Alongside Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, and Storm Nelson, Sea Adventurer, the Eagle comic of the 1950s had a regular non-fiction story – the Lives of Great Men, in strip-cartoon form. (I know that girls were supposed to read Girl, but there was no contest for any right-thinking person between Belle of the Ballet and Luck of the Legion.) It was thanks to this feature that I first came across Marco Polo (and now I think of it, I can’t remember any of the other subjects, except Churchill and Jesus). Marco, in a fetching red gown, his father and his uncle travelled across Asia, encountering perils. I especially remember Marco drinking from a poisoned well – ‘Thrust your fingers down his throat, Maffeo! Make him sick!’ – ‘I’m trying, but it seems to be a quick-acting poison!’ was one cliff-hanging final frame. (Why on earth do I remember that word-for-word when I can’t remember what I was doing last Friday?) They end up in Peking, at the court of Kublai Khan (who looked a bit like the Mekon, only yellow instead of green, and with more elaborate clothes), stay there for a bit and then go home to Venice. Why they went was not made very clear, but the idea of Marco Polo as an early explorer stuck.
One of the more remarkable things about Venice – supreme tourist magnet of the known universe – is that if you move fifty yards from any of the Big Sights, you find yourself almost alone, in quiet networks of pathways and dead ends where, if it were not for the flapping laundry strung overhead between the buildings, you would think the houses long since deserted. Once such place is on Salizzada San Giacomo Grisostomo, heading north from Rialto. Turn right into a jumble of small courtyards: at the rear of the church, through an archway, there’s a shuttered and graffito-sprayed building, which looks completely abandoned but is in fact the Teatro Malibran; and some Byzantine-looking stonework embedded in plastered walls. This is the Corte del Milion, traditionally the home of Marco Polo. (Compare this 2010 photo with the frontispiece to Volume 1 of The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian and you will see that somebody has punched a window through the wall in the last 130 years . . .)
‘Milion’ (‘milione’ in standard Italian) means ‘million’ – the courtyard allegedly gets its name from Marco’s stories of his travels. He used the word (not much needed as a measure of quantity in medieval Venice) so frequently when describing the gold, jewels, army, acreage, people of the Great Khan, that it was transferred to him as an epithet. There is another explanation – that ‘milion’ means ‘liar’ in Venetian dialect – which doesn’t seem to be true, though the veracity and authenticity of Marco’s book continue to be questioned.
His account was (allegedly) dictated to one Rustichello (or Rusticiano) of Pisa, a fellow inmate of the Genoese prison in which Marco found himself incarcerated (again, the circumstances are not clear) after his return from the east. This original manuscript was copied and recopied, and translated into many languages – about 150 manuscript versions exist, all differing to some extent from each other. Sir Henry Yule (1820–89), engineer, soldier, linguist, diplomat, author of Hobson-Jobson, and stalwart of the Hakluyt Society and the Royal Geographical Society, undertook a collated and annotated translation which was published in 1871, almost exactly 600 years after Marco set off on his travels. (A further Latin manuscript, half as long again as any previously known, was discovered in Toledo in 1932 and published in 1938.)
Yule’s first volume provides a 160-page introduction of staggering erudition, covering the Polo family history and the various versions of the text, with much else beside, including an excursus on Venetian war galleys (Marco’s imprisonment may have occurred as a result of a sea-battle between Venice and Genoa). Each of Marco’s short chapters is copiously annotated with explanations, hypotheses, and comparisons with contemporary and later travel writings, and there are maps and line illustrations as well.
The text’s origins as a lengthy piece of dictation seem clear: ‘Now I have told you of this, I must add that . . .’; ‘Now, let us quit this city, and I will tell you of another . . .’; ‘You must know that . . . but you must not suppose that . . .’. Some of the stories are fantastic: ‘How the Prayer of the One-Eyed Cobler [sic] Caused the Mountain to Move’ (to say nothing of how the cobler came to have only one eye in the first place). Other passages, especially on practical matters, such as how many days’ journey one town is from another, and how much food and drink you therefore need to carry with you, are obviously based on experience. The account of Kublai Khan’s empire – from the fauna and flora, the produce of the land, the industries and trade, to the postal system, the black stone that the Chinese burn instead of wood for fuel, and the way the worth of the emperor’s concubines is assessed – is fascinating, though Yule’s notes are vital to identify places, explain obscure allusions, and rationalise the unaccountable – such as the dog-headed men of the Andaman Islands, and the men with tails in Sumatra, who live alongside unicorns.
Marco was assailed on his deathbed in 1324 by ‘friends’ anxious about the state of his soul, who urged him ‘to correct the Book by removing everything that went beyond the facts. To which his reply was that he had not told one-half of what he had really seen!’