- The Book’s Two Fathers: Marco Polo, Rustichello da Pisa, and Le Devisement du Monde
Le Devisement du monde of Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa owes an immense debt to trade, on many levels. Patently, Marco traveled to Asia in the first place because the Polos were merchants, so that in the very broadest sense trade is the founder of the feast that is his book. But trade, both literal and figurative, plays two much more detailed and less evident roles in creating the book (or books) of Marco Polo that we have today. This essay will argue that trade in the figurative sense of cultural exchange, mediation, and influence accounts for the very shape of the book, which was composed in the French of Italy in close collaboration with Rustichello da Pisa, a writer of chivalric romance. Everyone who studies Marco Polo acknowledges that Rustichello’s fiction-writing techniques and habits show up in the book, but critics writing in English tend to stop with a very few observations that are repeated faithfully from one study to another. I aim to go beyond these, using the episode of how the Great Khan crushed a rebellion, to show what Marco really owes to Rustichello.
I will then argue that trade in the literal sense of commercial ambition, initiative, and activity accounts for the very genesis of the book, as well as for its suspension; it is unfinished. Everyone who studies the book also acknowledges that literal trade accounts for its content, and in at least half of its chapters dictates the template that organizes that content.1 But trade is rarely connected to the critical question not of what kind of book they were writing, but of why Marco wanted to create the book in the first place. It is impossible to overstate how very unprecedented the book is, how odd and unobvious a collage of treatise, merchant manual, and romance.2 I will close by examining what might have motivated such a novel initiative as writing a hybrid book describing distant Asia, and offering a hypothesis for Marco Polo’s purpose. [End Page 69]
An Uncertain Artifact, an Uncertain Collaboration
Despite its enormous fame and influence, among moderns the book of Marco and Rustichello is more known about than known. Its textual tradition is singularly complicated, and its narrative program singularly novel. I will briefly recapitulate the book and its contents in order to discuss how the two fathers’ contributions inform and pervade each other.
The first nineteen chapters tell us that in 1260 Marco Polo’s father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo traveled to the court of the Great Khan and won his favor. They stayed there for some time, and in 1268 returned to the West. They carried with them the Khan’s request to the pope to send 100 Christian clergy able to preach the Gospel and convert his people—as well as his request for some oil from the lamp burning in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The hundred priests were not forthcoming, because of a three-year vacancy in the papacy and a certain reticence on the part of unadventuresome ecclesiastics to go that far east over dangerous terrain. But in 1271 the Polos returned with the Holy Oil and with Niccolò’s son Marco, then seventeen years old. The book tells us that Marco’s many qualities—especially his gift for languages and his shrewd understanding that the Great Khan craved information about his vast empire when he sent messengers abroad in it—gave him a high value in the Khan’s bureaucracy, where he served the Khan faithfully for seventeen years. He returned to the West in 1295, and the prologue says that in 1298, in a Genoese prison with Rustichello, a writer of romances, Marco decided he had an obligation to share his knowledge with those who had never traveled to Asia.3
The fact that the prologue dates the book’s genesis so precisely is unusual in itself. But here the uncertainties around the book begin, as John Larner summarizes them:
Who is the man? What is his book? Is it his book? What is its...