Marco Polo’s Influence on Christopher Columbus
Marco Polo’s Travels formulated in Europe of the fourteenth and fifteenth century a new perception of the Eastern world, a world just as advanced and sophisticated as that of the West. Yet, another two centuries were needed for a significant change to take place; this was Christopher Columbus’ voyage. For Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo’s travelogue was a valuable and solid resource that contained the necessary details of the East. The geographical descriptions in his writing generated a basis for Columbus’ scientific calculations for his expedition and the explicit depictions of the luxury of Cipangu and Cathay, flawed though they were, created a strong motivation for Columbus.
In the 12th of May 1492, Christopher Columbus, accompanied by the writings of Marco Polo, sets sail to change history forever.
Marco Polo’s travelogue was the only written account to have enlightened the European world with details of the Eastern world. In the year 1254, when Marco Polo was born in a noble family of Venice, the public knowledge of the East was close to nothing.
Ever since the years of Alexander the Great, Europe had scarce information about its neighboring civilization. Although basic trade routes were present along the Silk Road, “no one in the West seems to have had any notion of the country from which it had come or those through which it had passed.” Islamic countries that surrounded Europe, along with the Atlantic Ocean created a natural barrier, isolating the Europeans from the rest of the world.
Even the vigorous merchants of Venice, Genoa, and Constantinople could not penetrate beyond the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. “The religion and commerce of Islam were flourishing throughout that continent” after the first Crusades. Due to this strong “Islamic curtain”, the Europeans were unaware of the existence of the Mongol empire gradually rising as one of the world superpowers until Marco Polo came back with fascinating stories after his service under the Great Khan.
The seventeen years of service under Kublai Khan safely and conveniently provided Marco with a wide range of experiences in the Asian continent. The Polo brothers, Maffeo and Nicolo Polo (father and uncle of Marco Polo) had initially met with the Khan some years before they took Marco on their second journey to China.
Let me tell you next of the personal appearance of the Great Lord of Lords whose name is Kubilai Khan. He is a man of good stature, neither short nor tall but of moderate height. His limbs are well fleshed out and modeled in due proportion. His complexion is fair and ruddy like a rose, the eyes black and handsome, the nose shapely and set squarely in place.
The Khan was a wise and brave man, and Marco being a master four languages and young and healthy as he was, the Khan appointed him to a high post in the administration. Marco was given a golden tablet in the shape of a tiger’s head, “which grated Ch’ang Ch’un a free pass and the right of assistance everywhere in the Mongol Realm.” With sufficient access, Marco was able to visit various places in Asia and gained an abundant amount of experience with its culture. He illustrates the geography, climate, people, and religions of the East in depth, even mentioning the recipe of Mongolian dried milk.
Marco Polo’s achievements were only completed after his return home, when encounters Rustichello of Pisa, a romance writer who became his collaborator in putting his stories into a book. Two years before the death of Kublai Khan, the Polos were assigned their last mission to escort the Mongol princess Kokachin to marry the Persian prince, and then to return home. Painstakingly, they accomplished their mission and arrived home in the winter of 1295. Marco begins a new life with the jewels and gold acquired in his journey. When a war between Venice and Genoa starts off, Marco is captured and imprisoned for a year in the Genoese prison. Here he meets Rustichello, to whom Marco tells the stories of his great journey. After his return home, Marco, although Rustichello did most of the work, publishes his travelogue: Marco Polo Travels.
Marco’s book remained more for entertainment purposes until the 1450s and 60s when Johann Gutenberg invents the letterpress and catalyzes its spread. At first, many people were skeptical about his book. His writing contained many mentions of legends and myths that seemed to be quite exaggerated. Neither did Marco include any descriptions about the Great Wall. Regardless of these controversies, his book became one of the first books to be massively published through the Gutenberg’s letterpress. Travels spreads out through Europe in no time. By the time all of Europe is shocked by his book, Marco approaches his death, leaving the last words: “I have only told the half of what I saw!” Whether or not Marco’s words were reliable was not an issue at this point.
In the years following Marco’s death, immense changes occurred in the minds of Europeans including the perception of world geography, directly affecting Columbus’ preparations. The TO map best represents the medieval understanding of the world. (Diagram attached to the back) The circle O, represents the world and the branches of the T, the Don and the Nile. Asia fills the upper semi circle and in the left and right of the upright section of the T, which represents the Mediterranean, lays Africa and Europe. In the center is Jerusalem and at the top is Earthly Paradise of Adam and Eve, believed at the time to be the source of great rivers such as the Tigris and the Euphrates. Images of Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, and others of the bible can be found on the map. As presented, the TO map signifies the primitive form of the world map before the years of Marco Polo.
The world map rapidly evolved starting from the publishing of Marco’s book to the time of Columbus. The impact of Marco Polo’s works is displayed in these maps. Among the numerous versions of different maps, “the first maps known to us… strongly influenced by Marco’s Books and which still remain to …[is]… the Catalan Atlas,” drawn up by the Majorcan Jew Abraham Cresques at around 1380. Here is introduced for the first time, India, in the form of a peninsula and images and lands of the Great Khan. The map also includes on it images of traditional legends of the area. Great resemblance can be found between them and those of Marco’s book. Representations of the world grew bigger and wider until finally, even the notion of a path westward to Asia is brought up.
