Niccolò de' Conti Immerses Himself in the East
Niccolò de' Conti Immerses Himself in the East
Between 1419 and 1444, Niccolò de' Conti undertook an odyssey that has been compared with that of Marco Polo some 150 years before. Like Polo, Conti was a Venetian merchant who realized in his youth that international trade offered boundless opportunities for adventure, and like Polo he spent a quarter-century traveling in the East. Both men wrote of their journeys—in fact, their accounts have been published together—and though Polo and his writing are much better known, Conti's work also exerted considerable influence on Europeans' growing interest in exploration. As for the degree to which the two men became immersed in the life of the East, Conti exceeded Polo by a wide margin: Polo may have served in the court of an Eastern monarch, Kublai Khan, but Conti married an Indian wife, raised a family, and renounced Christianity.
Western European contact with the East—not just the Far East, later visited by both Polo (1254-1324) and Conti (c. 1396-1469), but even parts of the Near or Middle East—had all but ceased with the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century a.d. It is more than a little ironic, then, that the beginnings of this isolation more or less coincided with Westerners' adoption of what is, after all, a Middle Eastern religion: Christianity.
Christian missionaries such as Peter and Paul had come from Judea to Rome, and though these original messengers had met with persecution and death, the religion had taken hold, and for a time the new faith had unified the Mediterranean basin, with bishops at Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch. The rise of Islam in the seventh century, however, placed the last three of these cities under Muslim control, and established a virtual iron curtain between West and East.
Other divisions served to further isolate Western Europeans. Disagreements over the nature of Jesus of Nazareth—specifically, his dual role as both human and divine—had separated splinter groups such as the Arians and Nestorians from mainstream Christianity, as they would ultimately divide the main Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Greek Orthodox) churches in 1054. This, too, led to loss of contact with the East: had there not been a break between Rome and the Nestorians, who gravitated toward India and China, it is possible their shared faith might have helped keep communication open between Christians in Western Europe and East Asia.
Except for limited diplomatic exchanges between Charlemagne (742-814) and the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (766-809), then, European contact with the East was minimal for a period of about half a millennium. Then two series of events opened the way for Europe's contact with the outside world, and indeed for the continent's awakening from the Dark Ages. First, the Crusades (1095-1291) exposed Europeans to the advanced civilizations of Byzantium and, to a much greater extent, the Muslim Middle East. Then, during a period of about two centuries beginning around 1220, the Mongol empires of Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and his successors served to unify a vast region between eastern Europe and the Far East under a single group of rulers.
Mongol rule made possible the first European journeys to the Far East, beginning with that of the priest Giovanni da Pian del Carpini (1182-1252), sent to the court of Kuyuk Khan by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. Later, Kublai Khan (1215-1294) sent a traveler westward, Rabban Bar Sauma (c. 1220-1294), who visited Pope Nicholas IV in about 1288. Nicholas in turn sent Giovanni da Montecorvino (1246-1328), who established the first Catholic mission in China. In the meantime, however, the first European merchants had begun to go East, among them brothers Niccolò and Maffeo Polo. Later the Polos made another journey, this time with Niccolò's son Marco. It is likely that another Niccolò—another merchant of Venice, born more than 70 years after Marco Polo died—grew up listening to the tall tales Marco had written in his book.
Conti's family had built its considerable wealth by trading with Egypt, and though the young Niccolò was certainly interested in the world of international business, he had his eye on even more exotic trading locales than those of Cairo and Alexandria. In 1419 he traveled to Syria, where he learned Arabic, which along with Farsi (or Persian) was essential for trade in the Middle East. In time Conti moved on to Baghdad and later Persia (modern Iran), where he learned to speak Farsi as well.
While in Persia, Conti established a trading company in association with local merchants, and began to conduct a brisk business at various ports along the Indian Ocean. Having apparently decided that his destiny lay in the East, he married an Indian woman, and together they began raising a family. Around this time, he also renounced Christianity, presumably in favor of Islam. This act would later become a subject of dispute, and indeed it has never been fully clear whether he did so willingly or not.
