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Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanaduby Laurence Bergreen
Synopses & Reviews
As the most celebrated European to explore Asia, Marco Polo was the original global traveler and the earliest bridge between East and West. A universal icon of adventure and discovery, he has inspired six centuries of popular fascination and spurious mythology. Now, from the acclaimed author of Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe ("Superb....A first-rate historical page turner"The New York Times) — comes the first fully authoritative biography of one of the most enchanting figures in world history. In this masterly work, Marco Polo's incredible odyssey — along the Silk Road and through all the fantastic circumstances of his life — is chronicled in sumptuous and illuminating detail.
We meet him as a callow young man, the scion of a wealthy Venetian merchant family, only seventeen when he sets out in 1271 with his father and uncle on their journey to Asia. We see him gain the confidence of Kublai Khan, the world's most feared and powerful leader, and watch him become a trusted diplomat and intelligence agent in the ruler's inner circle. We are privy to his far-flung adventures on behalf of the Khan, living among the Mongols and other tribes, and traveling to magical cities, some far advanced over the West. We learn the customs of the Khan's court, both erotic and mercantile, and Polo's uncanny ability to adapt to them. We follow him on his journey back to Venice, laden with riches, the latest inventions, and twenty-four years' worth of extraordinary tales.
And we see his collaboration with the famed writer Rustichello of Pisa, who immediately saw in Polo the story of a lifetime; enlivened by his genius for observation, Polo's tales needed little embellishment. Recorded by Rustichello as the two languished as prisoners of war in a Genoese jail, the Travels would explode the notion of non-Europeans as untutored savages and stand as the definitive description of China until the nineteenth century.
Drawing on original sources in more than half a dozen languages, and on his own travels along Polo's route in China and Mongolia, Bergreen explores the lingering controversies surrounding Polo's legend, settling age-old questions and testing others for significance. Synthesizing history, biography, and travelogue, this is the timely chronicle of a man who extended the boundaries of human knowledge and imagination. Destined to be the definitive account of its subject for decades to come, Marco Polo takes us on a journey to the limits of history — and beyond.
"'Even in his own day, the famed 13th-century travel writer Marco Polo was mocked as a purveyor of tall tales — gem-encrusted clothes, nude temple dancing girls, screaming tarantulas — in his narrative of his journey to the Chinese court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. In this engrossing biography, Bergreen (James Agee: A Life), while allowing that 'mere facts... were never enough for Marco,' finds him a roughly accurate and perceptive witness (aside from the romantic embellishments and outright fabrications concocted with his collaborator Rustichello of Pisa) who painted an influential and unusually sympathetic portrait of the much-feared Mongols. Bergreen follows Polo's disjointed commentary on everything from Chinese tax policy to asbestos manufacturing, crocodile hunting and Asian sexual mores — Polo was especially taken with the practice of sharing one's wife with passing travelers — while deftly glossing it with scholarship. Less convincing is Bergreen's attempt to add depth to Polo's 'lurid taste and over-heated imagination' by portraying him as both a prophet of globalization and a 'pilgrim and explorer of the spirit.' Polo's spiritual trek didn't take him very far, since he ended his days back in Venice as a greedy, litigious merchant. Still, the result is a long, strange, illuminating trip. 16 pages of photos, 3 maps. (Oct. 25)' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Of all the travelogues ever published, none is more ambitious, controversial and erratic than Marco Polo's 'Description of the World.' During the century after it was written, it appeared in some 120 manuscripts, none of them identical. It is riddled with legends and half-truths. Its chronology is haphazard, its personal history unsubstantiated. It is full of wonders later revealed to be true and... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) others that remain absurd. Even now, it is probably incomplete. In Polo's lifetime, children are said to have followed him through the alleys of Venice chanting, 'Messer Marco, tell us another lie!' In 'Marco Polo,' Laurence Bergreen gives a full-blooded rendition of Polo's astonishing journey. It is richly researched and vividly conveyed. He has, by his own account, tinkered a little with chronology and has adopted — and seems to believe — the longest and most personal of the many narrative versions. Polo's journey rings with the wonder of a suddenly revealed East. The callow young Venetian, who left Europe with his father and uncle in 1271, crossed the breadth of Asia to arrive at the astonishing court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of a newly conquered China. For 17 years, Polo says, he served here as a special emissary. His portrait of Kublai Khan's world is at once reverential and intimate. He evokes not only the palaces of marble and cane in Cambulac, later known as Beijing, and the routine luxury and etiquette of court life, but also the emperor's fiscal policy and use of paper money, his pantheistic faith (he contemplated including Jesus), his wardrobe, his mail service, his feasts, his