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1. The Traveller’s Museum

They say that he came home a rich man and was able to buy himself a house overlooking a Venetian canal.  It had a chequerboard floor in the hallway, a flight of stairs that curled in both directions at the first landing, and a mirror that he had brought home from his travels, the largest the Venetians had ever seen – it was 8 inches across – and had magical properties, because when you looked inside it you saw the staircase doubled and quadrupled.  But he couldn’t settle to Venetian life.  On autumn nights he was haunted by a wind that blew from the east across the lagoon’s cold waters. And so one day he opened up his trunk and took out all his treasures – because how else was he to console himself?  –  and laid out his own museum.

These were the treasures that he brought back from his travels and that he laid out in his museum:

  • the golden passport given to him by the Great Khan to keep him safe on his travels.
  • a compass – it was no more than a magnetised needle in a jade box with a crystal lid to cover it – but it was the only one in the whole of Italy.
  • the map he had taken with him all those years ago of the animals he might meet on his journey.  It had been illustrated hopefully with crocodiles, giraffes, unicorns and a dragon.
  • a suit of Mongol armour, made from tiny metal squares sewn onto animal skins, which they had given to him the first time he went into battle – to the sounds of much laughter.
  • a pinch of gunpowder.
  • two wolf-skin robes, given to him by the Great Khan, who had slept under them in his youth on the freezing steppes.
  • the dead child’s kaftan – they had buried him in Qinsai, the old capital of the Song, in one of his two best kaftans.  The other he had brought home with him.
  • an Arabic translation of the Old Master Aristotle and another of the Iliad, which he had bought in the Book Bazaar in Samarkand. In the margin of the Iliad was a rare fragment of the old Greek poet Sappho, dead by now a thousand years although he didn’t know it.
  • bolts of Chinese silk, woven with cloudy images of gorges and wooded mountains.
  • a length of salamander cloth that had been made from threads mined from deep within the mountains of the Sun on the borders of Cathay, and then strengthened by being thrown into the heart of a fire.
  • and an umbrella made of painted silk and paper and with a mechanism to open it that would not be seen in the West for another two hundred years.

It was the umbrella that caused him most pain.  Even now as he fingered it he saw the ghost of the girl whom he had first seen boating on the lake in the old capital of the Song.  It was she whose fingers first slipped the catch and, as she raised her chin, saw the paper petals springing outwards and a shower of painted blossom falling earthwards.

But it was in his heart that the blossom fell, in a sharp rain just sweet enough that it didn’t kill him – and ensured the umbrella’s survival.  For Marco Polo was heartsick and so brought the umbrella home to Venice – which we know because it is mentioned in his will:  It.em: Umbrello doro con piere & perle –  and laid it out in his museum to ease the ache in his heart, even though – or perhaps especially – because the girl was dead.