Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

Vespucci's Favorite Authors


Books of any sort were few and precious during the youthful period of Amerigo Vespucci's life, for the art of printing by the use of movable type was invented about the time he was born, and most of the great discoverers, including himself and Columbus, were to pass away before the printing-press was introduced into America.

In the library of Paul the Physicist, however, the ardent scholar, Vespucci, must have seen many manuscripts which he was permitted to read, and among them, doubtless, the account of Marco Polo's wonderful journeys. It is thought that Toscanelli may have possessed, indeed, one of the first copies of Marco Polo ever printed, as it issued from a German press in 1477; or at least of the second edition, which appeared in 1481, the year before he died. A copy of the first Latin edition was once owned by Fernando Columbus, and has marginal marks ascribed to his father. This edition was printed in 1485, the year in which Hernando Cortes was born, and when Vespucci was thirty-four years old. Another Latin edition was brought out in 1490, an Italian in 1496, and a Portuguese in 1502, followed by many others.

Marco Polo, the Venetian, exercised a strong and lasting influence upon the minds of Toscanelli, Columbus, Vespucci, and, through them, upon others, although he died in the first quarter of the century in which the first-named of this distinguished triad was born. All these had this birthright in common: they were Italians; and, moreover, it was in Genoa, the reputed birthplace of Columbus, that Marco Polo's adventures were first shaped into coherent narrative and given to the world.

These adventures have been stigmatized as romances; but surely nothing could be more romantic than the manner in which they came to be published, finally, after existing many years in the crude form of notes and journals made by the traveller during his journeyings. In the year 1298, three years after he had returned from his wanderings and settled down in Venice, Polo was called upon to assist in the defence of Curzola, during the hostilities which existed between his own republic and that of Genoa. To oppose the Genoese admiral, Doria, who had invaded their seas with seventy galleys, the Venetians fitted out a fleet under Andrea Dandolo, and a great battle was fought off the island of Curzola. Marco Polo commanded a galley of his own, and fought with valor; but, in common with the commanders of more than eighty Venetian vessels, he was defeated, the Genoese winning an overwhelming victory.

Taken as a prisoner to Genoa, he was cast into prison, where he remained immured for a year. That was the year in which his wonderful travels were woven into a story, for the entertainment of the young Genoese nobility, who, when they learned that the famous Marco Polo was a prisoner, flocked to his cell to see and converse with him. Yielding to their solicitations, he sent to Venice for his notes of travel, and during the days of his captivity dictated an account of his experiences to a fellow-captive, one Rusticiano, of Pisa.

The delighted young nobles devoured his wonderful story with avidity, and they could scarcely wait its unfolding from day to day, for it was to them a veritable tale of the Arabian Nights. From the Italian, in which the traveller dictated his story, it was translated into Latin and French, and scattered over Europe for others to enjoy. Thus Marco Polo acquired fame through the misfortune which befell him when fighting for Venice, and long before printing was invented his name became almost a household word in Europe. As one who, though indirectly, stimulated by his Oriental researches the first great ventures into the Occident, Marco Polo deserves a monument, or, at least, should not be omitted from a memorial group that contains such famous Italians as Columbus, Vespucci, Toscanelli, and Verrazano. Admittedly, he deserves a chapter in this biography, and we cannot do better, perhaps, than glance at his history.

If Marco had been consulted in the choice of his immediate ancestry, he could not have done better than fortune served him in the person of his father, Nicolo Polo, who was a nobleman and a merchant of Venice. He was a traveller prior to the birth of his son, for just previous to that event, which occurred nearly two hundred years before Amerigo Vespucci was born, he and his brother set out for Constantinople. Thence they went into Armenia, and around the south coast of the Caspian Sea to Bokhara, where they met some Persian envoys who were bound for Cathay, or China, and who persuaded them to go along.

