March

Leo Africanus De totius Africae description, libri IX

The rare book of the month for March 2016 is a hugely influential Renaissance volume written by Leo Africanus (or Al-Hassan Ibn Mohammad al-Weza al-Fasis). Leo Africanus was born circa 1492 in Granada and died circa 1550, probably in Tunis. The work is an account of his extensive travels from 1512 to 1520, when he visited the Maghrib, Tunis, sub-Saharan Africa, Guinea, the Niger Basin and Lake Chad. During this period he also travelled to Constantinople, Egypt, and Armenia. He is known to have travelled “up the Nile from Cairo to Aswan” during his 1517-1520 travels.

Leo Africanus was captured during his travels (in 1520) off the island of Djerba and handed over as a slave to Pope Leo X. Some accounts say his captors were pirates, others that they were Christian sailors (Knights of Saint John to be exact). He was “persuaded to convert to Christianity” during this time, sponsored by Pope Leo at his baptism, conferring upon him his own names, Johannes and Leo. Leo wrote an account of his travels at the behest of Pope Leo X. The original version was probably written in Arabic, but this manuscript is now lost. However, an Italian manuscript version of Leo’s voyages entitled Cosmographia e descrizione de Affrica was re-discovered in 1931 and is now held at the Biblioteca nazionale centrale in Rome: MS Vitt. Em.953. The first printed version of the work appeared in Italian in 1550, as part of Giovanni Battista Rumsio’s Delle navigationi e viaggi, [primo volume]. The Library has a 1563 edition of this compendium, printed in Venice. The work then appeared in French, in Lyon in 1556. The Latin translation held by the Library was made by Joannes Florianus and printed in Antwerp by Jean Laet in 1556. It is this Latin version which was then translated into English by John Pory in 1600 “at the suggestion of Richard Hakluyt”. The English version includes a map, a scan of which can be viewed here.

In 2011 the BBC produced a 54 minute documentary about Leo Africanus and uploaded it to YouTube.