Marco Polo – An Epic Journey

Relive a journey so amazing,

so exceptional, that people still talk about it 700 years later!

Spanning 24 years and over 20,000 km, Marco Polo – An Epic Journey runs until October 26, 2014 at Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History.

The exhibit begins in Marco Polo’s hometown, Venice. By the time he was born, in 1254, this city-state was already a major maritime and trading powerhouse, linking east and west. On the back wall a screen plays computer generated images of 14th century Venice. The scenes of empty streets and canals come from Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II video game. Muffled street sounds accompany the somewhat eerie deserted scenes.

Of the over 200 objects featured is a magnificent 12th century Byzantine perfume burner or lamp on loan from St. Mark’s Basilica, and a 13th century enameled copper box that once contained a relic of St. Thomas Becket, on loan from the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

Byzantine perfume burner or lamp

This perfume burner or lamp, a treasure of Byzantine influence transformed into a reliquary of the Holy Blood, dates back to the 12th century, and—given its magnificent cupolas—is reminiscent of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The term “Treasure” is used to denote the collection held by an important religious building. Over the centuries, St. Mark’s Basilica has acquired many rare and precious objects, including this spectacular carved and engraved piece in gilded silver with openwork sections.
(c) Procuratoria di San Marco, Venezia (Italia)

In His Own Words

Our knowledge of Marco Polo and his extraordinary travels comes almost exclusively from his own words. A few years after returning home to Venice, Marco was jailed in a Genoa prison. There he met Rustichello of Pisa, a writer and fellow captive. Marco dictated his epic story to Rustichello, and by the time they were released The Travels of Marco Polo was complete. The book contained details of landscapes, climates, animals, customs, flora, fauna, clothing and inventions that were new and astounding to European readers. Many thought that some, if not all, of it was fiction. Today scholars believe that some embellishment must have been added, but most claims have proven to be valid. For his part, Marco Polo always stood by his account, even on his death bed, he asserted, “I did not tell half of what I saw.”

Family Travels

In the months before Marco was born, his merchant trader father and uncle left on their own journey. After meeting Kublai Khan, they returned to Venice in 1269. The Mongolian ruler had sent the Polo brothers back with a mission – deliver a letter to the Pope, return with sacred oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and bring back 100 priests. In 1271, when Marco was 17, he joined his father and uncle, along with two Friars (who soon abandoned the dangerous expedition) and a letter from the newly appointed Pope Gregory X, on a return trip to Kublai Khan’s empire.

The first floor of the exhibit traces the three and a half years it took to reach Shangdu (Xanadu), China. The exhibit’s winding route takes us along to each sight and the accompanying text gives us insight into Marco’s thoughts of the area. Traveling through the exhibit, you will notice 15th century images depicting a sometimes skewed version of Marco Polo’s travels. Painted over a hundred years after the trek, by someone who had never seen the people and animals that Marco described – it is little wonder that the works include oddities like diminutive elephants and a Caucasian faced Kublai Kahn.

This image from the Description of the World shows us the emperor Kublai Khan releasing his hunting falcon.

This image from the Description of the World shows us the emperor Kublai Khan releasing his hunting falcon. It has been said that he had leopards that were so well trained, they could be used to hunt and retrieve other game. A tamed—and smiling—leopard can in fact be seen riding astride his horse!
(c) Le Livre des merveilles, folio 31v, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Traveling mainly by land, the Polo’s trekked through deserts, mountains, and all sorts of hostile terrain. From Jerusalem, they made their way through the Kingdom of Georgia (covering Armenia, Azerbaijan and much of the Caucasus), where Marco learned of crude oil – used as a salve on camel skin. Then, they made their way through the Persian cities of Kashan, Yazd, Kerman, Bam, and Hormuz.

The Roof of the World

 Marco Polo sheep skull

Marco Polo sheep skull
Photo by Julie kalan

Their trip stalled in Badakhshan (Afghanistan) for a year, when Marco took ill. After convalescing, the Polo’s continued eastward to the Wakhan Corridor, described as 250 km of rubble and scree. In the Pamir Mountains section of the exhibit, you will find the skull of a Marco Polo sheep. Marco was the first to describe this large, high-altitude living species, with long horns that spiral horizontally away from the head. Leaving the icy mountains, their route continued to the Taklamakan Desert, known as the sea of death. Physically and mentally taxing, it took 30 days and nights to cross.

