Monday, October 19, 2009 10/19/09 - marco polo and the renaissance

In today's excerpt - the Renaissance in
Europe owed a tremendous debt to the
inventions that Marco Polo (1254-1324), his
father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo brought
back to Venice from their twenty four years
of travel in China:

"[Upon their return from China], the three
Polos received respect
from their fellow citizens, with Marco singled
out for special attention. 'All the young men
went every day continuously to visit and
converse with Messer Marco,' Giambattista
Ramusio claimed.
'who was most charming and gracious, and to
ask of him matters concerning Cathay (China)
and the Great Khan, and he responded with so much
kindness that all felt themselves to be in a
certain manner indebted to

"It is easy to understand why Marco attracted
notice. The significance of the inventions
that he brought back from China, or which he
later described in his Travels, cannot be
overstated. At first, Europeans
regarded these technological marvels with
disbelief, but eventually
they adopted them.

"Paper money, virtually unknown in the West
until Marco's return,
revolutionized finance and commerce
throughout the West.

"Coal, another item that had caught Marco's
attention in China,
provided a new and relatively efficient
source of heat to an energy-starved

"Eyeglasses (in the form of ground lenses),
which some accounts say
he brought back with him, became accepted as
a remedy for failing
eyesight. In addition, lenses gave rise to
the telescope - which in turn
revolutionized naval battles, since it
allowed combatants to view ships
at a great distance - and the microscope. Two
hundred years later,
Galileo used the telescope - based on the
same technology - to
revolutionize science and cosmology by
supporting and disseminating the
Copernican theory that Earth and other
planets revolved around the

"Gunpowder, which the Chinese had employed
for at least three
centuries, revolutionized European warfare as
armies exchanged their
lances, swords, and crossbows for cannon,
portable harquebuses, and

"Marco brought back gifts of a more personal
nature as well. The
golden paiza, or passport, given to him by
Kublai Khan had seen him
through years of travel, war, and hardship.
Marco kept it still, and
would to the end of his days. He also brought
back a Mongol servant,
whom he named Peter, a living reminder of the
status he had once
enjoyed in a far-off land.

"In all, it is difficult to imagine the
Renaissance - or, for that matter,
the modern world - without the benefit of
Marco Polo's example of
cultural transmission between East and

Laurence Bergreen, Marco Polo, Knopf,
Copyright 2007 by Laurence Bergreen, pp. 320-321.


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