Leo Africanus A Man of Two Worlds
Leo Africanus “His cultural and national identities can be hard to determine, because they were altogether subtle,” said historian Lotfi Bouchentouf of Hassan II University at Ain Chok, near Casablanca. “He was a Muslim who lived as a Christian and wrote for a Christian audience about the world of Islam. He was a man of many levels.”
Leo Africanus In the “Northern Italian” room of Washington’s National Gallery of Art hangs a somber, dark-toned likeness of a young scholar entitled “Portrait of a Humanist.” Painted in Rome about 1520, the bearded, black-robed figure stands partially illuminated in a three-quarters pose. His dark eyes are fixed, his posture self-assured. His long, elegant hands seem well-suited to the tools of his trade at his side: quill and ink, leather-bound volumes and— a fairly recent invention—a globe. Some suspect that the shadowy figure with the vaguely Moorish features was in fact Al Hassan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fassi, better known to western scholars as Leo Africanus.
Leo Africanus Two years before Leo was born in 1494, his family fled the Spanish conquest of Granada and settled in Fez, Morocco, where Leo attended school at the Karaouine Mosque. Its minaret, above, remains a leading landmark of the city.
Early Life • “Those Arabians which inhabite Barbarie, or upon the coast of the Mediterran sea, are greatly addicted unto the studie of good artes and sciences,” observed Leo in Book I of his History.
Leo Africanus In 1518, pirates sacked the ship that bore Leo from Constantinople. The Knights of Saint John had him taken to Rome, where he was kept in the Castel Sant’Angelo until he professed a conversion to Christianity, at which Pope Leo X (gave him the name “Leone” as a patronly favor. Leo was 24 years old.
Pope Leo X Leo was baptized on January 6, 1520 by the pope himself, who christened his new convert “Johannes Leo de Medicis,” or “Giovanni Leone” in Italian, a gesture of high favor, for Giovanni de’ Medici was the pope’s own name. For his part, Leo referred to himself by the Arabic version of his new name, Yuhanna al-Asad—John the Lion.
Leo Africanus • Scholars debate the sincerity of Leo’s conversion, but the argument is literally academic, as Leo left no definitive statement on the matter. He did, however, leave a hint by relating the story of “a most wily bird” who avoided paying taxes to the king of birds by living underwater like a fish. When the fish king began demanding taxes, the bird promptly left the water and returned to the sky. • “I will do like the bird,” Leo wrote. “[W]hen I hear the Africans evil spoken of, I wilaffirme my selfe to be one of Granada; and when I perceive the nation of Granada to be discommended, then I will professe my selfe to be an African.”
Leo’s Writings Cosmographia & Geographia de Affrica in manuscript form, Leo’s book was published in Venice in 1550 as Della descrittione dell’Africa
The pomegranates of Mecnase (Meknes) are “most pleasant of taste” but its “lemons are waterish and unpleasant”
Leo’s Return Leo himself, in the final chapters of the Cosmographia, expressed his desire to return one day “by Gods assistance…into mine owne countrie.”
Leo as Othello What similarities exist between Leo and Othello?
Leo as Othello Perhaps most telling evidence, considering Desdemona’s fate and Othello’s fatal flaw, is Leo’s characterization of the Berber marriage temperament: “No nation in the world is so subject unto jealousy; for they will rather leese their lives, then put up any disgrace in the behalfe of their women.”