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Marco Polo was a wealthy merchant as well as an explorer and writer. He journeyed from Europe to the Orient, where he served the Mongol leader for 17 years before returning to Europe and writing a book of his accounts.

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Marco Polo

Marco Polo was born circa 1224 in the Republic of Venice into a wealthy merchant family. In 1271, Marco Polo joined his father and uncle on their trip to Asia; they took with them two priests. They crossed the Middle East and the Gobi desert, witnessing many sights described later in his book The Description of the World, (which later became known as The Travels of Marco Polo). They remained in China for 17 years. Khan appointed Marco's father and uncle to high positions in his Court and later employed Marco as an envoy he sent to explore parts of Asia the Europeans hadn't reached, including Burma, India, and Tibet.

Marco was promoted more than once; he served as governor of a Chinese city, an official of the Privy Council, and at one time, he was a tax inspector in Yanzhou. Marco learned four languages during his time in the East. He was impressed by the communication system, the paper money, the economy and production scale of the Mongol empire. His book describes both his journey to China and his observations of the culture and landscapes he encountered while living there.

After so many years living in Khan's empire, he was not happy when his father and uncle decided to leave. In 1295, the Polos reached Venice, where their family failed to recognize them, and they had trouble speaking their native tongue. Marco got involved in a naval conflict as commander of a Venetian ship and was captured and imprisoned by the Genoese. While in prison, Marco befriended another prisoner and writer, Rustichello da Pisa, who wrote down Marco's stories and included some of his own. The book was printed in French, Italian, and Latin and quickly spread throughout Europe.

After Marco Polo was released from prison, he returned to Venice, and married the daughter of a merchant. His family bought a large estate, and he and his uncle continued to fund expeditions, though they likely never left Venice. He fell ill and died in 1324. In his will, he divided his wealth among fraternities, religious groups, and individuals, and wrote off debts. Today, scholars have verified most of the claims in his book, which inspired other explorers and adventurers to go out and see the world. 200 years after Marco's death, Christopher Columbus journeyed across the Atlantic, determined to find a new route to the Orient, with Marco Polo's book in tow.

Marco Polo’s Significant Accomplishments

  • Traveled across an entire continent to China as a young man, surviving ailments and many other obstacles.
  • Impressed the Mongol leader Kublai Khan, who made him a special envoy of his Court and promoted him several times to other positions.
  • Explored parts of Asia that Europeans had not previously reached.
  • Commanded a ship in a naval battle against Genoa.
  • Wrote a book that became widely popular and provided a source for some of the first accounts of the Middle and the Far East.
  • Amassed a fortune as a successful merchant and explorer.

Marco Polo Quotes

“I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.”

“Without stones there is no arch.”

“I speak and speak,...but the listener retains only the words he is expecting...It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

Learn more about people who have influenced history in our Picture Encyclopedia!
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