Mrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant.

The makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters online

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to renew their acquaintance with all their ancient friends
and associations, for months went by and still no Pope
was elected, nor does there seem to have been any
ecclesiastical authority to whom they could deliver their
letters. Probably, in that time, any enthusiasm the two
traders may have had for the great work of converting
those wild and wonderful regions of the East had died
away. Indeed, the project does not seem to have moved
anyone, save to a passing wonder; and all ecclesiastical
enterprises were apparently suspended while conclave
after conclave assembled and no result was attained.

At length the brothers began to tire of inaction, and
to remember that through all those years of silence
Kublai Khan was looking for them, wondering perhaps
what delayed their coming, perhaps believing that their
return home had driven all their promises from their


memory, and that they had forgotten him and his
evangelical desires. Stirred by this thought, they deter-
mined at last to return to their prince, and setting out,
accompanied by young Marco, Niccolo's son, they went
to Acre, where they betook themselves once more to the
pious legate, Tebaldo di Piacenza, whom they had con-
sulted on their arrival. They first asked his leave to go
to Jerusalem to fetch the oil from the holy lamp, the
only one of the Great Khan's commissions which it
seemed possible to carry out; and then, with some fear
apparently that their word might not be believed, asked
him to give them letters, certifying that they had done
their best to fulfill their errand, and had failed only in
consequence of the strange fact that there was no Pope
to whom their letters could be delivered. Provided with
these testimonials they started on their long journey,
but had only got as far as Lagos, on the coast of the
then kingdom of Armenia, which was their point of en-
trance upon the wild and immense plains which they had
to traverse, when the news followed them that the Pope
was at last elected, and was no other than their friend,
the legate Tebaldo. A messenger, requesting their re-
turn to Acre, soon followed, and the brothers and young
Marco returned with new hopes of a successful issue to
their mission. But the new Pope, Gregory X., though
he received them with honor and great friendship,
had not apparently a hundred wise men to give them,
nor the means of sending out a little Christian army
to the conquest of heathenism. All that he could do
for them was to send with them two brothers of the
order of St. Dominic, frati predicatori, to do what they
could toward that vast work. But when the Dominicans
heard that war had broken out in Armenia, and that they
had to encounter not only a fatiguing journey but all the
perils of perpetual fighting along their route, they went
no further than that port of Lagos beyond which lay
the unknown. The letters of privilege indulgences, no
doubt, and grants of papal favor to be distributed among
the Tartar multitude they transferred hastily to the
sturdy merchants, who were used to fighting as to most
other dangerous things, and had no fear, and ignomin-
iously took their flight back to the accustomed and


It is extraordinary, looking back upon it, to think of
the easy relinquishment of such a wonderful chance as
this would seem to have been. Pope and priests were
all occupied with their own affairs. It was of more
importance in their eyes to quell the Ghibellines than to
convert and civilize the Tartars. And perhaps, consider-
ing that even an infallible Pope is but a man, this was
less wonderful than it appears; for Kublai Khan was a
long way off, and very dim and undiscernible in his
unknown steppes and strange primeval cities whereas
the emperor and his supporters were close at hand, and
very sensible thorns in consecrated fle,sh. It seems
somewhat extraordinary, however, that no young monk or
eager preacher caught fire at the suggestion of such an
undertaking. Some fifty years before Fra Francisco
from Assisi, leaving his new order and all its cares,
insisted upon being sent to the Soldan to see whether he
could not forestall the Crusaders and make all the world
one, by converting that noble infidel which seemed to
him the straightforward and simple thing to do. If
Francis had but been there with his poor brothers, vowed
to every humiliation, the lovers of poverty, what a mis-
sion for them! a crusade of the finest kind, with every
augury of success, though all the horrors of the steppes,
wild winters and blazing summers, and swollen streams
and fighting tribes, lay in their way. And had the hun-
dred wise men ever been gathered together, what a pil-
grimage for minstrel to celebrate and story-teller to
write; a new expedition of the saints, a holier Israel in
the desert! But nothing of the kind came about. The
two papal envoys, who had been the first to throw light
upon those kingdoms beyond the desert, had no succes-
sors in the later half of the century. And with only
young Marco added to their band the merchant brothers
returned, perhaps a little ashamed of their Christian
rulers, perhaps chiefly interested about the reception
they would meet with, and whether the great Kublai
would still remember his luckless ambassadors.