A Sino-Mongolian saddle inlaid with semi-precious stones including lapis-lazuli, coral, and amber.

A true jewel, this Sino-Mongolian saddle inlaid with semi-precious stones including lapis-lazuli, coral, and amber, and with a wooden armature covered in finely worked silver, in all probability belonged to a prince, no doubt a vassal of China. The pommel alone is a pure masterpiece of Mongolian goldsmithery. Unknown provenance, circa 1820, second half of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
(c) Collection Émile Hermès, Paris

Modern Day Marco Polos

Before heading upstairs to the second half of the exhibit, sit down and enjoy the twenty minute film “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo.”  The film clips document Dennis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell as they followed Marco Polo’s route, in the 1990’s. It took two years for these friends from Queens, New York, to complete the trek by land and sea.

Welcome to Mongolia

On the second floor, visitors are invited to enter into a yurt. Inside the round Mongolian dwelling you can feel angora, the woolen felt used on the yurt walls, cashmere, camel’s wool and yak hair. Beyond the Mongolian steppes, we follow Marco Polo to Shangdu and Beijing, China.

In Kublai Kahn’s Service

For the next 17 years, Marco worked throughout the empire as a tax collector and envoy for Kublai Kahn. The Mongol Empire was vast, wealthy and innovative. They were heating with coal, had an impressive postal service and were using paper money, while Europeans still lugged heavy metal coins.

Here you can gaze at an array of celadon bowls, white and green jade pendants and containers, rock crystal bowls, figurines and cups. A few steps further and one will find a selection of fine silk. Marco said that each day a hundred thousand cart loads of such silk would enter the capital city.

Set Sail for Adventure

After many requests, Kublai Kahn granted the Polo’s their leave, with the caveat of one last mission: escort a Mongol princess to her future husband in Persia. As before, the Polo’s received a golden tablet, or imperial passport, from Kublai Kahn directing all in his empire to feed, shelter, guide, and help these wanderers in any manner required. This time the trip would be mainly undertaken by sea. Leaving with 600 men, only 18 completed the journey – including all three Polo’s. At each stop on his way home, Marco saw more wondrous things: rhinoceros’ in Indonesia, which he mistook for unicorns, wild men with tails in Sumatra (apes), and a wealth of precious gems in Ceylon. The exhibit’s India section is devoted to spices and textiles. Enjoy the aromas of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, galangal, nutmeg, clove and cubeb.

This pair of winged chimeras dates back to the Liao Dynasty, in the 10th-11th century. Made of rock crystal, they are examples of some of the rock crystal and gold treasures featured in the exhibition, true wonders worthy of princely families. (c) Collection particulière, Paris

Home Sweet Home

Twenty-four years after he left, Marco Polo returned to Venice in 1295, at the age of 41.They brought back lapis lazuli stones from Afghanistan, spices and cotton from India, jade and silks from China; and it is said, that to safe guard their precious gems the Polo’s sowed them into the hems of their garments. However, the most valuable thing that they brought back was the knowledge of those distant lands to the east. This knowledge was transformative and led explorers to discover the far corners of the world. In fact, Christopher Columbus carried a copy of “The Travels of Marco Polo” with him on his voyage to the New World in 1492.

Traveling through the exhibit one learns how Marco Polo’s extensive travels helped broaden the world view and then inspired future generations to do the same.

For ticket prices and exhibit hours: or 514-872-9150
Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History
350 Place Royale, Corner of de la Commune, Old Montreal (Quebec) H2Y 3Y5


image from the Description of the World shows Marco Polo at the age of 17, sitting astride between his father and his uncle as they begin their epic journey in Venice. Main Photo:
This very evocative image from the Description of the World shows Marco Polo at the age of 17, sitting astride between his father and his uncle as they begin their epic journey in Venice. While they actually left the city by sea rather than on horseback, the illustrator quite accurately depicted the seriousness of the situation. One can easily understand what must be going through their minds, wondering if they are ever to return, given the many dangers that await them on the road ahead…      (c) Le Livre des merveilles, folio 4, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Related Posts