Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

4. How the objects lost their stories

23rd September 2012

After the old man died the first thing that happened was that the stories got muddled up.  Some became attached to the wrong objects; others vanished altogether. The old man had foreseen this danger, and in the last months of his life had taken to buttonholing his grandchildren and trying to impart to them everything he knew.  But he had left it too late, his voice had grown weak and mumbly, and the children had no patience for listening.

Within a few years of his death they had forgotten what the golden passport said, the story behind the wolf-skin robes, and in which direction the compass pointed (the lettering was in Chinese).  An object without a story is on its way to bric-a-brac and dust. One day the smallest grandson took the compass out into the street to play with it and then dropped it in the canal and never dared confess.

The umbrella and the kaftan meanwhile had both lost their stories – they had died with the old man who could never bring himself to utter them.  And so no one knew that the child who had worn the kaftan had had blue-black hair like a bird’s feathers (he got that from his mother) and the wide-eyed look of the westerners (he got that from his father) and that when it rained he had liked to take giant steps from puddle to puddle although he was only four.

Not long after this the Polo family fell upon hard times – and so they melted down the golden passport for money, and sold the salamander cloth to an up and coming merchant.  The gunpowder was frittered away in small boys’ explosions. The wolf-skin robe was left out for the children to play with until it grew too threadbare to be comfortable.  The umbrella, the kaftan, the Mongol armour, a bolt of silk and both the books, one with the map folded inside it – all this was packed away inside a trunk and left in the corner of the room to be forgotten.

Meanwhile the old man’s extravagant stories, which had been written down and passed from hand to hand the length and breadth of Italy, now began to blow back on the wind in ever more fantastical forms.  But as the Polo family said, ‘There’s no money to be made in stories.’