The journey back occupied once more three years and
a half. It gives us a strange glimpse into the long inter-
vals of silence habitual to primitive life to find that these
messengers, without means of communicating any
information of their movements to their royal patron,


were more than eight years altogether absent on the
mission from which they returned with so little success.
In our own days their very existence would probably
have been forgotten in such a long lapse of interest.
Let us hope that the holy oil from the sepulcher, the
only thing Christianity could send to the inquiring
heathen, was safely kept, in some precious bottle of
earliest glass from Murano, or polished stone less brittle
than glass, through all the dangers of the journey.

Thus the Poli disappeared again into the unknown for
many additional years. Letters were not rife anywhere
in those days, and for them, lost out of the range of
civilization, though in the midst of another full and busy
world with another civilization, art, and philosophy of
its own there was no possibility of any communication
with Venice or distant friends. It is evident that they
sat very loose to Venice; having perhaps less personal
acquaintance with the city than most of her merchant
adventurers. Niccolo and Matteo must have gone to
Constantinople while still young and Marco was but
fifteen when he left the lagoons. They had apparently
no ties of family tenderness to call them back, and cus-
tom and familiarity had made the strange world around,
and the half savage tribes, and the primitive court with
its barbaric magnificence, pleasant and interesting ta
them. It was nearly a quarter of a century before they
appeared out of the unknown again.

By that time the Casa Polo in San Crisostomo had
ceased to think of its absent members. In all likelihood
they had no very near relations left. Father and mother
would be dead long ago; the elder brother lived and died
in Constantinople: and there was no one who looked with
any warm expectation for the arrival of the strangers.
When there suddenly appeared at the gate of the great
family house, full of cousins and kinsmen, one evening in
the year 1295, about twenty-four years after their depar-
ture, three wild and travel-worn figures, in coats of coarse
homespun like those worn by the Tartars, the sheepskin
collars mingling with the long locks and beards of the
wearers, their complexions dark with exposure, their half
forgotten mother tongue a little uncertain on their lips
who could believe that these were Venetian gentlemen,
members of an important family in the city which had


forgotten them? The three unknown personages arrived
suddenly, without any warning, at their ancestral home.
One can imagine the commotion in the courtyard, the
curious gazers who would come out to the door, the heads
that would gather at every window, when it became
known through the house that these wild strangers
claimed to belong to it, to be in some degree its masters,
the long disappeared kinsmen whose portion perhaps by
this time had fallen into hands very unwilling to let it go.
The doorway which still exists in the Corte della Sab-
bionera, in the depths of the cool quadrangle, with its
arch of Byzantine work, and the cross above which every
visitor in Venice may still see when he will, behind San
Crisostomo, is, as tradition declares, the very door at
which the travelers knocked and parleyed. The house
was then according to the most authentic account we
have, that of Ramusio un bellissimo e molto alto palazzo.
Absolute authenticity it is perhaps impossible to claim for
the story. But it was told to Ramusio, who flourished in
the fifteenth century, by an old man, a distinguished citi-
zen who, and whose race, had been established for gener-
ations in the same parish in the immediate vicinity of the
Casa Polo, and who had heard it from his predecessors
there, a very trustworthy source of information. The
family was evidently well off and important, and, in all
probability, noble. "In those days," says Colonel Yule,
making with all his learning a mistake for once, "the
demarcation between patrician and non-patrician at
Venice, where all classes shared in commerce, all were
(generally speaking) of one race, and where there were
neither castles, domains, nor trains of horsemen, formed
no very wide gulf." This is an astounding statement to
make in the age of Bajamonte's great conspiracy; but as
Marco Polo is always spoken of as noble, no doubt his
family belonged to the privileged class.

