1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Leo, Johannes
LEO, JOHANNES (c. 1494–1552), in Italian Giovanni Leo or Leone, usually called Leo Africanus, sometimes Eliberitanus (i.e. of Granada), and properly known among the Moors as Al Hassan Ibn Mahommed Al Wezaz Al Fasi, was the author of a Descrizione dell’ Affrica, or Africae descriptio, which long ranked as the best authority on Mahommedan Africa. Born probably at Granada of a noble Moorish stock (his father was a landowner; an uncle of his appears as an envoy from Fez to Timbuktu), he received a great part of his education at Fez, and while still very young began to travel widely in the Barbary States. In 1512 we trace him at Morocco, Tunis, Bugia and Constantine; in 1513 we find him returning from Tunis to Morocco; and before the close of the latter year he seems to have started on his famous Sudan and Sahara journeys (1513–1515) which brought him to Timbuktu, to many other regions of the Great Desert and the Niger basin (Guinea, Melli, Gago, Walata, Aghadez, Wangara, Katsena, &c.), and apparently to Bornu and Lake Chad. In 1516–1517 he travelled to Constantinople, probably visiting Egypt on the way; it is more uncertain when he visited the three Arabias (Deserta, Felix and Petraea), Armenia and “Tartary” (the last term is perhaps satisfied by his stay at Tabriz). His three Egyptian journeys, immediately after the Turkish conquest, all probably fell between 1517 and 1520; on one of these he ascended the Nile from Cairo to Assuan. As he was returning from Egypt about 1520 he was captured by pirates near the island of Gerba, and was ultimately presented as a slave to Leo X. The pope discovered his merit, assigned him a pension, and having persuaded him to profess the Christian faith, stood sponsor at his baptism, and bestowed on him (as Ramusio says) his own names, Johannes and Leo. The new convert, having made himself acquainted with Latin and Italian, taught Arabic (among his pupils was Cardinal Egidio Antonini, bishop of Viterbo); he also wrote books in both the Christian tongues he had acquired. His Description of Africa was first, apparently, written in Arabic, but the primary text now remaining is that of the Italian version, issued by the author at Rome, on the 10th of March 1526, three years after Pope Leo’s death, though originally undertaken at the latter’s suggestion. The Moor seems to have lived on Rome for some time longer, but he returned to Africa some time before his death at Tunis in 1552; according to some, he renounced his Christianity and returned to Islam; but the later part of his career is obscure.
The Descrizione dell’ Affrica in its original Arabic MS. is said to have existed for some time in the library of Vincenzo Pinelli (1535–1601); the Italian text, though issued in 1526, was first printed by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in his Navigationi et Viaggi (vol. i.) of 1550. This was reprinted in 1554, 1563, 1588, &c. In 1556 Jean Temporal executed at Lyons an admirable French version from the Italian (Historiale description de l’Afrique); and in the same year appeared at Antwerp both Christopher Plantin’s and Jean Bellere’s pirated issues of Temporal’s translation, and a new (very inaccurate) Latin version by Joannes Florianus, Joannis Leonis Africani de totius Africae descriptione libri i.-ix. The latter was reprinted in 1558, 1559 (Zürich), and 1632 (Leiden), and served as the basis of John Pory’s Elizabethan English translation, made at the suggestion of Richard Hakluyt (A Geographical Historie of Africa, London, 1600). Pory’s version was reissued, with notes, maps, &c., by Robert Brown, E. G. Ravenstein, &c. (3 vols., Hakluyt Society, London, 1896). An excellent German translation was made by Lorsbach, from the Italian, in 1805 (Johann Leos des Afrikaners Beschreibung von Afrika, Herborn). See also Francis Moore’s Travels into the inland parts of Africa (1738), containing a translation of Leo’s account of negro kingdoms. Heinrich Barth intended to have made a fresh version, with a commentary, but was prevented by death; as it is, his own great works on the Sudan are the best elucidation of the Descrizione dell’ Affrica.
Leo also wrote lives of the Arab physicians and philosophers (De viris quibusdam illustribus apud Arabes; see J. A. Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca, Hamburg, 1726, xiii. 259-298); a Spanish-Arabic vocabulary, now lost, but noticed by Ramusio as having been consulted by the famous Hebrew physician, Jacob Mantino; a collection of Arabic epitaphs in and near Fez (the MS. of this Leo presented, it is said, to the brother of the king); and poems, also lost. It is stated, moreover, that Leo intended writing a history of the Mahommedan religion, an epitome of Mahommedan chronicles, and an account of his travels in Asia and Egypt. (C. R. B.)