Portrait of Marco Polo.

In his own lifetime and even today, Marco Polo’s account of his travels has been branded a falsification. A late medieval reader might have asked how it is that there could be such wonders about which we have never heard. Why is it, the modern critic muses, that Marco so often seems to get the facts wrong or fails to mention something we think he should have included such as the Great Wall or foot-binding? Of course in any age, the first descriptions of the previously unknown are likely to engender skepticism. Accuracy in reporting may be conditioned by preconceived notions, the degree to which the traveler actually saw something or perhaps only heard about it secondhand, and the purpose for which an account was set down. Marco had his biases — he was an apologist for Kublai Khan and, it seems, really did work for the Mongols. As an official in their administration, he would not necessarily have mixed with ordinary Chinese. When he was in China, much of the Great Wall was in ruins and thus might simply not have seemed worthy of comment. Where he reports on Mongol customs and certain aspects of the court, he can be very precise. If his descriptions of cities seem stereotyped, the reason may have been that they indeed appeared equally large and prosperous when judged by European standards. In any event, to convey the wonders of the Great Khan’s dominions required a certain amount of hyperbole. It seems unlikely that Marco took notes along the way. Mistakes can thus easily be attributed to faulty memory as well as the circumstances in which a professional weaver of romances, Rusticello of Pisa, recorded and embellished Marco’s oral account while the two were in a Genoese prison. Even if Marco’s account still challenges modern scholars, there can be no question about its impact in helping to transform a previously very limited European knowledge of Asia.