Famous characters: Marco Polo’s Maps

Over the past decade, data visualization has known a steady increase in popularity, becoming the main form under which data is presented to the masses.  ”Western civilization has become more dependent than ever on visual culture, visual artifacts, and visual communication as a mode of discourse and a means of developing a social and cultural identity”, as the National Education Association points out. As far as our work is concerned, the main goal we set to achieve is to represent the data in a visual and intuitive way, in order to make the most of it. More precisely, we concentrated our efforts on building an accurate map of the extraordinarily adventurous journeys of our famous character, Ser Marco Polo.

Choosing Marco Polo as our famous character owes itself to the high impact of his travels on modern cartography, both directly, through his description of the Eastern world,  and indirectly – by inspiring Christopher Columbus to embark in his trans-Atlantic adventures and make Europeans aware of the American continents. The Venetian helped in building a cultural bridge between the East and West, which uncovered an unforeseen potential for social and economical interactions. Reading the book of our traveller’s adventures was an inherently visual experience, thanks to the powerful descriptions of the exotic cultures and landscapes he came across. The curiosity of visualizing those places on a map arose naturally and so, we began searching for digital maps of Polo’s travels. At this point, our goal literally defined itself, due to the fact that we did not find any complete map that visually documented our traveller’s adventures.

The bibliographic materials we used to complete this task enriched themselves along the way, depending on the obstacles we encountered.  As one might expect, mapping 13th century geographic nomenclature to modern-day human settlements is not trivial. We used multiple resources, among which two different translations of The Travels of Marco Polo, namely [2] and [3]. Even though the clarifications in the footnotes of the two books are pleasingly complementary, there still remain a considerable number of unresolved geographical identities. In such cases we either searched the web for historically documented places fitting Polo’s description and approximate coordinates, or referred to additional sources [4] and [5]. The former is a thorough study of Yuan currencies, which provides a list of alternative names given to the Chinese settlements mentioned by Polo. This allowed us to devise richer and more precise search queries, which identified even some village-level establishments. The latter is a re-examination of Polo’s book of travels, particularly useful for cross checking the observations made by the editors of [2] and [3]. For actually creating the digital maps, we used the Google Maps Lite package. For identifying the geographical coordinates of the cities, we mainly used the aforementioned tool, although it failed to identify several small villages. In such cases we resorted to the Gomapper geographical search engine [6] and website [7], which gathers the data from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Bethesda, MD, USA. At times, we needed to restrict our search for Polo’s next destination according to a presumed radius around a map location. For such queries, we used the tools available at [8].

The end result of our semester’s work consists of three detailed maps comprising Marco Polo’s journey from Venice to Xanadu, his travels around the Asian continent fulfilling imperial visits as a highly regarded member of Kublai’s court, and his trip back to Venice, respectively. The key to following Polo’s route is to sequentially go through the lists of places found on the left hand-side of each map(Figure 1.). We have identified more than 200 cities and regions which Polo describes, either by  using the information provided in our references, or by an independent research. For each such entity, there is a corresponding pin on the map along with a pop-up text box corresponding to it. The text box appears upon clicking on the desired location and contains the chapter number and title, as well as the first few paragraphs describing the place (as seen in [2]). In the text box header, we mention both the old and modern names of the city (or region), as well as the source which we used to identify it (Figure 1.). In the particular case when the pin’s position was approximated through our own research, one may observe a written side note concerning this. As it could be noticed, some of the mapped places are not mentioned by Polo himself, but we chose to represent them anyway, due to their importance in delimiting some regions described in the book. Such an example is the city of Chaul, important for approximating the position of Lor Province – as seen in our Asia-Europe map.

Figure 1.  Example of text box with mapping information source  and chapter identifiers. Also note the list on the left hand-side.
Figure 1. Example of text box with mapping information source and chapter identifiers. Also note the list on the left hand-side.

A second type of entity is the segment traced between two pins which depicts Polo’s journey between the two destinations. One may click on the segments in order to see information regarding the journey’s duration and description according to [2], given that it exists. While reading the book of travels [2], one may stumble upon some grossly inaccurate approximations of the number of days spent between two locations (Figure 2). This has been attributed by specialists to the fact that Polo visited the mentioned locations several times, maybe even approaching them from different routes. In order to mitigate these imprecisions, we confronted our sources in order to find the right answers. We found most of the desired clarifications in [3]. However, Polo omitted to mention all of the time distances of his journeys. Moreover, he provided almost no timeframe for his travels on water, mentioning only the distances in miles. Having found too few information with respect to his exact means of transport, we could not approximate the duration of those particular journeys. On the other hand, we managed to fill the gaps concerning the land-based travels by approximating the time spans using the computed average of his speed (around  35 km/day) for the documented durations. One may see our approximations marked as a side note in the text boxes corresponding to the segments (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Journey duration, correction (and source) and description.
Figure 2. Journey duration, correction (and source) and description.
Figure 3. Example of approximated duration in land journeys.
Figure 3. Example of approximated duration in land journeys.

As a part of the Venice time machine, we designed and completed our project in such a way that it may be used both by scholars and curious readers who have the desire to pinpoint and further investigate the exotic landscapes explored by Marco Polo. Our tool beautifully complements the tales of his travels, by helping the reader visualize the extent and significance of the Venetian’s exploratory journey. We feel that our project contributes to the general direction of visually expressing the data, while also filling a puzzle piece in the adventurous project of building a “Venice Atlas”.





[1] ”Thriving in Academe: A Rationale for Visual Communication,” National Education Association Advocate Online, December 2001.

[2] Wright, T (Ed.).(1854). The Travels of Marco Polo: The Venetian. Bohn. Downloaded from www.munseys.com/diskone/marcopolo.pdf

[3]  Yule, H., & Cordier, H. (Eds.). (1993). The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition : Including the Unabridged Third Edition (1903) of Henry Yule’s Annotated Translation, as Revised by Henri Cordier, Together with Cordier’s Later Volume of Notes and Addenda (1920)Courier Dover Publications.

[4] Vogel, U. (2012). Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. Leiden: BRILL.

[5] Haw, Stephen G. (2006). Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. Rutledge.

[6] www.gomapper.com

[7] www.geographic.org

[8] www.freemaptools.com