At Peking, it is supposed, they met the great and powerful Kublai Khan, Emperor of the Mongols, and Tartars, who received them kindly and at whose court they remained a year. They were the first Europeans he had ever seen, and such was his interest in their stories of strange peoples and governments that he commissioned them as envoys to the pope, giving them letters in which he expressed his desire that Europeans learned in the arts and sciences should be sent for the instruction of his people. Then they were reluctantly dismissed, with gifts of gold and spices, and after many perilous adventures finally reached their home in Venice. They had been gone almost ten years, and when Nicolo Polo first saw his son, on his return to Venice, Marco was a youth at school, well advanced in his studies.

Two years later, when Marco was about twelve, the three Polos set out on their return to Cathay, accompanied by two friars, who were "endowed with ample powers and privileges, the authority to ordain priests and bishops, and to grant absolution in all cases, as fully as if the pope were personally present." They took with them rich presents for the khan, including a bottle of precious oil from the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was supposed to possess miraculous virtues. The journey was commenced in or about the year 1271, but, owing to innumerable and vexatious delays on the way, the Polos did not reach the court of the grand khan until the spring of 1275. They were more than three years in making the journey, but in spite of difficulties and dangers these remarkable men persisted until the object of their travels was accomplished. The friars had become alarmed at the prospect of peril to themselves, and early in the undertaking beat a retreat to Acre, so the three Venetians alone arrived at Chambalu, and delivered to the grand khan the letters and presents from the pope. They were received with extreme cordiality by the khan, who was especially pleased with young Marco, and accepted the presents with delight, the holy oil from Jerusalem being reverently cherished.

Marco was introduced to the khan by Nicolo, as "your majesty's servant and my son"; but had he been a son of the ruler himself he could not have received greater honors than were bestowed upon him by the emperor. Having a natural aptitude for acquiring languages, he soon could read and write four different dialects, and being possessed of great intelligence and shrewdness withal, he was sent by the khan on important missions to various parts of his kingdom. He acquitted himself so well on these embassies, some of which required his absence from the capital for many months, and he brought back such interesting accounts of the people he met and their customs, that he was constantly employed.

In this manner he acquired, during many years of service in high positions, a most intimate acquaintance with the khan's dominions, and became immensely rich. His father and uncle shared wealth and honors with him, for they likewise were congenially employed; but the time came at last when their desire to revisit Venice became too strong to resist. They craved the khan's permission to depart; but when the old monarch heard their request he flew into a passion, declaring that he would never allow them to go. They should remain with him and become the richest men in the world.

Marco was sent off on another mission, this time by sea, and, discovering that there was direct communication between Cathay and the Indies, he entreated the khan to allow the Polos to go on a voyage, promising faithfully that they would return after a short stay with their friends in Venice. The old khan gave his consent reluctantly, overwhelming them with gifts at their departure, among other things giving them a tablet of gold, on which were engraved his orders to all the subjects in his vast dominions to provide guides, escorts, pilots—every convenience for their voyage and journey—without cost. He also authorized them to serve as his ambassadors to the pope and other European potentates, presented them with many precious stones, including rubies of great value, and money enough to defray their expenses for at least two years. From all this it will be seen that the grand khan was a very munificent prince, whose deeds must have made a lasting impression upon the minds of the generation in which he lived.

Fourteen large vessels were contained in the fleet he furnished the Polos, for with them was embarked, with a train of ambassadors, a noble maiden of Cathay who was to become the bride of a "king of the Indies" known as Argon. The voyage was so protracted that the king had died before she reached her destination, and whose bride she became was never known to the Polos, though they faithfully acquitted themselves of their charge, and then continued on towards the frontiers of Persia. Two years had been consumed in voyaging to Java, Sumatra, and along the coast of southern India. Three more elapsed before they finally reached their native city, in 1295, after an absence of nearly twenty-five years. Nobody in Venice knew them then, except by name, for Niccolo and his brother were advanced in age, and Marco had grown from a boy to manhood, while in their dress and manners they were more like Tartars than Venetians, and had almost completely lost their native speech.

