Cosmography and sources

The Polos’ return voyage to Europe was taken by sea aboard Chinese junks. Marco (1254-ca. 1324), his father and uncle were perhaps the first westerners to navigate the China Sea from east to west and to complete a circumnavigation of the Indian Ocean, following the routes already marked out by Arab, Persian, and Chinese merchants. From Zaiton, described by Marco Polo as one of the largest ports in the world, they sailed southwest along the Chinese and Indo-Chinese coasts and the Malacca peninsula. They proceeded on to Sumatra, and by sailing between the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, reached Ceylon (Sri Lanka), from which they continued up the western coasts of the Indian subcontinent to the city of Hormuz. They crossed Mesopotamia by road and river, and passing through Armenia came to the Black Sea, making the last part of the return trip by sea to Venice, arriving in 1295. Twenty-four years had passed since their departure.

In 1298, during ongoing wars between Venice and Genoa, Marco was taken prisoner. While incarcerated in Genoa, he recounted his adventures to the Arthurian poet Rustichello da Pisa (active second half 13th cent.-1298), who transcribed Polo’s account into medieval French, or langue d’oïl, with the title Le divisament dou monde (“the description of the world”), which also became known as Il Milione. Released to the public in 1300, the work enjoyed extremely wide diffusion in many different editions, in Latin as well as vernacular tongues. Preserved today in over 140 manuscripts—some of them richly illuminated—and innumerable printed editions, the work contributed to the creation of a new geography of Asia and has become a nearly universal metaphor for voyage and discovery.