When the impact of Marco Polo started to take place, a physician of Florence by the name of Paolo Toscanelli, played the role of transforming the ideas of Marco Polo into the scientific inspirations for Christopher Columbus. Toscanelli was one of Marco Polo’s believers, who supported Marco Polo’s estimate of the length of Asia to be correct. He argued that, according to his calculations, “a voyage of 3000miles from Lisbon to Cipangu and 500miles from Lisbon to Quinsay” was possible. With this calculation, he urged men that an expedition for the search of Japan, described as the “most fertile in gold,” should be organized.
Among these men was the young and ambitious Christopher Columbus. The theories of Toscanelli stimulated the intellectual interest of Columbus and soon Columbus was determined to find out more. Columbus wrote Toscanelli questioning him for more comprehensive information. Toscanelli replied with an encouragement of Columbus’ aspirations and a chart of calculations, which he carried with him on his voyage. By this time, Columbus was determined to put his thoughts into action.
Although Columbus’ calculations were carefully made, most of it was erroneous. One of his major calculations was his misconception of a degree. He thought the length of a degree was 562/3 Italian nautical miles. (“the Italian nautical mile used by Columbus contained 1480 meters” ) This was not his own idea, but of the general public of his time. According to Henry Vignaud, he obtained his results “because he knew in advance what he wanted to find.” Based on his degree and other elements including the calculations of Toscanelli, Columbus’ conclusion came out to be far from the truth.
It came out that Tokyo would be on the meridian that runs through Western Cuba, Chattanooga, Grand Rapids, and Western Ontario. In other words, “he underestimated the size of the world by 25 percent.” Yet, until his actual departure, he had no clue whatsoever of his mistakes or of the American continent. Marco Polo had provided Columbus with crucial information of the East, but Columbus had not known that there were so many more things to consider, such as the existence of another world in the West.
Fifteenth century Europe was an age of exploration and discovery; interest of the Eastern world was increasing rapidly everyday. Trade with the Indies, which referred to most of Eastern Asia, flourished during the time of Columbus, especially in Portugal and Spain where spent most of his life. “The account of Polo’s travels told how to buy spices from the East,” and other goods such as silk, gold, silver, or perfumes were also taken by caravans across Asia to Constantinople and then redistributed through Europe. Although the price was costly due to long and burdensome process of shipping and handling, the demand for these merchandises continued to rise as the amount of luxury and wealth of Europe also increased.
Thus, it was soon evident for a new and shorter route for the importing of these valuables. Repeated attempts were made to get around Africa to India. Columbus, however, “decided that the African route was the hard way to the Indies.” He was thinking of an easier and quicker way to reach the East; he proposed to travel west. His rather rash plot satisfied the desires for expansion of the people of his time.
After Columbus made up his mind, his next task was to convince the wealthy Princes to provide the necessary equipment and money for his expedition. Unfortunately, Columbus was turned down in the Portuguese committee, where he had gained a certain level of respect as a merchant. He, then moved to Spain, and started his six years of persuasion. It was hard for Columbus to support with solid evidence his requests at first. He, thus, turned to Marco Polo.
Columbus used the tempting descriptions of the Cipangu, or today’s Japan, for his first argument against the princes. By the time of Columbus, “The Travels of Marco Polo became one of the best-known tales in western Europe.” One of the biggest issues of Marco Polo’s book was whether or not its magnificent portrayal of Japan’s luxury was true. According to Marco Polo, wealth of no other civilization matched that of the Japanese.
They have gold in great abundance, because it is found there in measureless quantities…so much indeed that I can report to you in sober truth a veritable marvel concerning a certain palace of the ruler of the island. You may take it for a fact that he has a very large palace entirely roofed with find gold. Just as we roof our houses or churches with lead, so this palace is roofed with fine gold.
Even the most stubborn princes gazed open-mouthed at the imagination of such luxury. Certainly, the search for Cipangu sounded much more convincing after such descriptions.
Another part of Columbus’ argument was based on religious reasoning. The failure of the Crusades was a huge disgrace for the Christian ruling class of Europe and many attempts to regain control of the Holy Land, which was then occupied by the Turks, were made. The Mongol empire, which the Europeans still believed to exist way after its actual downfall, sounded like a strategically profitable deal. Horrific impressions faded away as benevolent descriptions of Kublai Khan and the rest of his subjects were made in Marco Polo’s book.
Now let me tell you something of the bounties that the Great Khan confers upon his subjects. For all his thoughts are directed towards helping the people who are subject to him, so that they may live and labor and increase their wealth.
Likewise, Europeans were shocked at the incredibly civilized qualities of the Mongols they previously considered barbaric. In 1492, after six years of tenacious persuasion, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain finally accept Columbus’ proposal. The end to Columbus’ persuasion of princes only brings forth about a new beginning of an arduous journey of exploration and a new world.
Marco Polo’s Travels acted as a basis for Christopher Columbus’s achievement and the Age of Discovery. Columbus may have formulated a flawed theory of the world, but it was convincing enough for the princes who bought into it. This surely could not have been done without evidence found in Marco Polo’s book. Without Marco Polo, there would not have been Columbus, and furthermore, no America. Marco Polo’s possibly false information has made one of the biggest changes in history.
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