Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Laurence Bergreen's "Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu" (Steak Knives)

Most are going to be somewhat familiar with the Marco Polo story.  This was an obvious choice for me to pick up based on a tear I've been on with the age of exploration (though Marco well pre-dates it - you might say he's the archetypal explorer/discoverer).  It was in the back of my mind, and I stumbled across this account for next to no money while in Florida (hurray for Borders' bankruptcy).

This account of Marco's life (complete with the bookends of his journeys) rewards the reader with some important context; historical context along with the more important piece that it was written with the collaboration of a 
'romantic' writer of Arthur tales and such as Polo languished in a prison in Genoa (albeit a posh prison).  He left at the tender age of 17, joining a father and uncle he barely knew.  Traveling largely over land to the far-East end of Asia to the court of Kublai Khan (grandson of Ghengis and able heir to his empire).  He spends several years in service of Kublai, traveling to the far reaches of his domain, from the deserts of China to India, (as a salt tax collector for a time).

Marco's accounts, early on believed to be 'fantastic' (often owing to the embellishments of his 'romance writer' collaborator), have been confirmed in broad strokes by records from Kublai's court, making Marco the first source of information on places like Java, Japan and others.  In an age when many spent their entire lives within a circle of a few kilometers, he embarked on a journey that must surely have baffled even the Venetian minds of the time.

This line captures much of the appeal of his journeys and this particular account of them:

"Yet Marco was not an explorer in the modern, goal-oriented, scientific sense.  He went wherever the winds of fortune carried him.  He remained open to the vagaries of experience, constantly adjusting his attitudes to the people, places, and events before him.  His lack of a mission made him the most amiable and peaceful of travelers." 

As with my recent readings on Captain Cook, my own response to this account is a mix of envy and awe - what an experience, and what a time to be alive in the world.

This is a very solid set of steak knives...

It's also worth consideration for it's 'insider's' view of the Mongol court (particularly as it tried to entrench itself within China).

Note: My wife has been playfully teasing me that I've been reading a text recounting a game in a backyard pool.  This had me wondering about the origins of the game - so here's a take on that: "Marco Polo did not know where he was going when he first set out on his travels- hence the game's name."

Kublai Khan bestows a golden 'passport' ensuring safe travels for Marco throughout his domain.

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