10/19/09 - marco polo and the renaissance

In today's excerpt - the Renaissance in Europe owed a tremendous debt to the inventions that Marco Polo (1254-1324), his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo brought back to Venice from their twenty four years of travel in China:

"[Upon their return from China] the three Polos received respect from their fellow citizens with Marco singled out for special attention. 'All the young men went every day continuously to visit and converse with Messer Marco,' Giambattista Ramusio claimed, 'who was most charming and gracious and to ask of him matters concerning Cathay (China) and the Great Khan, and he responded with so much kindness that all felt themselves to be in a certain manner indebted to him.'

"It is easy to understand why Marco attracted notice. The significance of the inventions that he brought back from China or which he later described in his Travels cannot be overstated. At first, Europeans regarded these technological marvels with disbelief but eventually they adopted them.

"Paper money, virtually unknown in the West until Marco's return, revolutionized finance and commerce throughout the West.

"Coal another item that had caught Marco's attention in China, provided a new and relatively efficient source of heat to an energy-starved Europe.

"Eyeglasses (in the form of ground lenses), which some accounts say he brought back with him, became accepted as a remedy for failing eyesight. In addition, lenses gave rise to the telescope—which in turn revolutionized naval battles, since it allowed combatants to view ships at a great distance—and the microscope. Two hundred years later, Galileo used the telescope—based on the same technology—to revolutionize science and cosmology by supporting and disseminating the Copernican theory that Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun.

"Gunpowder, which the Chinese had employed for at least three centuries, revolutionized European warfare, as armies exchanged their lances, swords, and crossbows for cannon, portable harquebuses and pistols.

"Marco brought back gifts of a more personal nature as well. The golden paiza, or passport, given to him by Kublai Khan had seen him through years of travel, war, and hardship. Marco kept it still, and would to the end of his days. He also brought back a Mongol servant, whom he named Peter, a living reminder of the status he had once enjoyed in a far-off land.

"In all it is difficult to imagine the Renaissance—or for that matter the modern world—without the benefit of Marco Polo's example of cultural transmission between East and West."


Laurence Bergreen


Marco Polo: From Venice to Xandu


First Vintage Books Edition


Copyright 2007 by Laurence Bergreen


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment