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War, Economic and Political Reform in Marco Polo’s Venice

Marco Polo was born in 1254 and was part of a rich merchant family who held positions in the Grand Council which epitomised the high position they held in Venetian society during the 12th and 13th Centuries.[1] There has been an emphasis to discuss his achievements of exploration into the unknown lands of the orient between 1271 and 1295 and how this helped enrich the Venetian Republic during the 14th Century. However, the focus of this article will focus more on the impact on political reforms that took place during Marco Polo’s lifetime which also helped the Venetians become one of the most powerful city-states in Italy. It will also focus on Marco Polo’s role in the war between Venice and Genoa who were rival city-states who were intent on building a maritime Empire and how he was taken prisoner. It was while he was in prison that he told the story of his travels in which he write later on in 1295.

This will be exemplified by the impact of political changes that took place within the Republic of Venice during the lifetime of Marco Polo. For example the gradual change from the dominance of the Great Council into an oligarchy during the time of Marco Polo’s Venice which became stable and efficient in its governance and a system that was envied by the other mainland Italian states. During Marco Polo’s time in prison, Doge ‘Pieruzzo’ Gradenigo and his supporters finally established heredity as the only qualification for membership of the Grand Council and its members increased from less than 400 in 1295 to over 1000 by 1311.[2] Venice also continued its rise as a major player in international trade especially with the East, through the Polo family’s relationship with the ruling elite of the Mongol Empire.[3] Also the power and influence they had over trade within Constantinople made the Venetian merchant class very rich.[4] The political reforms and the rise of Venice as a major player in international trade in Marco Polo’s era culminated in the rise of a merchant oligarchy that dominated its political system throughout the early modern period.

The major political rival to Venice’s power and influence in Eastern Europe was the Republic of Genoa who has a similar political system and like Venice wanting a maritime Empire. This war had a major effect on Marco Polo who supplied ships for the Venetian and his high position in the Great Council was an important factor in supply the Venetian navy in its war against Genoa. During the war, Marco Polo was taken prisoner by the Genoese during their victories in either the battle of Curzola or the earlier victory at Ajas, and the victories of the Venetians in Eastern Europe epitomised the sea-sawing nature of the war. [5] Marco Polo was a prisoner until May 1299 when a truce was mediated with Genoa in which Marco Polo was released.[6] The war against Genoa continued on and off until the final victory of Venice at the end of the 14th Century which is considered as the beginning of the early modern period.[7]

[1] John Julius Norwich. A History of Venice, London: Allen Lane, 1982, 178
[2] Philip Longworth. The Rise and Fall of Venice, London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1974, 83-84.
[3] Ibid., 79
[4]Robert Sabatino Lopez, The commercial revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[5] T. Okey. Venice and Its Story, London: J.M Dent & Co. 1903, 98-99. see also Henry Yule (ed., trans.), “Introduction” in Marco Polo, The Book of Marco Polo The Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, London: Murray, 1929, 54-55,
[6] Ibid., 83 see also Okey. Venice and Its Story, 98-99.
[7] Ibid., 118.