Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Marco Polo's Co-author

Page from Chapter CXXIII
Everyone is familiar with the story of Marco Polo, who traveled to the Far East, had amazing adventures, and returned home to be put in prison in Genoa because of local wars. In prison, he wrote a book of his travels, telling of things that were marvels to Western Europe.

What most people don't know is that Polo was not in prison alone. A fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa, was an author, without whose help what we call The Travels of Marco Polo might never have come to be.

We know little of the 13th century Rustichello. He was a native of Pisa, and might have wound up in a Genoese prison after the 1284 Battle of Meloria. He would have been there a long time when Polo was imprisoned in 1298 after the Battle of Curzola.

Rustichello had previously written a romance, called alternately Compilatione ["The Compilation"] or Roman de Roi Artus ["The Romance of King Arthur"]. It was a French version of a work in the possession of King Edward I of England. Rustichello must have had access to it while Edward passed through Italy in the early 1270s on his way to the Eighth Crusade.

But what was his involvement in Marco Polo's tale? Was he simply the scribe? According to some who read the book and Rustichello's other writings:
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. [source]
He is also likely the reason that the original version was written in French, the language of romance literature, rather than Italian or Latin. The original title was Divisament dou monde ["Description of the world"]; an Italian edition was also called Il Milione ["The Million"}, but we do not know if that was intended to denote a million new things, or a million lies.

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