The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps: Benjamin B. Olshin

In the thirteenth century, Italian merchant and explorer Marco Polo traveled from Venice to the far reaches of Asia, a journey he chronicled in a narrative titled Il Milione, later known as The Travels of Marco Polo. While Polo’s writings would go on to inspire the likes of Christopher Columbus, scholars have long debated their veracity. Some have argued that Polo never even reached China, while others believe that he came as far as the Americas. Now, there’s new evidence for this historical puzzle: a very curious collection of fourteen little-known maps and related documents said to have belonged to the family of Marco Polo himself.

In The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps, historian of cartography Benjamin B. Olshin offers the first credible book-length analysis of these artifacts, charting their course from obscure origins in the private collection of Italian-American immigrant Marcian Rossi in the 1930s; to investigations of their authenticity by the Library of Congress, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI; to the work of the late cartographic scholar Leo Bagrow; to Olshin’s own efforts to track down and study the Rossi maps, all but one of which are in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson Jeffrey Pendergraft. Are the maps forgeries, facsimiles, or modernized copies? Did Marco Polo’s daughters―whose names appear on several of the artifacts―preserve in them geographic information about Asia first recorded by their father? Or did they inherit maps created by him? Did Marco Polo entrust the maps to Admiral Ruggero Sanseverino, who has links to Rossi’s family line? Or, if the maps have no connection to Marco Polo, who made them, when, and why?

Regardless of the maps’ provenance, Olshin’s tale―stretching from the remote reaches of the northern Pacific to early Chinese legends―takes readers on a journey confounding yet fascinating, offering insights into Italian history, the age of exploration, and the wonders of cartography.

Review

“Olshin’s book tugs powerfully at the imagination of anybody interested in the Polo story, medieval history, old maps, geographical ideas, European voyages of discovery, and early Chinese legends.”

— Toby Lester ― Wall Street Journal

“For a guy who claimed to spend seventeen years in China as a confidant of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo left a surprisingly skimpy paper trail. No Asian sources mention the footloose Italian. The only record of his thirteenth-century odyssey through the Far East is the hot air of his own Travels, which was actually an ‘as told to’ penned by a writer of romances. But a set of fourteen parchments, now collected and exhaustively studied for the first time, give us a raft of new stories about Polo’s journeys and something notably missing from his own account: maps. . . .  But as Olshin is first to admit, the authenticity of the ten maps and four texts is hardly settled. The ink remains untested, and a radiocarbon study of the parchment of one key map—the only one subjected to such analysis—dates the sheepskin vellum to the fifteenth or sixteenth century, a sign the map is at best a copy. Another quandary is that Polo himself wrote nothing of personal maps or of lands beyond Asia, though he did once boast: ‘I did not tell half of what I saw.’”

— Ariel Sabar ― Smithsonian Magazine

“The parchments’ existence first came to light in the 1930s when Rossi contacted the Library of Congress, but the collection has never been exhaustively analyzed—until now. Olshin . . . has spent more than a decade contextualizing the documents and translating their Italian, Latin, Arabic, and Chinese inscriptions. . . . Olshin is the first scholar in decades to see these originals. By painstakingly tracing Rossi’s ancestry, Olshin found that his explanation that Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian admiral and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family was credible.”

— Christopher Klein ― History.com

“Olshin plays with the idea that Marco Polo’s relatives may have preserved geographical information about distant lands first recorded by him, or even that they may have inherited maps that he made. If genuine, Olshin argues, these maps and texts would confirm that Marco Polo knew about the New World two centuries before Columbus, either from his own experience or through hearing about it from the Chinese. . . . Fascinating material. . . . Olshin himself admits that there is no hard evidence to support his thrilling speculations. Including translations of every annotation and inscription, Olshin’s study and description of the fourteen parchments are exhaustive. His analysis, however, leaves many questions open. . . . A fascinating tale about maps, history and exploration.”

— Alessandro Scafi ― Times Literary Supplement (UK)

“Olshin’s study is useful in the way it attests to the continued allure of the Marco Polo legend as well as, more broadly, the extent to which medieval ‘mysteries’ go on to intrigue modern audiences. If Olshin’s study inspires some modern readers to learn more about the rich history of medieval travel, and in particular to explore some of the abundant bibliography around the fascinating figure of Marco Polo, this can only be a good thing.”

