A European in the Orient: Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Marco Polo died at his home in Venice on January 8, 1324. Before his death, friends and readers of his book visited him and urged him to admit that his book was a fiction. Marco would not relent. He told them:

I have not told half of what I saw!

​Marco Polo has been long regarded as the earliest and most distinguished of European travelers of all times for traversing Asia from one extremity to the other. He surpassed every other traveler of his time in the extent of the unknown regions he visited, as well as in the amount of new and important information he had collected. His description of the Chinese imperial court and the Chinese empire under the most powerful of the Asiatic dynasties, and tales of the adjacent countries in the Far East, forms a grand historical picture not painted by any other traveler of his period.

Authenticity is important in any travel narrative, otherwise it altogether becomes a worthless romance. A profound ignorance veiled  Europe when the Polos returned from the East. Doubts of the authenticity of Marco’s tales arose since most of the regions he had traversed were wholly unknown at that time. And his discoveries far transcended the knowledge of his age. Also, many editions of Marco Polo’s travelogue proliferated in an age when printing was unknown. The narratives varied from one another, often corrupted to a great extent.

Even now, some argue that Marco Polo never reached China, but cobbled together secondhand accounts of what he had heard. They say there are inaccuracies in the tales. They point out that he never mentioned the basic elements of Chinese culture, such as drinking tea, the use of chopsticks, the Chinese characters, or the tradition of foot-binding.

Responders to such skeptics have stated that if the purpose of Marco Polo’s stories of travels was to impress others with tales of his high esteem for an advanced civilization, then it is possible that Polo shrewdly would omit those details that would cause his readers to scoff at the Chinese with a sense of European superiority. Marco lived among the elite Mongols. Foot-binding was almost unknown among the Mongols and was rare even among Chinese during Polo’s time.

Some observers, who have only a cursory view of the history of China, say he never mentioned the Great Wall in his book. These people are ignorant of the fact that the Great Wall, familiar to us today, is a Ming structure constructed, about two centuries after Marco Polo’s travels in China, to keep out northern invaders.

New Evidence

It is odd that Marco Polo never produced a single map to accompany his narrative accounts in the ghostwritten book. Hence, scholars have long debated its the veracity. Now, there is new evidence in favor for this historical puzzle of whether Marco Polo did indeed visit China and the Far East. The proof is in the form of a curious collection of fourteen little-known maps and related documents purported to have belonged to the family of Marco Polo.

In the 1880s, Marcian Rossi, an Italian, immigrated to the United States. He brought along with him a collection of sheepskin vellum he said were of the 13th and 14th century. There were 14 little-known maps and related documents detailing Marco Polo’s journey to the Far East. These  documents bear the signatures of the three daughters of Marco Polo — Fantina, Bellela and Moreta.

The existence of these parchments came to light only in the 1930s, when Marcian Rossi contacted the Library of Congress. He explained that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian Admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family. But the collection did not undergo exhaustive analysis.

Are the maps forgeries or facsimiles?  They created a problem for the historians of cartography. Did Marco Polo’s daughters, whose names appear on some of these artifacts, preserve in them geographic information about Asia as told by their father? Did they inherit the maps created by him? Did Marco Polo entrust the maps to a Venetian admiral who had links to Rossi’s family line? Or, if the maps have no connection to Marco Polo, who made them, when, and for what purpose?

While some historians discounted the 14 parchments as mere fantasy, forgeries, or facsimiles, others wanted a balanced, detailed study of the documents.

Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography and a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, spent more than a decade studying the artifacts. He translated the Italian, Latin, Arabic and Chinese inscriptions found therein. All but one of the original documents, a map Marcian Rossi donated to the Library of Congress, remain in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson Jeffrey Pendergraft in Texas. Olshin is the first scholar in decades to see those originals.

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Marco Polo's 'Map with Ship' (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Marco Polo’s ‘Map with Ship‘ (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

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The map donated by Marcian Rossi to the Library of Congress, dubbed “Map with Ship,” is a curious one. It has an illustration of a Venetian sailing vessel and a sketch of what appears to be outlines of Japan, Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and the coastlines of present-day Alaska and British Columbia. The map was not a navigational aid because it lacks longitude and latitude reference lines.

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The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin
The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin

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Olshin has detailed the results of his intensive research in his book, “The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps.” The book is the first credible book-length analysis of these parchments. It is a balanced, detailed, and a non speculative work of cartographic scholarship, not another ‘who discovered?’ sensation. Olshin charts the course of the documents from obscure origins in the private collection of the Italian-American immigrant Marcian Rossi in the 1930s. He describes the investigations by the Library of Congress, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI for their authenticity. Olshin describes his own efforts to track down and study the Rossi maps.

After a  thorough tracing of Marcian Rossi’s ancestry, Olshin asserts that Rossi’s explanation that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family was credible.

Olshin describes himself as an “evidence guy” and makes no claims that the document “Map with Ship,” depicts Alaska for certain although there are similarities. Olshin also admits, the authenticity of the ten maps and four texts is not settled. The ink on the parchments remains untested. A radiocarbon study of the sheepskin vellum of one key map, the only one subjected to such analysis, dates it to the 15th or 16th century, making it at best a copy.

Regardless of the origin of the documents, Olshin offers insights into Italian history, the age of exploration, and the wonders of cartography. He then takes his readers on a fascinating journey to the early legendary lands of the Chinese.

Alessandro Scafi said in Times Literary Supplement (UK):

“Olshin plays with the idea that Marco Polo’s relatives may have preserved geographical information about distant lands first recorded by him, or even that they may have inherited maps that he made. If genuine, Olshin argues, these maps and texts would confirm that Marco Polo knew about the New World two centuries before Columbus, either from his own experience or through hearing about it from the Chinese … Fascinating material … Olshin himself admits that there is no hard evidence to support his thrilling speculations. Including translations of every annotation and inscription, Olshin’s study and description of the fourteen parchments are exhaustive. His analysis, however, leaves many questions open … A fascinating tale about maps, history and exploration.”

The parchments in the Rossi collection may not only back up Marco Polo’s claim that he journeyed to the Orient, but also could reveal he might have set foot on the North American continent, 200 years before Christopher Columbus. It is purported that Columbus carried a well-worn copy of “The Travels of Marco Polo” with him on his historic 1492 voyage. It is conjectured that the travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus to seek a westward sea route to the riches of East Asia, but instead landed in the New World.

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← Previous: Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”

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