The man whom historians know as Leo Africanus, author of the first geography of Africa, was born al-Hasan al-Wazzan to a Muslim family that in 1492 moved from Granada to Morocco. In this book, Natalie Zemon Davis offers a study of the fragmentary (and often contradictory) traces that this celebrated figure left behind him, and an interpretation of his extraordinary life and work.
As a young man, al-Hasan traveled extensively on behalf of the sultan of Fez, until he was captured in 1518 by Christian pirates in the Mediterranean and imprisoned by Pope Leo X, then released when he converted to Christianity. For the next decade he lived in Italy as the Christian scholar Giovanni Leono: it was then that he wrote his famous Description of Africa. After the sack of Rome in 1527, it is likely that he returned to North Africa. In her characteristically accessible and engaging way, Davis describes each sector of this dramatic life in detail, scrutinizing the evidence of al-Hasan's movement between cultural worlds, the Islamic and Arab traditions and ideas available to him, and his adventures with Christians and Jews in a European community of learned men and powerful church leaders.
Drawing on all his manuscripts—including ones previously unknown—Davis explores the places and people al-Hasan encountered and the books that shaped his work. We see him studying law and theology in a Fez madrasa; talking with nomads and merchants; reciting poetry; teaching Arabic to a cardinal in Rome; creating an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dictionary with a scholarly Jew in Bologna. And we see him emerge as an author, using Arabic genres but writing in Italian and Latin for European readers. Davis's work suggests that the experiences and writing of this adventurous border-crosser bear witness to the possibilities for connection, exchange, and even intimacy among peoples living in a divided world, and to the many ways that they negotiate cultural barriers and fuse divergent traditions.