Niccolò de' Conti

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Niccolò de' Conti

The Venetian merchant-adventurer Niccolò de'Conti (ca. 1396-1469) contributed greatly to Europe's knowledge of the Eastern world.

Niccolò de'Conti was from a noble mercantile family; at an early age he decided to follow in the family tradition by establishing a lucrative trading operation in the East. Unlike most of his fellow Venetians, however, Conti did not concentrate solely on trade with Egypt. In 1419 he began a journey—reminiscent of that of Marco Polo—which lasted nearly a quarter of a century and took him to the Near and Far East. Like Marco Polo, Conti displayed a facility for language and for recording his observations for posterity.

The first phase of Conti's odyssey included a stay in Syria, where he spent enough time to learn to speak the Arabic language. He traveled overland through the desert to Baghdad; from there he moved on to Persia (modern Iran), where he founded a trading company with local merchants. In the course of his business activities, Conti added the Persian language to his repertory. With Persia as his base, Conti extended his operations into India. Sailing extensively in the Indian Ocean, Conti recorded many of his impressions as he landed at various cities. During these years he had an opportunity to experience Indian life personally, since he married an Indian woman and began to raise a family. It was probably at this time that Conti renounced Christianity. It is not clear whether this was done out of conviction or necessity.

Conti eventually extended his visit to the East Indies. His trip there included stops at Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, a venture that proved extremely profitable. He returned with a shipload of Sumatran spices, gold, and precious stones. From the Malay Peninsula he sailed northward to Burma, which provided more cargo as well as numerous exotic stories. This part of his long travels included a stop at Java, after which he sailed for Venice.

The trip home was marked by frequent trading stops. He returned via the Red Sea and Suez and finally arrived in Venice in 1444. The reaction to his return was mixed. He was lionized because of the glamour of his long, lucrative trip, while his Indian wife and children were objects of a great deal of curiosity. But Conti's renunciation of Christianity, for whatever reasons, could not be officially condoned. Thus, as Conti's penance, Pope Eugene IV ordered him to provide a detailed, accurate account of what he had done and seen. The result was an account that remains one of the most informative narratives of southeastern Asia to emerge from the early Renaissance period. Like Marco Polo, Conti helped shape Europe's concept of the outside world.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Conti. Useful background studies are Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance: 1420-1620 (1952), and J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (1963). □