marco polo returns in disgrace -- 5/16/14

Today's selection -- from The Venetians by Paul Strathern. When Marco Polo returned from twenty-four years of trading in search of his fortune, word spread quickly that he had been reduced to rags:

"In 1295 Marco Polo, accompanied by his father and his uncle, arrived back in Venice having travelled 'from the Polar Sea to Java, from Zanzibar to Japan'....

"Marco had left Venice at the age of seventeen, and had been away travelling for twenty-four years. By the time he returned to Venice he was unrecognisable. ... They looked just like Tartars, and they even spoke with an odd accent, having all but forgotten how to speak in the Venetian tongue: In 1295, the Republic of Venice was more than eight centuries old, and the Council of Ten had over the years imposed very precise sumptuary laws prescribing for its citizens appropriate dress for different classes, commending modest attire, decreeing short hair and prohibiting extravagant or colourful clothes except on special occasions. ... The long hair and long beards of the returning Polos, with their weather-beaten skin deeply tanned and wrinkled by long exposure to tropical sun and desert winds, together with their heavy tattered kaftans, which appeared more like carpets than civilised Venetian cloth, must have stood out. ...

Marco Polo leaves Venice
Illustration from the Book of the marvels of the world (The Travels of Marco Polo)

"The Polos were a minor family of the ruling patrician class, and their fluctuating commercial fortunes had driven them eventually to undertake the bold and ambitious trading journey into the unknown Orient. ...

"Upon their arrival back in Venice, however, word soon spread that the Polos had been reduced to rags, that after twenty-four years of trading they had returned with no more than a Tartar slave bearing a trunk containing their few remaining possessions. As a result, the good name of the Polo family, long respected for their business acumen, suffered severe damage. Without a sound reputation, ventures now undertaken by any of the Polos were liable to attract few -- if any -- backers or investors. If such rumours were allowed to spread, the family faced the prospect of ruin.

"In order to restore their good name, soon after their return the Polos decided to throw a banquet, inviting all members of their family and including as many influential people as they knew. When the guests were seated, Marco Polo, together with his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo, appeared before the company dressed in flowing robes of the finest silk.

"They then proceeded to remove these garments and began tearing them into strips, distributing the colourful tatters amongst the servants, before retiring and returning in yet more fine robes, this time made of red velvet. In the midst of the meal the Polos rose once more and began tearing their expensive robes into strips, again distributing these amongst the servants. They then retired and returned once more clad in the finest robes; at the end of the meal, these too were torn to shreds and given away. By now, all understood: the Polos could hardly be poor if they could afford such extravagant gestures. But Marco, Niccolo and Maffeo had one more sensational demonstration, which was to be the finale of their performance. They returned clad in the ragged Mongol attire they had worn on their return to Venice. Ramusio describes how the three of them produced knives and began cutting through the inner seams of their thick garments, 'causing a cascade of precious gems to spill out. These rubies, sapphires, carbuncles, diamonds and emeralds had all been concealed within the garments in such a cunning fashion that no one could have guessed what they contained. ...

"However, as we now know with the benefit of hindsight, the three Polos were indeed enacting something of an oriental charade -- for they were withholding a disastrous secret. They may have returned with a stock of precious gems, but they had in fact been robbed of the major fortune they had made in the course of their twenty-four years of trading. ...

"Towards the end of their voyage home they had arrived at the empire of Trebizond, ... nominally a Christian ally of Venice, but its very remoteness, some 500 miles east of Constantinople, meant that it was to all intents and purposes a law unto itself. When the Polos had arrived here, instead of receiving a welcome from their fellow Europeans, they had watched powerless as their trunks of gold had been confiscated by corrupt local authorities. The sum of their losses would seem to have represented a considerable fortune, and might even have been enough to elevate the Polos to a place amongst the richer noble families of Venice, had they retained it."


Paul Strathern


The Venetians: A New History: From Marco Polo to Casanova


Pegasus Books LLC


Copyright 2013 by Paul Strathern


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