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Built through the concatenation of brief, often self-contained rubrics, the text of the Divisament can be read as if it were a mosaic. Summed up altogether, this collection of tiles produces an astonishing view of the history, cultures, peoples and geographies of Eurasia as recorded by Polo at the end of the 13th century.

Yet, each and every tile acts as a miniaturized portrait of an entire social, cultural and historical universe: thus we get to learn about the existence of a Manichean community in the port city of Quanzhou in southeast China, the history of the Mongol tribes at the time of Genghis Khan, the flora and fauna of the Horn of Africa or the extraction of pearls in the coast of Coromandel in India.

It is thus possible, perhaps, to read and comment the Divisament and its complex reception one tile at a time, one fragment at a time.

Bodies, sexualities and gender identities in

the Divisament dou Monde

Marco Polo’s geography of Asia is a heavily gendered geography: bodies, sexualities and gender hierarchies loom large in the Divisament dou Monde. Usually labelled as a prototype of European literary exoticism, beneath the veneer of Orientalist clichés Polo's work records a complex array of cultural practices ranging from polyandry to infanticides, from tales of sexual licentiousness to rigorous ascetic practices. Far from being simplistically “Oriental”, as it has been frequently argued, Polo’s references to bodies and sexualities were entangled in a subtler political discourse aimed at altering medieval Europe’s perceptions of Asia by shifting attitudes towards a political object par excellence – the gendered body.

Physiognomic descriptions in the Divisament reveal a grid of color lines that call to attention a fairly intricate interplay of gender, race and ethnicity at work in one of the most famous travel narratives of medieval Europe. Most of all, in a cultural milieu where contacts with the East were primarily mediated by religious missionaries, Polo outlined Europe’s first narrative of Asia written by a lay traveler for an ideally lay readership: this undertheorized paradigm from a religious to a secular perspective suggests recontextualizing the Divisament dou Monde as a narrative of rupture, rather than continuity, in the context of medieval travel writing.

Polo inaugurated Europe’s secular tradition of travel writing about Asia and his narrative thus offers a privileged point of view to deconstruct the genealogy of a gendered, and secularized, gaze destined to deeply affect Europe’s problematic relation with the body of the “other”.

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

Although we might be tempted to refer to Marco Polo as a travel writer, actually he never wrote a book called The Travels. The label “The Travels of Marco Polo is more the product of a marketing operation rather than the result of a genuine authorial will. Quite a few readers have been misled by this deceiving trick, including renowned British novelist William Dalrymple who once wrote:

Polo has been extravagantly praised over the years. Yet the book is surprisingly dull. Polo did not set out to write an account of his travels, despite the name by which it has always been known. It is not even a general account of the lands he passed through. He says nothing about the sights he saw (he does not even mention the Great Wall of China), and includes very little about Asian social mores (which might have made really interesting reading). Instead he wrote a dry, factual guide to commerce in the East, a book by a merchant for other merchants, containing mainly lists of the merchandise available for sale on the caravan routes.

I hope that on another occasion I’ll have the chance to write why Polo did not describe the Great Wall and why the Divisament was not really a book written by a merchant for other merchants. But Dalrymple is absolutely right in noting that Polo did not set out to write an account of his travels. Marco’s intention was indeed quite different. And the story behind the many and changing titles of his book can offer us a glimpse of this philological enigma.

1. Origins. Le Divisament dou Monde

The original Franco-Italian version of the book was called Le Divisament dou Monde, which literally means “the description of the world”. This title appears since the first opening rubric of the text: “Ci comancent le lobrique de cest livre qui est appellé le divisant dou monde”, “here begins the rubrics of this book which is called The Divisament dou Monde”.

If “le divisament dou monde” sounds like a curious and ambitious title to modern readers, on the other hand it helped medieval readers to quickly recognize the genre of the book and predict its overall contents: they knew they were about to read some sort of geographical encyclopedia. The medieval erudite tradition counted dozens of such works called Imago mundi, Descriptio Mundi, Divisiones Mundi or Mappaemundi and so forth. Ideally, the Divisament dou Monde aspired to reconnect to this larger geographical corpus and probably borrow from the preexisting intellectual authority of such texts to corroborate Marco’s claims about the factual veracity of its account which, however, did not focus on his travels and adventures but rather on a pure geographical survey. Although “dull”, the degree of accuracy and reliability of such exposition continues to stun even modern scholars, since Polo mentions places, cities or localities whose existence would have been confirmed by European explorers only centuries later, with the onset of modern geographical discoveries.

