In 1271, a 17-year-old boy left Venice with his father and uncle to travel east along the Silk Road. Marco Polo did not return home until 24 years later, and while the self-described “wayfarer” was hardly the first European to have visited the Far East, he instantly became the most famous after the publication of “The Travels of Marco Polo.” Scholars have long debated the veracity of the ghostwritten book, including whether Polo truly traveled to China or merely cobbled together second-hand accounts. Doubters point to inaccuracies in the tales and his failure to mention the Great Wall of China or central elements of Chinese culture such as the use of chopsticks or tea drinking.
Six centuries after Polo departed Venice on his epic odyssey to the east (and almost 400 years after Columbus set sail), another teenager left Italy heading west in search of adventures and carrying with him potential clues that may solve one long-simmering debate but start another. Marcian Rossi immigrated to the United States in the 1880s and brought to the New World a collection of 14 maps and texts that may not only back up Polo’s claim that he journeyed to China but could reveal that the Venetian merchant also set foot on the North American continent 200 years before the voyage of Christopher Columbus.
Although Polo never produced a map to accompany his narrative account, the documents in Rossi’s collection included maps detailing Polo’s journey to the Far East bearing dates from the 13th and 14th centuries along with texts signed by the explorer’s three daughters—Fantina, Bellela and Moreta.
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. Benjamin B. Olshin, a professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, has spent more than a decade contextualizing the documents and translating their Italian, Latin, Arabic and Chinese inscriptions. He details the results of his intensive research in a new book, “The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps,” which will be published in November and include photographs of the antiquated maps and texts.
All but one of the original documents, a map Rossi donated to the Library of Congress, remain in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson in Texas, and Olshin is the first scholar in decades to see those 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.
One of the most curious maps in the Rossi collection, the one donated to the Library of Congress, contains an illustration of a Venetian sailing vessel and a sketch of what appear to be outlines of Japan, Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and the coastlines of present-day Alaska and British Columbia. Dubbed “Map with Ship,” the document lacks longitude and latitude reference lines and was not a navigational aid. Olshin describes himself as an “evidence guy” and makes no claims that the map definitively depicts Alaska although there are similarities. “Here’s a map showing something very much like the tip of North America and the farthest reach of Asia before it had been mapped by Europeans. A couple of the other maps also show the same kind of thing,” he says.
Another document in the Rossi collection includes text written by Bellela Polo that recounts how her father met a Syrian mariner on the Kamchatka Peninsula named Biaxio Sirdomap who spoke of a glacier-filled “Peninsula of Seals” where he landed after a 40-day sea voyage. What Olshin found most interesting in the documents was the mention of “Fusang,” a place mentioned in a more than 1,000-year-old Chinese legend about a monk traveling across distant waters that some believe is an allusion to America. “It was written in Chinese and not known in Western culture until the 18th century,” Olshin says. “I found in these maps there is mentioned the exact same place names you find in that Chinese story. No forger would have gone back and done anything like that.”
Taken together, the maps and the text raise the possibility that Polo crossed the 51-mile Bering Strait, sailed around the Aleutian Islands and down the coast of present-day Canada. If true, not only would that place Polo in America two centuries before Columbus, it would mean he found the Bering Strait four centuries before Danish explorer Vitus Bering supposedly became the first European to have sailed the waterway.
The documents imply in both the coastal outlines and the text that Marco Polo really traveled to northeast Asia,” Olshin says. While he points out that it’s possible that the Venetian merchant could have heard accounts of Arab or Chinese navigators who sailed to America, the documents show “he was gaining knowledge of lands much beyond the realm we normally connect with Marco Polo.”
Olshin emphasizes that the authenticity of the documents has yet to be verified. A radiocarbon study on the “Map with Ship” dated the sheepskin vellum to the 15th or 16th century, which means at best it was a copy of an original. The ink on the parchments has yet to be tested, so it’s also possible that landmasses could have been added at a later date when their existence became known throughout Europe.
Olshin says the research into the Rossi collection is a “work in progress,” and he hopes that the book will elicit more interest in the documents and assist in securing the necessary funding to conduct additional tests. “There’s a lot of work left to be done,” he says.
While Polo was prone to exaggeration, he never mentioned a trip across the Bering Strait in his chronicle or to any of his contemporaries. He did reveal on his deathbed, however, “I did not tell half of what I saw.” Possibly even a trip to Alaska.