This illustration accompanied a manuscript of Il Milione (Mr. Million), otherwise known as The Description of the World or The Travels. The author of the book, Marco Polo, is depicted on the left side of the image, with bent knee and hand extended. He, along with his father and uncle, set out on a journey to the east in 1271 and reached the court of the Mongol ruler, Khubilai Khan, in 1275. Marco Polo first encountered the Great Khan at the leader’s summer residence of Shangdu (northern/former capital), a place which has erroneously been popularized as Xanadu in the English language, due to the influence of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Marco Polo described Shangdu in his book:
“And in this city [of Shangdu] Khubilai Khan had a vast palace built of marble and other ornamental stones. Its halls and rooms are covered with gilded images of birds and animals, trees and flowers and many other things, so skillfully and ingeniously worked that it is a delight and wonder to see. The whole building is richly decorated and quite astonishingly beautiful. It extends from the centre of the city to the city walls. Here, facing the palace, another wall runs out from one side of the palace abutting the city walls and goes round to join the other side, enclosing a good sixteen miles of land replete with springs, rivers and lawns in such a way that the park can only be entered by going through the palace. Here the Great Khan keeps all kinds of animals, such as harts, stags and roebucks, to provide food for the gerfalcons and falcons that he keeps in mew here” (The Travels, Book 2).
The scene of Marco Polo and his family being received by the Great Khan upon their entrance into this impressive city is what the medieval illustrator of the artwork above tried to channel in his illustration. As the artist was more familiar with European fashion and architecture, he imaged Khubilai Khan wearing Western-styled clothes and sitting in a European-styled court.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Travels by Marco Polo and translated by Nigel Cliff. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.