Fernbank Museum of Natural History brings the incredible 13th-century travels, experiences and legends of Marco Polo to life in Marco Polo: Man & Myth, on view from September 28, 2013- January 5, 2014. Making its North American premiere at Fernbank Museum, Marco Polo: Man & Myth highlights his epic 24-year journey from Venice to China along the Silk Road, and showcases Marco Polo as the ultimate adventure traveler.
The special exhibition introduces Marco Polo and the thriving commercial center of 13th-century Venice, a major crossroad along the vast and ancient network of trade routes from Europe to Asia, known as the Silk Road. The son of a family of merchants, Marco Polo set out from Venice in 1271 with his father and uncle on a trade voyage that would push the boundaries of the world as it was then known. Featuring excerpts from his memoir, The Travels of Marco Polo, this major exhibition includes rare and extraordinary objects from private collections and museums in Italy to reveal the cultural practices, artistic traditions, unique landscapes, and unusual animals he encountered.
More than 80 objects, including coins, ceramics, artwork, maps, navigational tools and more, take visitors from his Venetian homeland to China. Following passages from The Travels of Marco Polo—one of the most celebrated chronicles in the history of travel literature—the exhibition reveals the many cultures he observed, highlights the impact of exchanging ideas along the Silk Road, and sheds light on his encounters inside the Mongol Empire, including the Court of Kublai Khan.
“Few people are aware that Marco Polo was only 17 when he left Venice on what might possibly be history’s greatest father-son road trip,” said Dr. Bobbi Hohmann, Fernbank Museum curator and anthropologist. “Like something we might see produced in Hollywood today, the Polos’ trip through Asia included bouts of unidentified illnesses, encounters with bandits and thieves, unusual customs and practices, and some of the most spectacular and harsh landscapes in the world.”
As visitors join Marco Polo’s route, they encounter artifacts that reveal how different travel was in the 13th century as opposed to the modern world. Maps, a brass compass, a sundial, and a rare portalano--a parchment map of the ports in the Mediterranean Sea--offer a glimpse into the navigational tools Marco Polo and other medieval sailors used to navigate the seas. Visitors can also view an 8-foot model of a Venetian galley ship, similar to the galley sailed by the Polos to begin their journey through the Middle East and Asia.
“Marco was from a merchant family who was traveling with trade in mind, yet he recorded in infinite detail the cities, cultural practices, technologies and beliefs he encountered – almost like a 13th century anthropologist,” Hohmann said. “Our visitors will see a variety of artifacts that offer a glimpse into many of the experiences he shared in The Travels of Marco Polo.”
Visitors will learn that Marco Polo is believed to have traveled the Silk Road longer and farther than any Western predecessor. Along the way he became an experienced merchant, knowledgeable explorer and keen observer. Marco’s journey included travel through the Middle East, where he marveled at the thriving commercial and cultural centers. He also explored the Biblical stories of Noah’s Ark and The Three Magi. Historic paintings and artwork depict the scenery he likely encountered, providing visual cues to stories he heard about the tombs of the Three Magi, his search for Noah’s Ark, the view of Jerusalem from Mount Oliveto, and more. A collection of 12th-14th century pottery and architectural tiles shows how traditional Persian design was influenced by practices in the Far East as a result of cultural interaction from the Silk Road.
Visitors also explore the Mongol culture as they follow Marco Polo’s journey. Marco described the grasslands with horses and herds of sheep, the mountain passes, deserts of the region, and many details about the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols. Visitors can walk inside a full size ger, or yurt, as they explore this nomadic culture. Paintings, traditional Mongol clothing, a wolfskin pelt, headdresses, armor and a horse bridle offer a glimpse into this society that lived entirely off their natural surroundings and herds.
Much of Asia was under Mongol control in the 13th century, and Marco spent 17 years in the kingdom of Kublai Khan. As an emissary of Kublai Khan, Marco traveled extensively throughout China. Historic silks, porcelain, a merchant seal, models of Chinese “junk” ships, and other artifacts show the incredible export industry Marco observed there. After the Polos were granted permission by Kublai Khan to return home, they traveled for two years before reaching Venice.
After the Polos returned to Venice, the family continued to live and work as Venetian merchants. Through archaeological excavations, the Polo home has been located and documented. Marco Polo: Man & Myth includes includes several artifacts recovered from the Polo home site, including glass and ceramic tableware as well as an amphora. Amphorae like this were often used to transport a product of great value like sweet wine of the Eastern Mediterranean or honey from the islands of Aegean Sea.
As the exhibition closes, visitors can explore the myths of Marco Polo, which surround his travelogue. The Travels of Marco Polo, published after Marco Polo’s return to Venice, was a dictated story of an incredible journey along the Silk Road through Asia. The original book, now lost, was handwritten in Old French and titled Le Divisament dou Monde, or “The Description of the World.” Throughout Europe, it was commonly known as Il Milone or the “Million Lies” because many were skeptical of his accounts.
Both man and myth today, Marco Polo is forever recognized as the ultimate travel adventurer and his account remains one of the greatest travelogues ever written. On his deathbed at the age of 70, he is said to have declared, “I have only told half of what I saw.”