Marco Polo (September 15, 1254 - January 8, 1324) was an Venetian merchant, writer, traveler and explorer. Even though he was not the first European to visit Medieval China, he was the first one to leave detailed chronicle of his travels.
The exact location of the birth of Marco Polo is unclear and is still subject of speculation. Most of the historians agree that he was born in the Republic of Venice and in the city of Venice itself. Some biographers claim that Marco Polo was born in the town of Korcula on the island Korcula, which was then part of the Venetian Republic.
His father Niccolo and uncle Matteo who were travelling merchants were also ambassadors of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty to the Pope. On their second journey to China they were accompanied by 17 year old Marco Polo through the Silk Road. Marco Polo returned to Europe in 1295 and joined a war between Genoa and Venice with the galley that he equipped. He was captured in naval battle between Venice and Genoa that took place on September 9, 1298 near the island of Korcula (Battle of Curzola).
During his several month long imprisonment in Genoa he dictated his travel experiences to fellow inmate Rustichello da Pisa, who wrote down these stories (and probably added some of his own) in a book called “Il Milione ” or better known as “Travels of Marco Polo”. In the era before the printing press, this book spread across Europe in an unprecedented scale. It captured the imagination of many Europeans and was recognized to be the most important description of world beyond Europe at that time. The book allowed Europeans to better understand Middle East, India, China and Japan, and inspired many future explorers including Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan.
Niccolo, Matteo and Marco Polo embarked on a journey in 1271 from Venice. They travelled inward, crossing Anatolia and Armenia. Then they went down to the river Tigris, probably touching Mosul and Baghdad. They came to the port of Hormuz in the Persian gulf and through Persia and Khorasan, reached Balkh and Badakhshan. In forty days, they passed the Pamir Mountains and went down to the Tarim Basin. Through the Gobi desert they came to the borders of Cathay, in Tangut, the westernmost province of China. Then they continued along the northern part of the loop of the Yellow River, eventually coming to Khanbaliq ( modern-day Beijing), after a journey that lasted three and a half years. In Cathay, Marco won the favor of Kublai Khan, became adviser and later ambassador. 17 years after the departure, Marco Polo returned to Venice.
After the publication of Marco Polo's travelogue, people criticised, blamed and ridiculed him and his book insisting that it is a series of false and fraudulent stories. Even on his deathbed, the priest who was present to perform anointing urged him to save his soul, and confess that at least part of the content was not true, but Marco refused and replied to him "I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed."
Whether Marco Polo visited China or not has attracted significant controversy. Most modern historians believe Marco Polo did visit China, because many of the detailed descriptions of the life in the Far East, such as banknotes (paper money), the Grand Canal , the Mongolian army , coal, wine production, asbestos, description of tiger, complex organization of royal postal system. His mention of “Zipang”, which is Chinese name for Japan, is the first mention of this country in Western literature. Marco Polo through his stories introduced to Europeans many things from China: ice cream, pizza, pasta, eyeglasses, harmonica, kite, juggling stick.
In year 1323 Marco Polo was hospitalized due to illness. On January 8, 1324, despite the efforts and treatment of doctors, he died, leaving his wife (Donata) and three daughters (Fantina, Bellela and Moretta). He was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice.