Leo Africanus: The Man with Many Names

Leo Africanus: The Man with Many Names

By Pekka Masonen

Al-Andalus Magreb,Vol. 8–9 (2001)

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait of a Humanist, Italian, 1485 - 1547, c. 1520 - the painting may depict Leo Africanus
Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait of a Humanist, Italian, 1485 – 1547, c. 1520 – the painting may depict Leo Africanus

Introduction: The sixteenth-century Andalusi adventurer Leo Africanus was a household name amidst European geographers for almost three centuries. He was unanimously respected as the most authoritative source for the political and human geography of the Barbary Coast and Sudanic Africa, until the beginning of European exploration and expansion in the African continent proved his knowledge outdated. In the European historiography of Sudanic Africa, Leo’s influence lasted for much longer. One important reason for his persistent popularity was that no rivalling sources were available, save the description of Africa written by his Christian countryman, Luis del Mármol Carvajal (c.1520–1600), who was unjustly labelled by the seventeenth-century scholars a mere copyist of Leo Africanus. The Portuguese had successfully mapped the coasts of Africa already by the early sixteenth century, but they had not been able to penetrate the interior of the continent. Their advance was checked by local resistance and lethal endemic diseases. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa was largely forgotten after Europeans had found their way to the wonders and treasures of the New World and India.

Very little is known about the actual life of Leo Africanus, in spite of his well-established posthumous fame. He did not leave many marks in contemporary documents. Most information of his life is based on the autobiographical notes in his own work and on the few remarks in other sixteenth-century European texts. Therefore, it has been suggested that the man never existed and that his celebrated description of African geography was actually composed by a Venetian ghostwriter on the basis of contemporary Italian reports on Northern Africa. This suggestion is plausible, for Italian merchants had been trading in North African ports since the twelfth century and they must have gained a reasonably good information of the area. Leo Africanus himself mentioned that he had met several Genoese merchants in Morocco. One of them, called Thomaso de Marino, had been living in Fez for thirty years. However, the suggestion is too rigid, for a few examples of Leo’s autographs have survived, but it still contains a grain of truth: Leo Africanus is somewhat a legendary character and much of our conventional knowledge of his life rests on speculations made by his enthusiastic admirers. The most comprehensive and scholarly biography of Leo Africanus has been written by Dietrich Rauchenberger who has drawn on hitherto neglected Italian archival material. A modern historical novel about Leo Africanus was written by the Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf.

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