Marco Polo's odyssey spawned one of the world's first best sellers

Medieval audiences couldn’t get enough of Polo’s fascinating accounts of faraway lands, turning his book into a runaway success.

Marco Polo carries his popular book Il Milione, known in English as the Travels of Marco Polo, in this 19th-century mosaic in the Doria-Tursi Palace, Genoa.
Photograph by Leemage/Getty Images

The world-famous explorer Marco Polo is credited with many things, but perhaps the greatest is compiling one of the world’s first best-selling travelogues. Published around 1300, the book chronicles his experiences during a 24-year odyssey from Venice to Asia and back again.

Polo did not write down his adventures himself. Shortly after his return to Venice in 1295, Polo was imprisoned by the Genoese, enemies of the Venetians, when he met a fellow prisoner, a writer from Pisa named Rusticiano. Polo told his stories to his new friend, who wrote them down and published them in a medieval language known as Franco-Italian. (See also: Photo Gallery: The adventures of Marco Polo.)

Although the original manuscript is lost, more than 100 illuminated copies have survived from the Middle Ages. Many of these are of great beauty, but there are significant discrepancies among them. The work came to be known as Il Milione, perhaps based on a well-known nickname of Polo’s. In the English-speaking world, the book is often known as the Travels of Marco Polo.

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