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Marco Polo at the Court of Kublai Khan – Lie and You Die

Marco Polo Best

Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco Polo, Netflix’s new ten part series – Season 1

Successful Venetian merchant adventurer Marco Polo (1254-1324) was asked on his deathbed to retract the “fables” he invented in his travel tales, which were written down by Rustichello of Pisa in 1298 following his return to Venice from the lands of Cathay.

His answer ‘…he told barely half of what he actually saw’.

From the Polar Sea to Java, from Zanzibar to Japan the world that Marco Polo described to many of his contemporaries of western Christendom was almost wholly unknown.

The dramatic topography of the Chinese landscape with its great mountains, misty river valleys, trees, lakes and waterfalls had inspired Chinese poets, landscape painters and garden makers for countless centuries before he arrived. His experiences and account of the wealth of Cathay (China), the might of the Mongol empire and exotic customs of India and Africa made his book a bestseller.

Much of what Marco Polo did see on his travels will always remain a mystery. Rustichello aided the ‘romance’ of the story as he was a well-known writer of romances, and a specialist in chivalry and its lore.

The language he employed Franco-Italian was a strange composite tongue that was highly fashionable during the 13th and 14th centuries, when wider knowledge of Cathay (China) began filtering through to the west.

Benedict Wong as Kublai Kahn, from Netflix's Marco Polo photo by Phil Bray

Benedict Wong as Kublai Kahn, from Netflix’s Marco Polo photo by Phil Bray

It wasn’t the first time the west had heard about the mystical land of Cathay.

However it was the first time anyone from the west had lived in the east for twenty-five years and returned home to write an account of their experiences.

The impact Marco Polo’s travel stories had on contemporary Europe were profound.

Marco Polo was a gifted linguist, a master of four languages, whose descriptions of Cathay, its cities and lifestyle would inspire the voyages of Christopher Columbus and others, as well as the imagination of 18th century English writer and poet Samuel Coleridge, whose poem Xanadu was built on his stories romantic notions

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Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) in Netflix’s Marco Polo

The story, epic in scope and scale was released on December 12, 2014 as a Netflix ten part television series produced by the The Weinstein Co.

In reality Marco Polo had to rely on his wits and instincts to survive for two and half decades at the court of Kublai Khan (1215-1294).

It’s reasonable to assume if he engaged the interest and worked for a man of Kublai Khan’s status and intellect, being trusted with a golden passport to his Kingdom, that he must have had a great deal to say and an ability to say it well.

This would have been no mean feat in that day and age, requiring him to be an intelligent, creative and clever man, above all a ‘presence’. His posture at court too would have had to have been acceptable to have lived there so long.

This doesn’t sadly come across in the script of the first season of the series about Marco Polo, which was its weakest point, when it should have been its greatest strength.

There is a conflict of interests, as Kublai Khan seemingly takes the reins as the central character, with in some episodes Marco Polo seeming almost like an after thought.

Good, very good and fine, the various actor’s performances are overshadowed, as the director and writers give it a great wall of its own to climb and conquer.

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Golden Age of China – Treasures Ming to Qing at NGV, 2015

Emperor Qianlong

Qianlong Emperor in his study, painted by Jesuit priest and painter Giuseppe Castiglione, who won favour at the court of three Chinese Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong courtesy ©Palace Museum, Beijing

The western predilection for gorgeous goods was perpetuated in the European mind from early in the thirteenth century by Venetian adventurer Marco Polo, who related fascinating stories about visiting the far off luxurious land of Cathay.

Seemingly filled with precious gems, exotic spices and glorious rustling silks, the east was believed to be lived in by an amenable people who whiled away their hours posing pleasantly in perfect pavilions set in ethereal landscapes.

It is perhaps extraordinary to us today that one man’s personal view of the East, played such a vital and in many ways, unique role in the development of international foreign trade and political relations. But it did.

Marco Polo said words to the effect ‘let us now travel into Cathay, so that you may learn something of its grandeurs and treasures’ inspiring the notion at Cathay was a land, unlike any other.

This idea found fertile ground in the imagination of western people who were lured by its exotic charms and promise of excitement.


Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial armour on Horseback painted by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit priest at the court of three Chinese Emperors courtesy Palace Museum, Beijing

Initially Europeans could not differentiate between Chinese, Indian, Japanese South East Asian, or Middle Eastern peoples, so the vision they had was vast.

The exhibition The Golden Age of China: Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–1795) is coming to the National Gallery of Victoria from 27th March – 21st June 2015.

Tony Ellwood, Director NGV, said, “This exhibitions tells the fascinating narrative of one of China’s most influential rulers and a great champion of the arts, whose passion saw him become one of China’s foremost collectors and conservators of art.”

It was 1685 when the Manchus began their ascendancy towards the splendour and power achieved during the eighteenth century and reign of three Manchu Qing dynasty emperors Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735 and Qianlong (1736-95).

China emerged as the greatest Imperial power in Asia under this trio of Emperor’s enlightened guidance. They ensured the China Trade with the west flourished.

Hung-li came to the Throne of Heaven taking the name Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung) at the age of twenty-four.

A warrior and hunter of the first rank, he reigned for sixty years (1736-1795) at a time when China was the wealthiest and most populous nation on earth.

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In My Heart there is the Power to Reign Peacably (detail) Qianlong Emperor, painting on silk, courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Ohio

A man of letters, calligrapher and passionate poet, Qianlong was fourth emperor of the Manchu dynasty and his name was associated with works of literary importance.

He is said to have written more poetry than the poets of the celebrated Tang dynasty (618-906).

The NGV International on St Kilda Road will devote 1,100 square metres of its gallery space for this exhibition, which uncovers the richness of Chinese history and culture, and reveals the human interests of a governing emperor.

Splendid silk court robes, precious-stone inlayed objet d’art and portraits of the Qianlong emperor, his empress and imperial concubines will be part of the display, with silk paintings, dragon-embroidered silk court robes and precious objet d’art in gold and jade.

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Passionate Pursuits

Fashion Elixir Quick Snippets of Culture Carolyns Conversations


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