LEO AFRICANUS

(c. 1488-1552)
The Arab name of the author known to Europeans as Leo Africanus and famous for his book on Africa was al-Hassan Ibn-Mohammed al-Wezaz al-Fasi. He was born in Granada. In the late 1490s his family left for the city of Fez, where he received a fine education. From the time he was in his late teens, he did a great deal of traveling, most of which was professional. He appears to have traveled with merchants, to whom possibly he acted as a clerk or notary, reducing their transactions to writing, keeping their accounts, and generally assisting in the legal part of their business. He also acted in this capacity for government functionaries. Al-Hassan was entrusted with diplomatic missions at an early age and also on occasion served as a soldier. Before his capture, al-Hassan seems to have had an impressive career engaged in trade, serving his king both in diplomacy and as a soldier.
Probably sometime between 1518 and 1520, he was returning from what appears to have been a second voyage to Istanbul when he was captured by Christian pirates, who brought him to Rome and presented him to Pope Leo X.* Leo was impressed by his slave's learning and his familiarity with many countries and decided to free him once he had converted to Christianity. He was baptized John Leo, and the pope was his godfather. Hereafter he was known as Leo Africanus.
For the next few years al-Hassan, now called Leo, lived in Rome and inter­acted with many intellectuals and the literary elite. It was while he was in Rome around 1526 that Leo wrote in Italian the work that brought him his fame, The History and Description of Africa and ofthe Notable Things There in Contained. It was based on a diary or draft of a book of his travels that was with him when he was captured. The final book was not simply a translation of the diary. In it Leo also refers to events that occurred in Rome and to authors he would not have known before he came to Rome and studied Latin. Leo continued to live in Rome for a number of years. However, he was no longer living there in 1550 when a wealthy Italian collector, John Baptista Ramusio, secretary of state of Venice, acquired his history and had it published. Leo's history was also trans­lated into French and Latin and in 1600 into English. In the 1550 edition Ramusio says of Leo that he lived for a long time in Rome but is no longer a resident there, and this was repeated in the edition of 1554. But subsequent editions affirmed, though without any authority being given, that not only did Leo live in Rome, but never set foot out of it for the rest of his life. Another contemporary, however, reported that Leo eventually left Rome and took up residence in Tunis, resuming his Moslem faith, and died there in 1552.
Bibliography
Leo Africanus, The History and Description ofAfrica and ofthe Notable Things Therein Contained, Written by al-Hassan Ibn-Mohammed al-Wezaz al-Fasi, a Moor, Bap­tised as Giovanni Leone, But Better Known as Leo Africanus, 1896. C. Levin, "Backgrounds and Echoes of Othello: from Leo Africanus to Ignatius Sancho," Lamar Journal of the Humanities 22, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 45-68.
Carole Levin

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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