreen’s story of Marco Polo is a reminder of how wild our world once was.