Marco Polo: Aide aux pauvres en Chine, 1410-1412
Marco Polo was an Italian merchant, explorer and writer who traveled the silk road during the medieval times. He published a book called “Livres des merveilles du monde”, translating to “Book of the World’s Marvels”, which kept record of his travels in 1300. This book gave us insight on his travels to Asian regions and cities and along the Silk Road as well as a depiction of the culture and people he witnessed during these ventures. The Aide aux pauvres en Chine was meant to depict a scene in China as described by Marco Polo’s adventures in Asia.
In Aide aux pauvres en Chine, translating to “Helping the poor in China”, artists depicted the difference in class between the pagans and the Chinese government by having the poor kneeling down to the upper class government leaders, the leaders standing much taller. These leaders are giving out grain from a grain house and coins for a pagan’s bowl, which is seen more in European culture. The Chinese government is in a colorful wardrobe while the pagan’s dress in no color at all. The sacks of grain are meant to feed the poor pagans and their families which the government provides.
Marco Polo saw the Chinese as having a complex social structure, one where the government would feed the poor. It’s interesting to see that all of the characters in the painting are meant to represent Chinese people but when we first looked we assumed they were European, it was only the title that told us otherwise. Marco Polo’s descriptions of China seem to be too great compared to the picture portrayed as it seems to be very European-looking.
Since this was painted by European people, it shows how they are imagining medieval Europe to China. This proves that even China hands out food to the poor. Within this painting, there are government officials of China handing out food to the pagans. A pagan is a follower of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshiping religion. The pagans in this painting are viewed as the poor. For example, they are in different colored clothing than the government officials who are handing out food. They didn’t show race/religion by color, they showed it with clothing. The artist tried to depict the significance between classes by having the pagans look up to the government officials. The architecture within this painting is very European looking. This is the same type of architecture you would see in Paris.
Architecture and Food
Within the painting of China, both architecture and food play a vital role in the perception of cultural uncertainties of the time, creating multiple racial pinpoints to stand out. Considering that European artists created the artwork, it makes sense that the work depicts details pertaining to that lifestyle. Observing more closely the details provided, the food, or grain, is the primary offering to be given out to the poor pagans. How rice and grain are essential commodities in this work relates to the ideals mentioned by Marco Polo during his travels along the Silk Road, where he has stated that in China, rice is respected. Interestingly enough, being that rice is a respected grain, it is the governments in the painting handing out rice to the poor. This scene here is significant because it represents the substantial influence of Christianity, lacking Chinese cultural details. During his travels, Marco Polo insisted that China during the latter part of the sixteenth century had an earlier spread of Christianity by the Jesuits, causing the Chinese Government to revolt based on the differences in religious practices. With the governments being depicted as the ones handing out the rice and grain, during this time, we see how leadership and religion intertwine, where just as Christ is respected in Christianity, rice and those handing it off are respected by the poor Chinese.
Another instance of where we see racial uncertainties lies within the background of the image and the color red itself. Within Christianity beliefs, red is believed to reflect the martyred saints and the blood of Jesus. One can make out from looking at this painting that the details where red is highlighted or shown prominently are through clothing and architecture. In considering the meaning behind the color, the artist uses red here as persuasion. The grain houses painted red are an example that the rice and grain symbolize the sacrifice made by Christ and the saints in providing for the poor, promoting Christianity into other cultures. Not only that, but in looking solely at the architecture of the buildings, the influence of Christianity and European beliefs are still magnified. Marco Polo has insisted in his travels that the architecture of China is not grand in nature. In the painting, the buildings here mimic the shapes of churches and cathedrals with their pointy roofs, edges, and spherical qualities.
Everyone in this image looks the same based on their facial features. However, based on their clothing we can tell who is considered to be above the others. One of the ways to tell the difference between the poor and the governmental figures in this picture is to focus on the color of their clothes. The poor residents of China have clothes that lack color and resemble rags. This is likely because the clothes that were dyed different colors cost more money. The people in the picture with more money are wearing clothes dyed red, green and blue. Another way to tell the difference is by examining their hats. The poor had hats that also lacked color. One of the men walking out of the doorway is even wearing a hat that looks like a sack. The other poor man walking out of the doorway is barefoot. We can not see anyone else’s feet in the picture, but we can assume that he is barefoot because he could not afford shoes.
Marco Polo and his travels - who was Marco Polo? Silk Road. (2019, March 27). Retrieved April 5, 2022, from http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml/
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Wright, Thomas. “The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian .” Public Library UK, Blackmask Online, 2002, http://public-library.uk/.