The heads of the house gathered to the door to ques-
tion the strange applicants, "for, seeing them so trans-
figured in countenance and disordered in dress, they
could not believe that these were those of the Ca' Polo
who had been believed dead for so many and so many
years." The strangers had great trouble even to make
it understood who they claimed to be. " But at last
these three gentlemen conceived the plan of making a


bargain that in a certain time they should so act as to
recover their identity and the recognition of their rela-
tives, and honor from all the city." The expedient
they adopted again reads like a scene out of the " Arabian
Nights." They invited all their relatives to a great
banquet which was prepared with much magnificence
"in the same house," says the story-teller; so that it is
evident they must already have gained a certain credence
from their own nearest relations. When the hour fixed
for the banquet came, the following extraordinary scene

The three came out of their chamber dressed in long robes of crimson
satin, according to the fashion of the time, which touched the ground.
And when water had been offered for their hands, they placed their
guests at table, and then taking off their satin robes put on rich damask
of the same color, ordering in the meanwhile that the first should be
divided among the servants. Then after eating something [no doubt a
first course], they rose from table and again changed their dress, putting
on crimson velvet, and giving as before the damask robes to the servants,
and at the end of the repast they did the same with the velvet, putting on
garments of ordinary cloth such as their guests wore. The persons
invited were struck dumb with astonishment at these proceedings. And
when the servants had left the hall, Messer Marco, the youngest, rising
from the table, went into his chamber and brought out the three coarse
cloth surcoats in which they had come home. And immediately the
three began with sharp knives to cut open the seams, and tear off the
lining, upon which there poured forth a great quantity of precious stones
rubies, sapphires, carbuncles, diamonds, and emeralds which had been
sewed into each coat with great care, so that nobody could have sus-
pected that anything was there. For, on parting with the Great Khan,
they had changed all the wealth he bestowed upon them into precious
stones, knowing certainly that if they had done otherwise they never
could by so long and difficult a road have brought their property home
in safety. The exhibition of such an extraordinary and infinite treasure
of jewels and precious stones, which covered the table, once more filled
all present with such astonishment that they were dumb and almost beside
themselves with surprise; and they at once recognized these honored and
venerated gentlemen of the Ca* Polo, whom at first they had doubted,
and received them with the greatest honor and reverence. And when
the story was spread abroad in Venice, the entire city, both nobles and
people, rushed to the house to embrace them, and to make every demon-
stration of loving-kindness and respect that could be imagined. And
Messer Matteo, who was the eldest, was created one of the most honored
magistrates of the city, and all the youth of Venice resorted to the house
to visit Messer Marco, who was most humane and gracious, and to put
questions to him about Cathay and the Great Khan, to which he made
answer with so much benignity and courtesy that they all remained his
debtors. And because in the continued repetition of his story of the
grandeur of the Great Khan he stated the revenues of that prince to be
from ten to fifteen millions in gold, and counted all the other wealth of

122 -' MA

:.ain time

and tho of their rela-

r from all ' The expedient

igain read lik^ * scene out of the " Arabian

They invited all their relatives to a great

"vhich w.-ts ;.-!<-pared with much magnificence

ime house-," says the story-teller; so that it is

-. they mu*i already have gained a certain credence

their own nearest relations. When the hour fixed

;e banquet came, the following extraordinary scene


The three came out of their chamber dress.- ~>t crimson

satin, according to the fashion of the time, which touched the ground.
And when water had been offered for their hai, ! their

guests at table, ar. u 'ng off their satin rot

of the same color, ; - .r<s in the meanwhile that the firsi sh>.
divided among ! Then aft^r eating something [no doubt a

first course], the) .-.*4e and again i hanged their dress, putting

on crimson velvet . the . mask robes to the servants,

and at the end nf th< 'he velvet, putting on

garments of ordinary guest* re. The persons

invited were struck :eediui;s. And


from the table, went i:
doth surcoats in whi<_:;

-an with sharp km-

. which there pou;: ,
vphires, carbuncles, diam

each coat with great earj. *
anything was there.
-:gcd all the wealth '

