They say that when he first came home, dressed as he was in Mongol robes and with his hair done up in a Mongol pigtail, the customs men refused to believe he was Venetian and demanded the right to search him like a common criminal. He named his cousins, he said that they would vouch for him, but the cousins, when summoned to the landing stage on that fine summer’s day, all shook their heads and said that they doubted that this could be Marco. Marco, they said, had been taller, shorter, lighter, darker. An argument ensued, the stranger raised his voice, the Polos took offence and in the confusion the customs men searched his bags anyway and pulled out the following items and held them up to the crowd who by now had gathered –
- The golden passport given to Marco Polo 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 customs men looked baffled.)
- 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. (‘Don’t sniff it,’ advised Marco Polo.)
- 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 no one in that crowd could read classical Greek nor identify the poet.
- 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 the most pain. When the custom men picked it up he leapt forward in alarm and they had to hold him back. ‘Be careful of it,’ he begged, because in his mind’s eye he could see the ghost of the girl whom he had first met boating on the lake in the old capital of the Song.
It was she whose fingers had first slipped the catch, making the paper petals spring outwards and a shower of painted blossom fall towards the earth – but it was in his heart that the blossom fell, in a sharp rain just sweet enough that it didn’t kill him – and thus ensured the umbrella’s survival. Because afterwards Marco Polo had been heartsick and so had brought the umbrella home to Venice – which we know because it is mentioned in his will: It.em: Umbrello doro con piere & perle – in order to ease the ache in his heart, even though – or perhaps especially – because the girl was dead.
ii. All his life he had been telling stories. First to the Great Khan in his summer tents out on the steppes. Then to the children of Venice in those first hard years when he had come home to find himself forgotten. And then to his Genoese jailors after the ill-fated Battle of Curzola. But compared to all these audiences she was by far the trickiest.
Soon after he came home he grew prosperous by trading on the rubies that the Great Khan had given him. He bought himself a house that fronted onto the Campo. It had a water gate at one side, a lower hall with a fine flight of steps supported on pillars that went up to the upper hallway, a reception room with chequerboard flooring, and even 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.
Donata was a merchant’s daughter, and Venetian through and through – bossy and bosomy and with a tongue like a fishwife’s, although loyal to death once you were hers. The feeling in the town was that he had gained more from the marriage than she did – but she had been determined to marry him and did so against all her family’s best advice. (Each of her three brothers had taken her by the hand and begged her to rethink.) From the day they married she terrorised his suppliers, fought with his creditors, and cooked for him like an angel. She made him sardines with raisins, pine nuts and spices; soft crabs from out of the lagoon and cuttlefish cooked in their own ink; grilled cockerel, stuffed duck and eels roasted with bay leaves; pumpkin doughnuts; and rosolio made from ground rose petals spiced with cinnamon and coriander.
Donata had no time for poetry and not much time for fashion, and seemed (despite the choice she’d made) mightily unimpressed by him, and so it was all the more surprising that on cold winter nights, when they lay together in the big double bed, dressed in the wolf-skin robes, courtesy of the Khan, and with bed socks and night caps as well, she would stretch out her hand across the double bed, which was as wide as the Silk Road, and say, ‘Tell me a story.’ And then he would start to talk – and talk – and sometimes fall asleep in mid-story, waking to find it daylight and the first rays of the sun shafting through the mists and turning them into heaps of vaporous-looking laundry – whilst downstairs in the kitchen he could hear Donata dishing out the grief to the scullery girls.
They had one, two, three girls in quick succession, named them Fantina, Bellela and Moreta, but Marco Polo couldn’t settle – he suffered terribly from restlessness, especially on autumn nights when he was haunted by a wind that blew from the east across the lagoon’s cold waters… and so, after the third child was born, he spent his money equipping a galleon and went into battle with 40 Venetian sailors, during the war between Venice and Genoa. But Genoa won and Venice lost and Marco Polo was taken prisoner and thrown into a Genoese jail where he passed a year or more, kicking his heels and entertaining his fellow prisoners with stories of his travels and thus honing his story-telling techniques. A story has no shape until you gave it one. And so you learn to turn it over and over in your mind, finding the angle from which it shines out most seductively.
There was an Italian from Pisa in this same gaol, a man called Rustichello, who listened and scribbled and listened and scribbled. But Marco Polo took no notice.
And then, after a year or so, they let him go and so he came home by twilight, crossing the silvery lagoon and sliding by the city’s usual sleight of hand into her secret crevices. (They were taking the back canals as befitted a disgraced prisoner.) The boat brought him to his water gate, from where he crossed the lower courtyard and so to his own front door.
Three children played in the upper hall. They looked up at him uncertainly as he shed his heavy travelling cloak. Delight crowded into their faces but just as they jumped to their feet their mother swept into the room. They sensed the gathering storm and shrank back into the lee of her skirts. Moreta stood on one leg like a stork. ‘You idiot,’ said Donata, ‘You absolute fool,’ and it was a full week before she had melted enough to reach out over the double bed and ask him to tell her a story.
But he was glad to be home. And his stories were better than ever.
(c) Words by Rachel Morris, Images by Isabel Greenberg