the scholarly literature, there seem to be at least 3 distinct myths
about Leo's persona:
The Renaissance Man
This was the earliest of all Leo myths. Developed by the first European
readers of the Cosmographia, this myth depicted a Leo Africanus
who had embraced the values of Renaissance Italy to the point of
rejecting his old customs.
This is the 'modern' version of Leo: one fitting our 20th century
vision of the true cross-cultural, global individual. Amin Maalouf's
novel has done much to stress this image.
The Arab Traveler
the 1930s, a generation of Arab scholars rose to reclaim Leo to
their national heritage. Focusing on the ambiguities of his conversion
to Catholicism and his desire to return to Tunis and Islam at
the end of his life, they stressed the Arabic and Muslim dimension
of his persona.
are the details of his life which each version chooses to remember,
exaggerate and sometimes invent.
The Renaissance Man
Leo de Medici, alias Leo Africanus
Africanus or Hassan el Wazzan
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in Andalusia. His Andalusian background prepared him for the Italian
culture he later embraced.
in Andalusia, the last bastion of Islam in Catholic Spain- and a
culture more sophisticated than either the Maghrebi or the Christian.
in Andalusia, but his early journey to Fes made him grow up a Fassi.
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Leo X was renown for his interest in Oriental cultures. He adopted
Leo both metaphorically and literally- baptizing him with his own
hands, only 18 months after Leo's arrival in Rome. Leo embraced
this new father and faith unambiguously.
arrived in Rome against his will, and spent the first 12 months
in captivity, in the Chateau de St Ange (a Papal property). In that
time he studied Latin and Italian, and the precepts of Christianity.
His relationship with the Pope greatly hinged on their common love
of knowledge and sciences.
Leo X was thrilled to meet an expert in Arab cultures. Soon the
two men became friends, thanks to Hassan's intelligence and his
ability to blend in different environments. This was facilitated
by the fact he spoke Castilian and was familiar with Christian ways
and customs (having lived in Grenada)." (M.Hajji,
Introduction to Wasf Ifriquia).
converted unambiguously and died a Christian in Rome (see 1588 Preface
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general approach to religion seems rather ambiguous, being neither
a devout Muslim or Christian. He seemingly embraced whichever religion
permitted him to live most conveniently.
that he could not live as a Muslim in Italy, he deceptively converted
to Christianity (...), a decision we can understand as : "Will
be punished only those who renounce God after having been believers,
but not those who are forced to convert and remain believers" (M.Hajji,
Introduction to Wasf Ifriquia)
his stay with the Pope, Leo Africanus certainly must have gotten
acquainted with our body of classical literature, and was justified
in calling idiots [those who robbed tombs in search for treasures
in the outskirts of Fes]" (G. Camps, Une Societe Archeologique
The author is assuming that Leo's sojourn in Italy gave him a 'Classical'
education and respect for relics and culture which did not exist
in Morocco. According to him, Leo learnt a new set of values in
Italy, and embraced them fully.
a text could not have been written by a European writer in the 16th
century(...) It took a rare conjunction of events for European readers
to get access to this information on Africa: Leo's arrival in Europe,
the quality of his education, his many different occupations, his
inclination to write, his friendship with a Pope interested in Oriental
culture." (O. Zhiri, Une Oeuvre entre deux
text was originally written in Arabic, while he was still in the
Arab world,and he only translated it in Italian.
This is a much different position from the majority of scholars
who see Leo's writings as having been produced for an Italian,
and not an Arabic, audience.
died in Rome, a Christian.
returned to his homeland, as he had intended to do: "I have
the firm intention to sort all my writings when I will return home
after my trip to Europe" (Leo, 538)
died in Tunis, a Muslim.
Andalusian Muslim who abjured his Muslim faith.
Arab geographer whose originality lies in the fact that he wrote
his main works in Europe, and was most influential there."
(O. Zhiri, Les Sillages de Jean Leon l'Africain,
Hassan Ibn Mohamed El Wazzan El Fassi was a great Muslim and Arab
scholar, whose scientific worth was acknowledged by the Catholics
(...) On the other hand, Muslim Arabs have ignored him, and let
his work remain unknown" (Hajji, Introduction
to Wasf Ifriquia)
Myths, or Mistakes?
Ramusio's biography, all have believed Leo was captured near the
island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia. This is quite likely
as Djerba was a corsair's den (though mostly Muslim corsairs),
and that the island was a stage in the Venice Mediterranean trade,
meaning it drew merchants and robbers alike. For Italians of the
16th century, Djerba rimed with piracy and adventure, which may
explain why Ramusio placed Leo's captivity in those waters.
(For more on Djerba's history at the time, see
Actes du colloque sur l'histoire de Jerba, 1986. )
a more detailed explanation of Leo's captivity click here
was indeed captured by a Christian ship, but not by regular corsairs,
as his capturer was Pedro Bodiviglia, a Knight of Saint John (Order
of Rhodes, then of Malta). This religious brotherhood was founded
in the 11th century, at the time of the Crusades, when their mission
was to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. By Leo's time,
they had turned into a naval power, patrolling the seas in defense
of Christian faith- robbing Muslim ships was tolerated in this
Pedro Bodiviglia was the brother of the bishop of Salamanqua and
captain of his ship. According to Italian chroniclers who witnessed
Leo's arrival in Rome, he captured Leo in the Greek waters, on
the Eastern point of Crete, as Leo was journeying home from Constantinople,
and not Egypt (for more see D. Rauchenberger).