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updated: 9/6/2011 8:11 AM

Marco Polo's travels left an imprint on later explorers

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  • Marco Polo for Lake County Kids Ink column.

    Marco Polo for Lake County Kids Ink column.
    Courtesy of Columbia University, Rare Book & Manus

By Hope Bobwice

The details about Marco Polo's remarkable 26-year journey from his homeland Venice, thousands of miles across Central Asia and into China, were recorded by Mr. Rustichello of Pisa while both were prisoners of war in Genoa, now a large seaport in Italy.

The accounts were compiled in a book, The Travels of Marco Polo, probably published between 1271 and 1291. Historians believe the accounts Rustichello recorded might have been exaggerated, either by Polo or Rustichello, or by authors of later versions of the book.

However, the remarkable book, even with its strange stories of men with tails, was inspiring to many future explorers.

Before Polo embarked on his great odyssey with his father and uncle, Europeans had almost no knowledge of the extent of the kingdom ruled by Genghis and Kublai Khan, nor of the many countries Marco Polo visited like Sumatra, Java and Indonesia.

The concepts of geography were different, focusing on who or how many people lived in a region as opposed to describing the land masses, rivers or other features of nature.

Two hundred years later, the book was still considered a valuable source -- Christopher Columbus' well-read copy is marked by his notes in the margins.

Consuelo Dutschke, Ph.D., executive director, Digital Scriptorium and curator of the Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts Rare Book & Manuscript Library at New York's Columbia University, said one source from the early 1300s details a naval battle from 1296 near present-day Turkey, at about the same time Polo was in jail.

She reports, "The Venetians were routed, most of their sailors either killed or taken prisoner and among the latter was Marco Polo. While in prison in Genoa, Marco Polo compiled his Travels."

Without a printing press, which wasn't invented until the 1440s, the various scribes who made copies of the book could have taken liberties with storyline. Each book was hand written and writers might add comments that were their own opinion, not necessarily fact.

An edition of The Travels of Marco Polo, published 250 years later includes a prologue by Venetian Giovanni Battista Ramusio, with a description of the battle.

Cameron Hawkins, Ph.D., University of Chicago assistant professor of ancient history, said details of Ramusio's version differed from other accounts.

"While it's not clear how much stock we should place in the specific details of this story -- they could have been simply the products of an educated guess on Ramusio's part -- historians generally do believe that Marco Polo was captured by the Genoese after war broke out between Genoa and Venice in 1296, even if we don't know when and how he was taken," Hawkins said.

Polo's journey was a valuable firsthand account of the geography that lay to the east of Europe. His keen observations enabled him to introduce a few new ideas, like the concept of paper money and of using burned wood to make coal. Legend has it that he also brought spaghetti, but that could be another story.