History so often hinges upon accidents, such as the time Gutenberg was forced to invent the printing press because he missed an important date by an entire year, or the time Constantinople was conquered because someone forgot to lock the city gate. The same would hold true with the celebrated record of one of history’s greatest explorers, whose exploits are known today only because he got stuck in jail with an inquisitive cellmate.
Marco Polo (1254-1324) is remembered as the adventurous merchant and explorer who opened the world’s eyes to the cultures and riches of Asia. His book, The Travels of Marco Polo, captivated readers with the details of his exploits which included diplomatic missions on behalf of Kublai Khan, the discovery of fantastic spices and silks, and the retelling of fables of the Far East. Polo’s book described in vivid detail the vast expanse of China and its mysterious capital, Pekin. Through his writing, Europeans learned about the far-away lands of Japan, India, other exotic Asian locals. It was through this book that the West learned about such fantastic advances as block printing, paper money, and coal-fired technology.
With all of his travels, it is a wonder Marco Polo had time to write. The truth is that he wouldn’t have had time, except for the fact that it was forced upon him. In 1298 he was serving as an honorary master of a Venetian ship during one of Venice’s periodic trade wars. While he may have been a great explorer, his success as a naval commander was less than impressive. He was captured and thrown into a Genoa jail cell, which became his home for the next year.
Polo shared his cell with Rustichello da Pisa, who was similarly serving time as a prisoner of war. Rustichello was already an accomplished author by the time of imprisonment, having written the Roman de Roi Artus or, simply, the Compilation. It is the first known romance by an Italian author to address the Arthurian legend.
Rustichello found the Genoan jail cell quite tedious, and when fate gave him Marco Polo as his cellmate, he couldn’t help but be drawn to Polo’s accounts of his Asian adventures. The inquisitive author persuaded Polo to tell him all of his adventures and to allow Rustichello to put them to paper. By the time the two men were released from custody, they already had the basic workings of what would become The Travels of Marco Polo.
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