Among the areas Conti visited in India—all the while taking extensive notes—were Cambay, a state in the northwestern part of the subcontinent; Vijayanagar, capital of a powerful Hindu kingdom in the Deccan Plateau of central India; and Maliapur, where he found the shrine of St. Thomas the Apostle. The latter had, according to legend at least, gone to India as a missionary; in any case, the existence of a native Christian community in India (members of whom Conti met) is indisputable.
Moving far to the east, Conti next visited the island of Sumatra in what is now Indonesia, a region known at the time as the East Indies. There he observed cannibalism, and made note of the area's riches in gold and pepper. (At that time, the two were almost equally precious, since spices were necessary for the preservation of meat.) He then went to the Malay Peninsula, where he engaged in profitable trade with Muslim merchants; to Champa, or modern Vietnam; and later to Burma, where he visited the wealthy city of Pegu along the Irrawaddy River.
Conti made at least one more venture eastward, to Java, before beginning his long, slow journey toward Venice. Along the way, he stopped at a number of locales, including Calicut on India's Malabar Coast, and returned to Cambay before sailing on to Aden at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. He stopped for a time in what is now Somalia, then sailed up the Red Sea and disembarked at Jidda, the port for Mecca. From there he made his way via overland routes first to Egypt, then to Mount Sinai in southern Judea. By 1444, he had returned to the city of his birth.
Over the course of a quarter-century, Conti had mingled with many varieties of peoples and had observed numerous cultures and ways of life firsthand. He had spent time among Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and practitioners of other religions, including breakaway forms of Christianity. These facts made him a great curiosity among the Venetians, as did his Indian wife and Indo-Italian family. Wealthy from his many business dealings, he was a celebrated figure, exotic and intriguing—but he still had to account for his renunciation of Christianity.
For this Pope Eugenius IV (r. 1431-1445) devised a unique form of penance: in order to pay for his sin, Conti was required to write an account of his journeys. He therefore went to work with Vatican secretary Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), who acted as scribe. (It is interesting to note that Eugenius was a strong advocate of humanism in education, and favored a rapprochement between Rome and the Greek Orthodox Church, the Nestorians, and other Christian groups.) As for Conti's record of his journeys, the papacy kept parts of those writings a secret for some time, no doubt intending to protect knowledge regarding trade; nonetheless, Conti's descriptions of spices in the East Indies greatly spurred the pace of European exploration.
Only in 1723, with the publication of Historiae de veritate fortunae, was Bracciolini's record of Conti's travels published. In the meantime, however, a Spanish version written by Rodrigo de Santaelle had appeared, and in 1579 it was translated into English by John Frampton. This version, which combines an account of Conti's journeys with those of Polo, is the one most familiar to readers in the English-speaking world.
Unfortunately, however, "most familiar" is a relative description: Conti's name is hardly a household word on the level of Polo's. He did gain some exposure, however, with the 1996 publication of The Venetian's Wife, a novel by Nick Bantock in which Conti appears as a character. Bantock, author of the highly acclaimed Griffin & Sabine (1991) and its sequels, said he first heard of Conti "in passing, on a PBS [Public Broadcasting System] program. I was amazed that he could be so historically unrecognized considering his extraordinary travels." Impressed by what he learned when he researched Conti's life, Bantock chose to include a highly fictionalized version of Conti in his sensual thriller.
Bantock, Nick. The Venetian's Wife: A Strangely Sensual Tale of a Renaissance Explorer, a Computer, and a Metamorphosis. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.
Conti, Niccolò de', and Marco Polo. The Most Noble and Famous Travels of Marco Polo Together with the Travels of Niccolò de' Conti, translated by John Frampton, edited by N. M. Penzer. London: Argonaut Press, 1937.
Major, R. H., ed. India in the Fifteenth Century. London: Hakluyt Society, 1857.