Sep 152015


Today is conventionally taken as the birthday (1254) of Marco Polo although the actual date and place of his birth are sometimes disputed. Polo learned the mercantile trade from his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who travelled through Asia, and met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. Although Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China, he was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his experiences.

In 1260, Niccolò and Maffeo, while residing in Constantinople, then the capital of the Latin Empire, foresaw a political change; they liquidated their assets into jewels and moved away. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, they passed through much of Asia, and met with the Kublai Khan, a Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan dynasty. Their decision to leave Constantinople proved timely. In 1261 Michael VIII Palaiologos, the ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, took Constantinople, promptly burned the Venetian quarter and re-established the Eastern Roman Empire. Captured Venetian citizens were blinded, while many of those who managed to escape perished aboard overloaded refugee ships fleeing to other Venetian colonies in the Aegean Sea. Meanwhile, Marco Polo’s mother died, and an aunt and uncle raised him. He received a good education, learning mercantile subjects including foreign currency, appraising, and the handling of cargo ships, but he learned little or no Latin.


In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice. In 1271, during the rule of Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo, Marco Polo (at seventeen years of age), his father, and his uncle set off for Asia on the series of adventures that Marco later documented in his book. They returned to Venice in 1295, 24 years later, very rich. They had traveled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).

At this time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa. Polo armed a galley equipped with a trebuchet to join the war. He was probably caught by Genoans in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta and not during the battle of Curzola (September 1298), off the Dalmatian coast, as is sometimes reported. The latter claim is due to a later tradition recorded by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in the 16th century.

Polo spent several months of his imprisonment dictating a detailed account of his travels to a fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who incorporated tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China. The book soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form, and became known as The Travels of Marco Polo. It depicts the Polos’ journeys throughout Asia, giving Europeans their first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan.


Polo was finally released from captivity in August 1299, and returned home to Venice, where his father and uncle had purchased a large house in the zone named contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo (Corte del Milion). The company continued its activities and Marco soon became a wealthy merchant. Polo financed other expeditions, but never left Venice again. In 1300, he married Donata Badoer, the daughter of Vitale Badoer, a merchant. They had three daughters, Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta.

In 1323, Polo was confined to bed, due to illness. On January 8, 1324, despite physicians’ efforts to treat him, Polo was on his deathbed. To write and certify the will, his family requested Giovanni Giustiniani, a priest of San Procolo. His wife, Donata, and his three daughters were appointed by him as co-executrices. The church was entitled by law to a portion of his estate; he approved of this and ordered that a further sum be paid to the convent of San Lorenzo, the place where he wished to be buried. He also set free a “Tartar slave” who may have accompanied him from Asia.


The Travels is divided into four books. Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco encountered on his way to China. Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan. Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and the east coast of Africa. Book Four describes his trip back to Italy. The trip involved a number of hazards such as a gang of pirates robbing thousands of gold pieces from Marco and holding him hostage. Eventually the pirates were arrested by a passing ship which called for help from the Chinese authorities.

I think it is generally understood nowadays that Marco Polo did not bring pasta back to Italy from China, although for a long time that was the common misconception. Archeologists have proven that pasta existed in Italy before Polo went on his travels.  It’s quite easy to imagine that boiled dough was invented independently in different cultures.  But the association lingers despite the evidence, so let’s celebrate Polo’s journey with a pasta dish.  I discovered that Julia Child cooked  a dish she called Marco Polo spaghetti when she visited Mr Rogers in his Neighborhood. I could not find a video of this event but I do have a general recipe.  I’m not sure why Child thought this was especially Marco Polo-ish.


Marco Polo Spaghetti

Cook 1 lb of spaghetti in plenty of salted water until it is al dente, that is, with a bite (not limp), but cooked through.

Heat a generous amount of butter or olive oil in a heavy pot.  Add sliced, roasted red pepper, pitted and halved black olives, chopped walnuts, chopped green onions, and flaked tuna (drained). Sauté until all the ingredients are heated through. Add the spaghetti and toss around until the ingredients are all thoroughly mixed and coated with butter or oil.

Serve on a warmed platter topped with shredded Swiss cheese.

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