Italy’s ties with China go back to the Silk Road, the overland route used since ancient times by traders exchanging wares. The Venetian traders Niccolò and Maffeo Polo visited Beijing in 1266, becoming one of the first Western Europeans to travel to China. In 1271, they set off for a second time, accompanied by Niccolò’s young son, Marco. Although they arrived on the Silk Road via Central Asia, they eventually returned to Italy by sea, visiting Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and Gujarat along the way. A map of their voyages looks not unlike one of those Belt and Road Initiative maps pumped out by Chinese state media today. This initiative, which is sometimes, appropriately, known as the New Silk Road, consists of a planned network of transportation infrastructure financed by China and linking it to Europe, Africa, and the rest of Asia.
Barely 50 years after the Polos’ return from China, an outbreak of bubonic plague traveled those very same routes to the West, where the disease became known as the Black Death. It is believed to have been spread by both land and sea, originating in China and following the trade routes to Europe and the Middle East. Both routes ultimately converged on Italy, where the plague killed up to 75 percent of the population in some areas. Northern Italy’s thoroughly internationalized merchant traders probably played a key role in transmitting the disease onward to the rest of Europe.
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