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Exploring the Truth: 10 Facts on the Real Marco Polo

While Netflix gets ready to launch its original series, ‘Marco Polo,’ we thought we’d explore the real Marco Polo and decipher the man from the many myths.

East meets West when Netflix brings the 13th century to life with an epic series featuring the travels and adventures of Venetian explorer Marco Polo, who spent more than two decades in the service of Kublai Khan, one of the greatest rulers in history who reigned over Mongolia for 34 years.

Shot in Venice, Kazakhstan and Malaysia, Marco Polo begins with Marco’s arrival at the court of Kublai Khan and follows the youth from his teen years to adulthood as he experiences a life only few could imagine: his escapades as he travels throughout Asia, visiting countries no European had seen before, and learning new languages and different cultures along the way.

The cast of Marco Polo includes Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco Polo; Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan; Zhu Zhu as Kokachi, a mysterious woman who immediately catches Marco’s eye; and Joan Chen as Empress Chabi, Kublai Khan’s wife and adviser.

The entire 10-episode season of Marco Polo will become available to Netflix members December 12th at 12:01 a.m. PT. But before you watch the series, check out the scoop on the real-life exploits of Marco Polo.

No. 1: Marco Polo was only 15 years old when he left Venice on the great adventure that took him to the court of Kublai Khan. His father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo Polo had made the journey previously. Marco barely knew his father, who had spent Marco’s childhood as a traveling merchant when they left on their quest. But the death of Marco’s mother convinced Niccolò that Marco should accompany him on the return trip, which lasted 24 years (1271-1295). The Polos weren’t the first wayfarers — Marco’s word — to make it to Asia, but Marco is the one who became most famous for it.

Marco Polo Portrait Photo

Mosaic representing Marco Polo at Villa Hanbury, Ventimiglia, Italy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

No. 2: Marco Polo did not bring pasta back to Venice from China. It is one of the most famous legends out there about the adventurer, but truth be told, pasta had made its way into the cuisine of Italy prior to Marco’s birth. He did, however, introduce the concept of paper money, which was used in Mongolia in the 13th century, but not in Europe.

No. 3: The Travels of Marco Polo [the English title] was not written by Marco, but rather by the 13th-century romantic author Rustichello of Pisa. The two met while in prison, where Marco dictated the stories of his travels and his adventures at the court of Kublai Khan. [Marco was a prisoner of war, having been captured in a battle between Venice and its rival city-state Genoa in 1298.] There are no longer any original copies remaining of the manuscript, initially titled Il Milione (The Million) and released in Italian, French and Latin. The earliest remaining copies of the travelogue are not always consistent in details, but do remain true to the stories. Keep in mind the printing press wasn’t invented until 1439, so the books were handwritten and mistakes were made.

No. 4: While Marco Polo didn’t actually discover America, he was influential in Christopher Columbus‘s decision to strike out for unknown territory. Columbus is said to have been inspired by Marco’s adventures, and took a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo on his Westward sail two centuries after Marco’s journey to China.

Marco Polo Illustration Photo

Marco Polo traveling, from the book The Travels of Marco Polo (Il milione), originally published during Polos lifetime (September 15, 1254 – January 8, 1324), but frequently reprinted and translated. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

No. 5: Many of us have spent a summer’s afternoon in a swimming pool playing the tag game of Marco Polo, but did you know that the Venetian merchant also has a species of sheep named after him? In The Travels of Marco Polo, he mentions observing the mountain sheep on the Pamir Plateau in Badakhshan [now northeastern Afghanistan]. Of course, the sheep weren’t named after him in his lifetime. The first scientific mention of Ovis ammon polii was in 1841 by zoologist Edward Blyth.

No. 6: In addition to his native tongue, Marco wrote that he knew four languages. He never elaborated on which four they were, but from his writings, historians have surmised they were Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish — not Chinese.

No. 7: Marco served as a special envoy for the great Kublai Khan, providing the leader with useful reports from the various trips he took on his behalf all around Asia. This included three years during which he served as the governor of the city of Yangchow.

Watch the trailer for Netflix’s ‘Marco Polo’:

No. 8: The Polos finally grew homesick, but Kublai Khan valued their services so much, he refused to let them go. They were finally able to return home when they convinced him that they should be the escorts for Princess Kokachin, who was to marry his great nephew, the Il-Khan, who ruled Persia. The journey to Persia was a perilous one, and many died, but the Polos arrived safely. Kublai Khan, too, died while they were on this mission, so they were able to return to Venice following the wedding.

No. 9: Not a lot is known about Marco Polo after his return to Venice in 1295. It is posited that he returned to the family merchant business, but it is known that he married and had three daughters: Moretta, Fantina, and Bellela. He lived to be 70 years old.

No. 10: There are those who believe that Marco Polo never took the journey down the Silk Road to China and in fact, made it no further than the Black Sea. They believe that the adventures described in his book were made up from stories he heard from others along the road he did travel. It doesn’t help his case that there were many exaggerations in The Travels of Marco Polo, plus there were also interesting exclusions, such as the fact that he failed to mention the use of chopsticks for eating, or that he had seen the Great Wall. It also helps these naysayers that no mention of Marco Polo has been found in any historic Chinese records. On the other hand, the majority of historians are prone to believe the Marco did indeed make it to China and work in the service of Kublai Kahn, especially because of the preponderance of cultural information in the book. Plus, there are those who have used his journal to retrace his footsteps, and they declare the geography to be so accurate, they believe the trip happened.

On his deathbed, Marco was encouraged to admit that The Travels of Marco Polo was a work of fiction, but to his dying breath he declared, “I did not tell half of what I saw.”