harem. Polo gives valuable pages on Mongol history, the failed invasion of Japan and the superb Sung dynasty capital of Hangzhou, redolent of an older China. In accounts of the remoter regions of the empire, even of Africa, Polo's record grows fantastical: Tibetan astrologers conjure tempests and thunderbolts, the 'grifon bird' carries off elephants and drops them to be smashed on the ground before consuming them. Almost inevitably, Bergreen's book is less a true biography than a sumptuous retelling of this great narrative, bulked out with the fruits of much research and some overblown speculation. The author's efforts to trace a formal development in the narrative — a spiritual or erotic journey — are heavily strained. Of Polo's encounter with Buddhism, Bergreen writes, 'All the glorious battles and alluring concubines on which he had lavished attention fade in significance before the spiritual journey unfolding before him and his newest, and greatest, discovery: himself.' But this is a modern preoccupation. The truth is that we know almost nothing of Polo's inner feelings. His prose is generally sparse and terse. He was bent on giving information about the world. What may be inferred about him from his 'Description' is neither complex nor flattering. He was sharply observant but naive and grossly egotistical. ('This noble youth,' he writes of himself, 'seemed to have divine rather than human understanding.') But his account was dictated in a Genoese jail to a fellow prisoner and hack romancer named Rustichello, and some of its embellishments may not be his own. At least one noted Sinologist has shed serious doubt on whether Marco Polo went to China at all. 'For seventeen years, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan participated in a most unusual partnership as master and servant, teacher and disciple, and even father and son,' writes Bergreen. Yet there is no record in the Chinese annals of any such person existing, let alone of his presence at the siege of a Chinese city whose capture he claims to have effected. Here Polo has become the victim of his own self-aggrandizement. He laid boastful claim, it seems, to roles he never enjoyed. But for all its bombast and occasional lies, the detailed intelligence of his 'Description of the World' has persuaded most scholars of its essential truth: a masterpiece to which Bergreen's book bears opulent and enthusiastic witness. Colin Thubron is a travel writer and novelist whose latest work is 'Shadow of the Silk Road.'" Reviewed by Colin Thubron, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"With his polished, authoritative storytelling, Bergreen makes the world of Marco Polo very pertinent." Entertainment Weekly
"Fascinating....A constant surprise and delight." The Plain Dealer
"[An] exciting reconstruction of the extraordinary life of Marco Polo...impressively researched and deftly composed." Booklist
"This is an enthusiastic retelling of Marco Polo's timeless story. Laurence Bergreen draws from a broad range of the surviving Polo manuscripts to create a convincing portrait of how Marco was able to get to thirteenth century China, and of what he saw, felt and did when he got there. Readers unfamiliar with Polo's adventures will find much pleasure here." Jonathan Spence, author of Emperor of China
"At last! Marco Polo comes to life! Laurence Bergreen, perhaps America's liveliest biographer, has created a triumph of fascinations, a classic portrait that now surely can never be bettered." Simon Winchester, author of The Map That Changed the World
"Bergreen...turned his attention to ancient explorers with Over the Edge of the World, which tracked Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe. I was a fan of that book, but Marco Polo far outshines it, and not surprisingly. Marco Polo, unlike Magellan, left his biographers a masterpiece of a memoir to work with." New York Times
"Bergreen has put together a coherent and engrossing chronological commentary....His narrative moves fluidly and includes much interesting information, without getting bogged down in excessive detail." Los Angeles Times
"[A] new take on Polo, a postmodern re-imagining that brings him to the land of the Mongols as a European and then follows him back home a quarter of a century later to Venice as a quasi-Asian. This refashioning of his hero makes for fascinating reading." Providence Journal
Book News Annotation:
For this account of the fascinating life and Silk Road travels of Marco Polo (1254-1323?), Bergreen (Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe) retraced the Venetian merchant's route across Mongolia and China and drew on original sources in several languages. He also addresses the issues of how much of Polo's Travels is factual and its influence on Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" poem. Maps and color illustrations complement the biography. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In this authoritative biography of one of the most fascinating figures in world history, Marco Polo's incredible odyssey — along the Silk Road and through all the fantastic circumstances of his life — is chronicled in sumptuous and illuminating detail. Illustrated.
About the Author
Laurence Bergreen is the prize-winning author of Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, as well as James Agee: A Life; Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life; Capone: The Man and the Era; and As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, each considered the definitive work on its subject. A graduate of Harvard University, he lives in New York City. As part of the research for this book, he traveled Marco Polo's route across Mongolia and China.
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