Marco Polo is the most famous Venetian merchant of the Polo family from the 13th century, due to his travels through the Mongolian Empire and his subsequent book about what he witnessed during his adventure. Marco Polo, however, was ironically not the first member of the Polo family to meet Kublai Khan. Nor was he the second. Actually, Marco’s father, Niccolò, and uncle, Maffeo, both received audiences with the Mongol ruler many, many years before Marco Polo ever laid eyes on the khan.
Niccolò and Maffeo Polo can be placed in the vicinity of Constantinople around the year 1260, the same year that Kublai ascended to his position as Great Khan. After leaving young Marco (born 1254) behind in Venice, the Polo brothers sailed to the Black Sea region on a trading mission concerning jewels. While there, Niccolò and Maffeo disembarked in Crimea and stumbled into a tense political environment between two Mongolian-created states: the Golden Horde led by Berke Khan (r. 1257-1267), and the Ilkhanate commanded by Hülegü (r. 1256-1265). When war broke out between Berke and Hülegü in 1262, Niccolò and Maffeo were still present in Mongol-controlled lands and found it impossible to return to the Mediterranean. They stayed hunkered down for years, until they were able to attach themselves to a party of ambassadors in 1266; this group of envoys brought Niccolò and Maffeo to Kublai Khan, who allowed the merchants to return home in exchange for their agreement to deliver a message to the pope in Rome. The long-delayed brothers only returned to Venice in 1269, reuniting with Marco after just shy of a decade’s absence.
Marco Polo only became involved in the story in 1271, when he joined Niccolò and Maffeo on their next great adventure to the east. The trio reached Kublai’s court in 1275 and remained in Mongolian lands much longer this time than in the Polo brothers’ previous odyssey. Niccolò, Maffeo and Marco Polo would not return to Venice until 1295.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Mosaic of Marco Polo, at the Municipal Palace of Genoa- Palazzo Grimaldi Doria-Tursi, dated c. 1867, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Travels by Marco Polo and translated by Nigel Cliff. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.