Leo Africanus, Translated and Betrayed
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Leo Africanus, Translated and Betrayed Oumelbanine Zhiri University ofCalifornia, San Diego An important body of knowledge, devoted to the need to re-situate historically the perception of different races and peoples, is already constituted and is constantly growing. In particular, many feel the necessity to concentrate on the vision that Europe presented and is still presenting of Africa, with as much precision as has been given to the study of the circumstances of the discovery of America. Such a research would help renew and prolong the reflection on the relation to the other. All these concerns call for increasing attention to the work of the sixteenth-century geographer Leo Africanus. Among the numerous works that transformed the geographical knowledge of the European Renaissance, one is worthy of special notice; it is a collection of geographical texts and of travel narratives that came to play an important role in the history of European geography. Its first volume was published in 1550 and was soon followed by five others. This collection presented the reader with an image of the world based on travels and explorations that renewed the European knowledge of the earth. Entitled Navigazioni e Viaggi, the endeavor was coordinated by Giovanni Battista Ramusio, a highranking civil servant of the Republic of Venice. The numerous reeditions attest to the great success of this monumental work. The first text of this first volume was to become very famous in and of itself and was translated and published separately in French, Latin, English and Dutch. It was authored by Leo Africanus, under the title Della Descrizione dell 'Africa e delle cose notabili che quivi sana. The author's real name was Hasan Ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi. He was born in Granada around 1489 and left the country for Morocco after the fall of the last Muslim kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula, in 1492. He received a good education, focussing particularly on law and theology, as was traditional in Islamic countries. He also acquired an extensive knowledge of the literary, historiographical and geographical traditions in the Arabic language. As we will see, the circumstances 162 THE POLITICS OF TRANSLAnON with which he has been faced led him to write in Europe a text showing that he was a very well-read man. His career started quite early, when he entered the service of the Wattasid Sultan Muhammad the Portuguese.' His function as an ambassador gave him the opportunity to travel across Morocco, the Maghreb and Egypt. Other trips, perhaps taken for commercial reasons , led him to the sub-Saharan countries of West Africa. In 1518, during one of his journeys, the ship bringing Hasan back from Egypt to Morocco was boarded by Sicilian pirates, who offered him as a present to Pope Leo X. Hasan al-Wazzan converted to Christianity and received through baptism the names of his protector, Joannes Leo de Medici. Little is known about his stay in Italy, but an important day must be noted: March 10, 1526, when he completed the writing of the text that Ramusio was to publish in 1550 in Navigazioni e Viaggi. His work is of great historical importance. Thanks to his cultural background, his career as a diplomat and the traveling it entailed, Leo was in a good position to provide his European readers with a particularly detailed description of a great part of Africa, especially its northern countries. His work was considerably at odds with the European writings on Africa and soon became the modem reference by which Europeans renewed the description of that continent. To be convinced, all one needs to do is to compare what had been written in Europe about Africa before the publication of the Descrizione (Boemus 1536; MUnster 1544); the studies published after knowledge of Leo's work had profoundly changed European discourse on Africa. From the cosmographers and the cartographers of the sixteenth century (Andre Thevet, Francois de Belleforest, Gerard de Jode, Gerard Mercator, Luis del Marmol Carvajal) to the geographers and the travelers of the nineteenth century (Walckenaer, Renou, Barth), up to the historians who today see it as a document of great value on sixteenth-century Maghreb and West Africa, the work of Leo has been an essential source of information on a large part of the continent. Equally important is his influence on the consideration given to the African continent in European culture as well as in many texts. Until then, Africa had been relegated to a marginal position in the world and...


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Subject Headings

  • Translating and interpreting--Europe--History--To 1500.
  • Translating and interpreting--Europe--History--16th century.
  • Civilization, Medieval.
  • Renaissance.
  • Literature, Medieval--Translations--History and criticism.
  • European literature--Renaissance, 1450-1600--Translations--History and criticism.
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