Marco Polo


Many of their former friends and relations were dead, and the survivors were at first inclined to denounce them as impostors, until the fertile imagination of Marco hit upon an expedient. They were invited to a magnificent banquet, at which the three Polos appeared arrayed in robes of crimson velvet, which, after their guests had arrived, they threw off and gave to their attendants. Then, after the last course was served, they produced from their queer Tartarian garments, which they ripped open for the purpose, precious gems by the handful, and displayed them to the astonished guests as their credentials.

They were promptly received into the best Venetian society, Maffei, the uncle, being appointed a magistrate, and Niccolo, the father, espousing a beautiful young lady. Such Polos as still bear the name—if there are any—must have descended from the children born of this second marriage, for though Marco himself took a wife, several years later, he left no male children to inherit the vast wealth that gave him the title, in Venice, of "Marco Millioni."

It was about three years after his return to Venice that Marco fell into the hands of the Genoese, and a little later that, as narrated, he wrote the story of his travels. His books abound in romantic adventures, and many, probably, that are fabulous; but that it stamped itself upon the times in which he lived and those of succeeding generations, has been shown already. Nearly two hundred years after the story was written, we find the Spaniards seeking the great island of Cipango, of which the following is Marco Polo's description:

"This is a very large island, fifteen hundred miles from the continent [of Asia]. The people are fair, handsome, and of agreeable manners. They are idolaters, and live quite separate from all other nations. Gold is very abundant, and no man being allowed to export it, while no merchant goes thence to the main-land, the people accumulate a vast amount. But I, Marco Polo, will give you a wonderful account of a very large palace all covered with that metal, as our churches are with lead. The pavements of its court, the halls, windows, and every other part, have it laid on two inches thick, so that the riches of this palace are incalculable. Here are also pearls, large and of equal value with the white, with many other precious stones.

"Kublai, on hearing of this amazing wealth, desired to conquer the island, and sent two of his barons with a very large fleet containing warriors, both horsemen and on foot. They sailed from Zaitun and Quinsai, reached the isle, landed, and took possession of the plain and of a number of houses; but they were unable to take any city or castle, when a sad misadventure occurred. A storm threatened and some of the troops were embarked; but about thirty thousand were left upon a small and barren island by the sailing of the ships. The sovereign and the people of the larger island rejoiced greatly when they saw the host thus scattered and many of them cast upon the islet. As soon as the sea calmed they assembled a great number of ships, sailed thither and landed, hoping to capture all those refugees. But when the latter saw that their enemies had disembarked, leaving the vessels unguarded, they skilfully retreated to another quarter and continued moving about till they reached the ships, when they went aboard without any opposition. They then sailed direct for the principal island, where they hoisted its own standards and ensigns.

"On seeing these, the people believed their own countrymen had returned, and allowed them to enter the city. Finding it defended only by old men, the Tartars soon drove them out, retaining the women as slaves. When the king and his warriors saw themselves thus deceived and their city captured, they were like to die of grief; but they assembled other ships, and invested it so closely as to prevent all communication. The Tartars maintained themselves thus seven months, and planned day and night how they might convey tidings to their master of their condition; but finding this impossible, they agreed with the besiegers to surrender, securing only their lives. This took place in the year 1269.

"The grand khan ordered one of the commanders of the host that had returned to lose his head, and the other to be sent to the isle where he had caused the loss of so many men, and there put to death. I have to relate, also, a very wonderful thing: that these two barons took a number of persons in a castle of Cipango, and because they had refused to surrender ordered all their heads to be cut off. But there were eight on whom they could not execute this sentence, because these wore consecrated stones in their arms, between the skin and the flesh, which so enchanted them that they could not die by steel. They were therefore beaten to death with clubs, and the stones, being extracted, were held very precious. But I must leave this matter and go on with the narrative."