“Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu” by Laurence Bergreen (Knopf, 2007)

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Laurence Bergreen, whose last book, Over the Edge of the World, charted Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, returns with a fresh and thorough biography on the remarkable and renowned thirteenth century traveler, Marco Polo.  Marco Polo begins in a style that is becoming modern with biographies such as Caroline Alexander’s Bounty: near the end of Marco Polo’s life when he is a renowned traveler of noble stature and wealth, then returning to Polo’s younger life as an inexperienced person making it all the more poignant.

Marco Polo was not the first to feel the urge and thrill to travel the world; it was an experience and almost expectation instilled within his family for some time.  At the age of seventeen, barely a man, Marco Polo began his first journey with his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo bound for the court of Kublai Khan in 1271.  While the focus of the book is on Polo’s time spent with the Great Khan, Bergreen details sights and experiences on the Polos’ travels across the known world to China where Marco became a personal adviser to Kublai Khan in 1275.  Marco then spent almost twenty years in service to the Khan, traveling the many surrounding countries and gathering intelligence and acting as a tax collector for the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty.  It is here that we see through Marco’s eyes and how he views this world that is greatly different to the one he was used to in Venice: from Asbestos manufacture, to crocodile hunting, to the sexual habits of the different peoples; the practice of offering up one’s wife to passing travelers was one that greatly perplexed and put Marco ill at ease.

While the book does cover Marco Polo’s life, Bergreen seems almost hesitant to offer commentary of opinion or the Polo’s habits, ideas, and reactions.  Nevertheless, Marco Polo is a fascinating read into the life of the often misunderstood Venetian.

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Originally written on February 16th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.