.crtainly that if they ha<1 doa otherwise they never

.tnd difficult a road have brought their property home

n of such an extraordinary and infinite treasure

.TICS, which covered the table, once more filled

nishment that they were di imost beside

".', and they at once re- :icse honored and

i the ' a' Polo, whom at :. ul doubted,

^ the greatest honor and reverence. And when

road in Venice, the entire city, both nobles and

<ase to em!>race them, and to make every demon-

iess and r**pect that could be imagined. And

Meswr tH- > the eldest was created one of the most honored

ith of Venice resorted to the house
yrbo was most humane and gracious, and to put

quest - hjr and the- Great Khan, to which he made

aniswe? tuigiiity and courtesy that they all remained hi*

debtors. ."* .ntinued repetition of his story o

grandeur ot \.han h stated the revenues of that :

from ten to -.n gold, and counted all the otln.


the country always in millions, the surname was given him of Marco
Millione, which may be seen noted in the public books of the republic.
And the courtyard of his house, from that time to this, has been vulgarly
called the Corte Millione.

It is scarcely possible to imagine that the narrator of
the above wonderful story was not inspired by the keenest
humorous view of human nature and perception of the
character of his countrymen when he so gravely describes
the effectual arguments which lay in the gioie preciosissime
the diamonds and sapphires which his travelers had
sewed up in their old clothes and which, according to
all the laws of logic, were exactly fitted to procure their
recognition "as honored and venerated gentlemen of
the Ca' Polo." The scene is of a kind which has always
found great acceptance in primitive romance: the cutting
asunder of the laden garments, the ripping up of their
seams, the drawing forth of one precious little parcel
after another amid the wonder and exclamations of the
gazing spectators, are all familiar incidents in tradition-
ary story. But in the present case this was a quite
reasonable and natural manner of conveying the accumu-
lations of a long period through all the perils of a three-
years' journey from far Cathay; and there is nothing at
all unlikely in the miraculous story, which, no doubt,
would make a great impression upon the crowded sur-
rounding population, and linger, an oft-repeated tale, in
the alleys about San Giovanni Crisostomo and along the
Rio, where everybody knew the discreet and sensible
family which had the wit to recognize and fall upon the
necks of their kinsmen, as soon as they knew how rich
they were. The other results that ensued the rush of
golden youth to see and visit Marco, who, though no
longer young, was the young man of the party, and their
questions, and the jeer of the new, mocking title, Marco
Millione follow the romance with natural human incred-
ulity and satire and laughter. It is true, and proved by
at least one public document, that the gibe grew into
serious use, and that even the gravest citizens forgot
after a time that Marco of the Millions was not the
traveler's natural and sober name. There was at least
one other house of the Poll in Venice, and perhaps there
were other Marcos from whom it was well to distinguish
him of San Crisostomo.


It would seem clear enough, however, from this, that
these travelers' tales met with the fate that so often
attends the marvelous narratives of an explorer. Marco's
Great Khan, far away in the distance as of another world ;
the barbarian purple and gold of Kublai's court; the great
cities out of all mortal ken, as the young men in their
mirth supposed; the incredible wonders that peopled that
remote and teeming darkness, which the primitive imagi-
nation could not believe in as forming part of its own
narrow little universe must have kept one generation at
teast in amusement. No doubt the sunbrowned traveler
had all that desire to instruct and surprise his hearers
which came natural to one who knew so much more than
they, and was capable of being endlessly drawn out by
any group of young idlers who might seek his company.
They would thread their way through the labyrinth of
narrow passages with all their mediaeval bravery, flashing
along in parti-colored hose and gold-embroidered doublets
on their way from the Broglio to get a laugh out of
Messer Marco who was always so ready to commit him-
self to some new prodigy.