2. Book of wonders. Livre de Merveilles

However, as the Divisament was widely (and widely) disseminated across late medieval Europe, readers and copyists began to adapt the title of the book and its contents to their tastes and cultural sensibilities. Philologically speaking the Divisament was an extremely mobile text throughout the Middle Ages. It was uninterruptedly translated, abridged, expanded, modified, adjusted, cut, re-ordered, and this process of never-ending textual alterations represents one of the most tangled and fascinating aspects in the history of this book.

One of the first adaptations in this sense reverted the original geographical and informative scope of the text into a “book of wonders”, namely a collection of mirabilia, fantastic anecdotes and amazing tales about the far lands of the Orient. In other words, the original encyclopedic purpose of the Divisament was transformed into an escapist narrative to entertain and tantalize the curiosity of readers at the expense of the credibility of its narrative. The most (but certainly not the sole) renowned example of this shift that turned Marco’s original geographical exposition into a collection of mirabilia is given by the manuscript Fr. 2810 of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, probably one of the most famous and researched medieval manuscripts bi virtue of its superb iconographic apparatus of two hundred sixty-five illuminations that accompany Marco’s narrative. Here, however, the title Divisament dou Monde has been replaced by a more enticing Livre de Marco Pol et de mervellies, for short Le livre de merveilles, “The Book of Wonders”. The BnF Fr. 2810 thus became a famed philological progenitor of a long and far-reaching tradition of popularized adaptations where the original structure and function of the Divisament is recast into an alluring book about the “wonders” of the “Orient” – a tradition whose vitality continues to be well documented even today.

The title generally used by Italian readers, Il Milione, reflects this peculiar adaption, but its origin is even more curious. Il Milione literally means “The Million”: but how Marco’s book came to be known to his fellow Italian readers as “The Million”? Scholars have suggested two possible explanations: the first relates to a phonetic alteration of one’s of Marco’s nicknames, “Emilione”, used to distinguish him family from other Polo families living in Venice at that time. Il Libro d’Emilione (“The Book of Emilione”) thus gradually became Il libro del Milione (“The Book of the Million”) and, finally, simply The Million.

The other explanation, originally proposed by the Renaissance humanist and scholar Giovanni Battista Ramusio, gives us an echo of the surprised and often incredulous reception that welcomed Marco’s tales even among his contemporaries. When asked to quantify the riches of the great Khan, or the abundance of resources, peoples, cities he visited, Marco used to answer “in millions”: he claimed that the revenues of Kublai amounted to millions of gold, that wealth of those lands be measured “in millions”. What was probably an attempt to convey the order of magnitude Asian economies and demographics was taken as a whirl of fanciful exaggeration by his listeners, who became to refer to Marco as “Marco Milioni” (“Marco Millions”) and to his book as “The Book of Million”, for short Il Milione.

3. Book of travels. Dei viaggi di Messer Marco Polo

Between the 13th-15th century, Marco’s book thus circulated under a plurality of titles, each reflecting various branches of a rich and heterogeneous textual tradition and a manifold range of reading interpretations: Livre de Merveilles, Divisament dou Monde, Liber de partibus orientalibus, Livre du grand Caan, to name only a few. None of these labels emphasized the travel experience of its author, although such aspect might have been somehow implied by the nature of the book itself. The first edition of the text whose titled brought to the foreground the travel contents of the work was probably a printed version realized in Nuremberg by Friedrich Creussner in 1477, Das Buch des edlen Ritters und Landfahrers Marco Polo (“The Book of the Noble Sir and Traveler Marco Polo”). It was however with the monumental edition of Polo’s text edited by Giovanni Battista Ramusio and published in 1559 that the title of the Divisament dou Monde is eventually, and we could say almost definitively, changed into “The Book of the Travels of Sir Marco Polo, Venetian Gentleman” (“Il libro dei viaggio di Messer Marco Polo, gentiluomo veneziano”). Ramusio’s choice was probably motivated by the need to harmonize the title of the Divisament to the editorial criteria of the monumental compilation in which Marco’s book was included, Delle navigazioni et viaggi (“Navigations and Travels”). Similar editorial choices reflected a change in the way the book of Marco Polo was read and interpreted, in the wake of a cultural mindset stimulated by the geographical discoveries of the early modern era, and on the other hand were destined to exert a lasting influence: the first printed translation in English language of Marco’s text edited by John Frampton in 1579, The most noble and famous travels of Marco Polo.

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