Journal of Historical Geography

“Many readers will appreciate this kind of careful sifting of evidence, and the judicious tone of Olshin’s considerations.”

Cartographic Journal

“The major value of The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps is that this is the first really comprehensive research on this issue ever attempted and that, as his reasoning and his conclusions suggest, Olshin seems to have maintained a balanced approach: the Rossi affair is risky ground indeed. . . . A book that deserves to be discussed in depth in order to unmask, once and for all, this (not so sophisticated) forgery.”

Isis

“Could rewrite history as we know it.”

— Jon Street ― TheBlaze

“A valiant attempt to make sense of these documents, applying scholarly analysis from several different points of view: cartographic, mythological, historical, and linguistic. . . . Olshin is a thorough and thoughtful researcher and has successfully avoided speculating on the veracity of these frustrating and intriguing manuscripts. . . . This is a well written book which will be of interest to anyone interested in medieval history, cartography in general and Marco Polo in particular.”

— Richard Pflederer ― Portolan: Journal of the Washington Map Society

“A balanced, detailed, and scrupulously unspeculative work of cartographical scholarship, carefully footnoted and illustrated, not another ‘who discovered?’ sensation—a book that after a lapse of more than half a century attempts mainly to ‘lay a foundation for a deeper understanding of the material.’”

— Tim O’Connell ― Asian Review of Books

“Olshin . . . brings to The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps linguistic skills acquired during work and travels in the United States, Europe, Asia and Latin America, as well as an interest in cartography and in the history of exploration. . . . He is on firm ground when noting the known influence on cartography of Marco Polo’s travel tales, starting with the Catalan Atlas of 1375, and he is commendably cautious about the documents’ provenance, their interconnections, and their purported relationship to the Polo daughters and other named persons. Moreover, The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps is lucidly written and attractively produced with a number of useful illustrations.”

Imago Mundi: The International Journal for the History of Cartography

“A needed, not wildly speculative contribution to the history of cartography, The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps carefully considers the content, context, and translation of these documents, and does not attempt to fill in missing links if the evidence is not sufficient to support a valid conclusion. Olshin presents well-informed speculation considering the implications of this set of maps, whether they are pure fabrication, created at some time after the purported events, or are actually what they appear to be. If the latter is the case, they represent a remarkable survival of fourteenth-century manuscripts that document in part Marco Polo’s travels through Asia to China, and possibly a much earlier discovery of North America (than Columbus’s), particularly along its northwestern coast. A very balanced interpretation.”

— Ronald E. Grim ― Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

“The maps and documents associated with the Rossi family and the various claims that they date back to the time of Marco Polo have always been a mystery and a problem for historians of cartography, and, as such, they have cried out for a detailed, balanced, and careful scholarly study. Their history, discounted by some as mere fantasy, has scarcely been approached with the tools of serious scholarship. Olshin has finally produced not only a careful and serious study, but also a compelling and fascinating story that once again makes these maps objects of serious interest for all those concerned with medieval cartography and the transmission of geographic information through time.”

— John Hessler, FRGS ― curator, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

“A remarkable book on a remarkable subject. The conundrum posed by a collection of fourteen old maps and letters of different dates pertaining, or purporting to pertain, to Marco Polo’s travels in Asia in the thirteenth century is exquisitely dissected. The transmission of the documents themselves and the information they contain is scrutinized; possible (and impossible) connections are identified; genealogies are traced; and inconsistencies in personal and geographic names written in or coming from Italian, Latin, Chinese, and Arabic are exposed and explanations offered. Olshin wears his learning lightly. His lucid prose and straightforward approach capture from the beginning his readers’ attention, but they are then left to draw their own conclusions. Impressed by the number of documents involved and the complex ramifications of interconnections spanning seven centuries, even the most skeptical scholar would be hard pressed not to find for their authenticity, even if not all links in the chain are yet fully reforged.”

— Catherine Delano-Smith ― Institute of Historical Research, University of London

“Olshin’s careful examination of the Rossi Collection of maps from the archives of Marco Polo’s daughters and other family members… brings to us a fresh insight into the world of Polo and his travels. You cannot fail to be delighted by the wider understanding this book offers on the life of a limitlessly fascinating merchant explorer.”

— Sarla Langdon ― The Bay

About the Author

Benjamin B. Olshin is associate professor of philosophy and the history and philosophy of science and technology at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ University of Chicago Press (October 29, 2014)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 176 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 022614982X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0226149820
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches

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