But after a while the laugh died out in the grave troubles
that assailed the republic. The most dreadful war that
had ever arisen between Venice and Genoa had raged for
some time, through various vicissitudes, when the city at
last determined to send out such an expedition as should
at once overwhelm all rivalry. This undertaking stirred
every energy among the population, and both men and
money poured in for the service of the commonwealth.
There may not be any authentic proof of Colonel Yule's
suggestion that Marco Polo fitted out, or partially fitted
out, one of the boats, and mounted his own flag at the
masthead when it went into action. But the family were
assessed at the value of one or more galleys, and he was
certainly a volunteer in the fleet; a defender of his
country in the terrible warfare which was draining all her
resources. The battle of Curzola took place in Septem-
ber, 1298, and it ended in a complete and disastrous
defeat for the Venetians. Of the ninety-seven galleys
which sailed so bravely out of Venice, only seventeen
miserable wrecks found refuge in the shelter of the
lagoons, and the admiral and the greater part of the
survivors, men shamed and miserable, were carried pris-


oners to Genoa with every demonstration of joy and
triumph. The admiral, as has already been said, was
chained to his own mast in barbarous exultation, but
managed to escape from the triumph of his enemies by
dashing his head against the timber, and dying thus be-
fore they reached port.

Marco Polo was among the rank and file who do not
permit themselves such luxuries. Among all the won-
derful things he had seen, he could never have seen a
sight at once so beautiful and so terrible as the great
semicircle of the Bay of Genoa, crowded with the exultant
people, gay with every kind of decoration, and resound-
ing with applause and excitement when the victorious
galleys with their wretched freight sailed in. No doubt
in the Tartar wastes he had longed many a time for inter-
course with his fellows, or even to see the face of some
compatriot or Christian amid all the dusky faces and
barbaric customs of the countries he had described. But
now what a revelation to him must have been the wild
passion and savage delight of those near neighbors, with
but the width of a European peninsula between them, and
so much hatred, rancor, and fierce antagonism! Prob-
ably, however, Marco, having been born to hate the
Genoese, was occupied by none of these sentimental
reflections; and knowing how he himself and all his
countrymen would have cheered and shouted had Doria
been the victim instead of Dandolo, took his dungeon
and chains, and the intoxication of triumph with which
he and his fellow-prisoners were received, as matters of

He lay for about a year, as would appear, in this
Genoese prison; and here, probably for the first time,
his endless tales of the wonders he had seen and known
first fulfilled the blessed office of story-telling, and became
to the crowded prison a fountain of refreshment and new
life. To all these unfortunate groups wounded, sick,
especially sick for home, humiliated and forlorn, with
scarcely anything wanting to complete the round of
misery what a solace in the tedium of the dreary days,
what a help to get through the lingering time, and forget
their troubles for a moment, must have been this com-
panion, burned to a deeper brown than even Venetian
suns and seas could give, whose memory was inexhaast-


ible; who day by day had another tale to tell; who set
1 before them new scenes, new people, a great, noble,
open-hearted monarch, and all the quaint habits and
modes of living, not of one, but of a hundred tribes and
nations, all different, endless, original! All the poor
expedients to make the time pass, such games as they
might have, such exercises as were possible, even the
quarrels which must have risen to diversify the flat and
tedious hours, could bear no comparison with this fresh
source of entertainment, the continued story carried on
from day to day, to which the cramped and weary prisoner
might look forward as he stretched his limbs and opened
his eyes to a new, unwelcome morning. If anyone among
these prisoners remembered then the satire of the
golden youth, the laughing nickname of the Millione, he
had learned by that time what a public benefactor a man
is who has something to tell; and the traveler, who per-
haps had never found out how he had been laughed at,
had thus the noblest revenge.

Among all these wounded, miserable Venetians, how-
ever, there was one whose presence there was of more
immediate importance to the world a certain Pisan, an
older inhabitant than they of these prisons, a penniless
derelict, forgotten perhaps of his own city, with nobody
to buy him out Rusticiano, a poor poetaster, a rusty
brother of the pen, who had written romances in his day,
and learned a little of the craft of authorship. What a
wonderful treasure was this fountain of strange story for
a poor mediaeval literary man to find in his dungeon!
The scribbler seems to have seized at once by instinct

Online LibraryMrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) OliphantThe makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters → online text (page 13 of 35)