East meets West once again in the second season of Marco Polo, streaming on Netflix right now. From the moment we first set our eyes on the mesmerizing world of Kublai Khan’s 13th century Mongol court, set to a stunning backdrop of the sublime steppes and mountainous plains, we knew that we were in for an adventure like no other. If you’re already up to date, here’s the trailer for season below:
Indeed, with the second season already out, it’s clear that with historical series Marco Polo. Yet, amidst a medieval world replete with political intrigue, cultural diversity, brutal escapades and hard-hitting social politics, how familiar are you with the true story behind Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer (played by actor Lorenzo Richelmy) at the crux of it all? Find out below.
The True Story Behind Netflix’s Marco Polo
Early Life In Venice, Italy
Much like the Netflix show, Marco’s life begins within a wealthy merchant family in Venice. Born in 1254, as his mother died at an early age, the boy spent most of his younger years raised by his extended family while his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, were both successful trade merchants in the East — it was there that they stumbled upon Kublai Khan’s court in what is modern China.
The Mongol leader’s father was the great Genghis Khan, who had conquered Northeast Asia. As such, he held a great fascination with the relatively unknown West and the ruling Holy Empire and quizzed the tradesmen about the foreign lands they had come from.
With time, the Polos were sent back to fetch 100 priests from the Pope in order to familiarize Asia with Christianity and the miraculous power of holy water. The two men returned to Venice in 1269 with plans to return upon the earliest convenience.
The Journey To The Great Khan’s Court
In 1271, the men set out for the East again, this time taking Marco with them (a young boy who hardly knew his father at that point). The journey was perilous, but incredibly exciting for the teenager who relished the sense of adventure.
High mountain passes, barren wastelands, lush plains — later, when he came to write an account of his travels, the young man described the remarkable scenes he witnessed, thus providing the West with one of the most detailed pictures of the East’s geography. For instance, writing of his experiences crossing the Gobi desert, Marco would go on to reveal:
This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.
And that’s not to mention Marco’s reports on the people he encountered along what later became the Silk Road, or the cultural difference and local peculiarities of the various regions he crossed. While passing through the Taim Basin for example, he observed the following marriage customs:
When a woman’s husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than 20 days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, and this she is fully entitled to do by local usage. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way.
After four years, the Polos arrived at Kublai Khan’s exquisite summer palace of Xanadu, where they were welcomed whole-heartedly:
Great indeed were the mirth and merry-making with which the Great khan and all his Court welcomed the arrival of these emissaries. And they were well served and attended to in all their needs. They stayed at Court and had a place of honor above the other barons.
The year was 1275.
Years Serviced Under Kublai
The Polos originally intended to stay with the Great Khan for only a few years, however they ended up away from their Venetian homeland for over 20. Once welcomed into the court, Marco was likely set up as a tax collector at first. However, soon realizing that he was a gifted linguist with the knowledge of four languages, the Khan came to favor him and promoted him to an array of high positions in administration; later, in 1277, he was even appointed to an official of the Privy Council and even served as a governor of a Chinese city at one point.
Over the years, Marco was sent on special missions to far flung places in China, Burma and even India, all the time taking great care to document the many wonders of these colorful civilizations. To ensure Polo received every possible assistance on his various missions, the Mongol leader presented him with a golden tablet to allow him use of a vast network of imperial horses and places to stay. A great honor, the object was inscribed with the following words:
By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan’s name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed.
While by the Khan’s side, amongst many things, the Venetian marveled at the following within the powerful Mongolian empire:
He observed and admired Kublai Khan’s grounded nature, who even had steppe grass planted outside his palaces to remind him of his Mongol ancestry.
The empire’s extensive communication and advanced transportation system, comprised of a network of checkpoints and couriers making for an efficient movement of goods and post.
The impressive scale of production at hand.
The use of paper money as a substitute for coins, which was completely unheard of in the West at the time.
The city of Cambulac, which Marco regarded as the most most magnificent place in the world.
The Return Home
Marco Polo stayed with his father and uncle in the court of the Khan for a whopping 17 years and, after finally securing allowance from the Khan to return back to Italy (Kublai was hesitant to let his trusted men go), they embarked on their journey home. That’s not before they fulfilled one request though: To escort a Mongol princess to Persia to marry a prince.
Setting out with hundreds of men, the harrowing journey took its toll on the travelers and months later the Polos delivered the young princess and only 18 remaining passengers to the Persian destination. After two years of navigating the road, the men arrived back in the Holy Empire in 1295.
The following year, the Great Khan died, plummeting the Mongol Empire into irretrievable ruin.
Marco Polo’s Legendary Contribution
Back in Venice, Marco’s adventures were far from over. Upon his return, he went on to command a ship in a war against Genoa and consequently was captured and forced to spend time in a Genoese prison. It was then that he dictated a hefty book about his experiences in the Orient to his cellmate and fellow writer Rustichello da Pisa. In 1299, upon being released from prison, he re-entered the world as a celebrity after seeing his works published.
News of The Travels of Marco Polo spread like wildfire through the continent, and it was printed in a myriad of languages. Although many chose to take the traveler’s accounts with a pinch of salt, believing many of his experiences to be a work of fiction (he did completely mistake crocodiles for giant serpents and rhinos for unicorns after all!), Marco always stood his ground on the tact that what he relayed was the honest truth, reiterating that:
No other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice.
‘I Have Not Told Half Of What I Saw’
To this day, whether some of his reports were fact or fiction, Marco’s name continues to ring true as one of the most famous explorers to ever walk the Earth. Upon his deathbed, when questioned for the last time whether he had lied about all that he had seen, the old man feebly uttered:
“I have not told half of what I saw.”
Although largely shrouded in mystery, Marco Polo’s legacy continued to impact ethnographic, anthropological and geographical studies for centuries. So much so, that when Christopher Columbus sailed to discover the New World in the late 15th century, he allegedly carried a well-thumbed copy of The Travels of Marco Polo with him.
Netflix has certainly achieved a great feat in bringing the vibrant and relatively unknown world of the 13th century East to the mainstream. And although the storyline has unquestionably been injected with a healthy dose of Hollywoodization, along with storyline inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies, it does give us a momentary insight into the true story behind Marco Polo.
For this, Netflix certainly deserves a pat on the back.
Did the true story behind Marco Polo surprise you?