This is the last will and testament of the famous thirteenth-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo. He dictated it to a notary, a legal professional whose job was to draw up documents in the proper form. When he was a teenager, Marco’s father and uncle, Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, brought him along on a journey to the court of Kubilai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China under the Yüan Dynasty. Marco lived in China and worked as a civil servant for the Yüan court for 17 years. Eventually he was asked to escort one of the khan’s daughters to Persia to marry the local ruler, the Ilkhan. From there he returned to Venice, reaching home in 1295. He married Donata Badoer in 1300, continued to trade as a merchant, and became known by the nickname il Milione (Marco Million) because he liked to tell stories about Khubilai Khan’s great wealth.

Translated from the Italian by Hannah Barker. Henry Yule, “Marco Polo e il suo libro,” Archivio veneto 2 (1871): 273-276. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

In the year of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ 1324, on the ninth of January,[1] the seventh indiction,[2] at Rialto.[3]

It is the gift of divine inspiration, as well as the judgment of a provident mind, that every man should be concerned to set his estate in order before the judgment of death arrives, lest his estate remain in disorder. Wherefore I, Marco Polo of the parish of St. John Chrysostom, while daily feebler on account of bodily infirmity, yet sound in mind by the grace of God and unimpaired in senses and judgment, fearing lest I die intestate and my estate remain in disorder, have sent for Giovanni Giustiniani, priest of St. Proculo and notary, and have instructed him to draw up this my testament in complete form, by which I establish Donata my wife and my dear daughters Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta as my trustees, in order that after my death they may execute the dispositions and bequests which I am about to order.

First of all, I want and order that the tithe be paid properly.[4] I want and order that 2000 Venetian lire beyond the tithe be distributed in the following manner: 20 soldi[5] to the monastery of St. Lorenzo where I desire to be buried; 300 lire to my sister-in-law Ysabetta Quirino which she owes me[6]; 40 soldi to each of the monasteries and hospitals located from Grado to Capo d’Argine.[7] Also I leave to the Convent of Sts. Giovanni and Paolo of the Order of the Preachers[8] that which it owes me, and an additional 10 lire to Father Reniero and 5 lire to Father Benvenuto, Venetian, of the Order of the Preachers, beyond what is owed to me. Also I leave 5 lire to every congregation in Rialto, and 4 lire to every confraternity of which I am a member. Also I leave 20 soldi to the priest Giovanni Giustiniani the notary, for his trouble to draw up this my will and so that he may pray to the Lord for me. Also I absolve Peter the Tartar,[9] my slave,[10] from every bond of servitude, so that God may absolve my soul from every fault and sin. I equally restore to him what he earned through work in his own house, and in addition to that I leave him 100 lire. The remainder of the said 2000 lire, free of tithe, ought to be distributed for my soul according to the good judgment of my trustees.

Out of my remaining property, I leave to the aforesaid Donata, my wife and trustee, 8 lire annually, for her own use, for however long she lives, over and above her linens and all the household furnishings with 3 complete beds.

And all my property, movable and immovable, that has not been disposed of in the present act… I especially and expressly leave to my aforesaid daughters Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta, freely and absolutely, to be divided in equal parts among them. I name and constitute them my heirs as regards all and sundry of my movable and immovable property, rights, and tacit or express actions, of whatever kind, that belong to me or that may fall to me, except that before the division my daughter Moreta ought to receive the same as each of my other two daughters had for her dowry and trousseau…[11]

And if anyone shall presume to infringe or violate this will, may he incur the curse of God Almighty, and remain bound under the anathema of the 318 Fathers, and may he be bound to pay five pounts of gold to my heirs, and may this my will remain in force.

The signature of the above-named Marco Polo who caused me to draw up this act.

I, Petro Grifon, priest, witness.

I, Nufrio Barberio, witness.

I, Giovanni Giustiniani, priest of St. Proculo and notary, have completed and authenticated [this testament].

[1] The Venetian year began on March 1. The date given in the document (January 9, 1323 more veneto) corresponds to January 9, 1324 CE.

[2] The indiction was a fifteen-year Roman tax assessment cycle still used as a calendar reference long after Romans ceased to collect taxes.

[3] The name of the main island on which the city of Venice was built.

[4] The tithe was 10% of the value of the estate due to the Church, in this case to the Bishop of Castello.

[5] One lira was equivalent to 20 soldi.

[6] In other words, Marco was forgiving his sister-in-law’s debt to him.

[7] Along the coast northeast of the Venetian lagoon.

[8] The Dominican Order.

[9] Tartar is a term used by medieval authors to refer to Mongols and their subjects. During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries there were four Tartar states created as a result of Chingiz Khan’s conquests: the Golden Horde in what is now Ukraine and southern Russia; the Ilkhanate in what is now Iran and parts of Iraq and Syria; the Chaghatai Khanate in Central Asia; and the Yüan dynasty in China

[10] The term was servitore, which could refer to a free or an unfree servant, but the function of this clause was to perform a manumission, a legal act which applied only to slaves.

[11] This suggests that Fantina and Bellela had already received their dowries and were therefore already married.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who were the members of Marco Polo’s household? What were the relationships among them? Compare and contrast Marco Polo’s household with other Venetian slave-owning households described in Criminal Trials of Slaves in Venice and Slave Women and Their Children in Venetian Crete.
  2. Peter the Tartar’s manumission appears at the end of a long list of charitable bequests to various religious institutions and pious causes, the value of which amounted to 2000 lire. That is a substantial sum of money in medieval Venice. Where did that money come from? Why do you think Marco Polo might have chosen to leave it to charity? In what way(s) was the manumission of a slave considered a charitable act?
  3. What do you think Marco Polo’s ownership of a Tartar slave had to do with his earlier journey through the Mongol empire and the time that he spent living and working at Khubilai Khan’s court?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Barker, Hannah. That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260-1500. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.
  • Biran, Michal. “Forced Migrations and Slavery in the Mongol Empire (1206-1368).” In The Cambridge World History of Slavery, vol. 2, AD 500 – AD 1420, ed. Craig Perry, David Eltis, Stanley Engerman, and David Richardson, 76-99. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021.
  • Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, trans. Sharon Kinoshita. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2016.
  • Romano, Dennis. Housecraft and Statecraft: Domestic Service in Renaissance Italy, 1400-1600. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
  • Schiel, Juliane. “‘Slaves’ Religious Choice in Renaissance Venice: Applying Insights from Missionary Narratives to Slave Baptism Records.” Archivio veneto 146 (2015): 23-45.


Law, Manumission, Men, Property