In 1550, a Venetian editor published the 1st volume
of what would become the most notorious geographical periodical of the
et Viaggi. Among
the texts of this volume, and prominently advertised as its most intriguing
work was the Cosmographia Dell' Africa, a description of Africa
by Leo Africanus.
Leo's fame was immediate, as never before had
Western readers delved into the culture and intricacies of Muslim worlds,
with such detail and such "objectivity". Leo's novelty was
to write in Italian, from a "native" perspective.
While Leo's fame traveled across the globe, no one could locate him.
By 1550, he was either dead, or back in North Africa, where no texts
seem to make reference to his presence. More importantly, no one seemed
to have access to his original manuscript, which his initial editor
had admitted changing in several instances. Thus, as the number of translations
increased, so did the variations in wording and meaning.
departure from the original text was quite burdensome for 20th century
scholars who sought to read through Leo's words for hints on his life
and personality. This explains the tremendous enthusiasm and excitement
generated when in 1931, Mrs. Angela Codazzi discovered a manuscript
which she attributed to Leo. An Italian scholar working in Rome, Mrs.
Codazzi had been skimming the archives of the Vatican and the National
Library in search for this manuscript and other documents attesting
to Leo's presence in Rome. She found the document among uncatalogued
(unidentified) documents in the Biblioteca Nationale de Roma, and was
in the process of editing and publishing it, when WWII put an end to
Despite this interruption, the world
now knew that the manuscript exhibited significant differences with
Ramusio's text. When Alexis Epaulard published the most recent French
translation of Leo's work, in 1956, he claimed to have consulted the
manuscript on many an occasion, making adjustments to Ramusio's text,
where need be. Other scholars after him (in particular D. Rauchenberger)
have questioned the thoroughness of his work. According to them, the
manuscript presents several crucial differences with the Epaulard text,
and many more with Ramusio's edition and other translations.
main explanation for these differences between manuscript and published
texts likes in Ramusio's intentions as an editor. Fearing that Leo's
jargon (a mix of spoken Italian and Latin) would be hard to read for
his contemporaries he altered the text, sometimes even suppressing entire
sections. Also, he inserted chapter and paragraphs in a narration which
seemed composed of never ending sentences! These choices for division
have been questioned by contemporary scholars (in particular O. Zhiri).
He also had some transcription problems, and mis-spelled certain Arabic
and Berber words.
discovery of these differences between the original and the published
text are crucial for the study of Leo's influence in the West. While
it was known that the Latin translation (and all translations derived
from it, including the English translation) was poor, it was generally
believed that Epaulard's 1956 text was trustworthy and nearly identical
to Leo's intentions. Remember that his translation was chosen by Mr.
Hajji and Mr. Lakhdar as the basis for their first and only Arabic translation
(Mr. Lakhdar is deceased, but Mr. Hajji who was still living in Rabat
in 2000, spoke of the Epaulard edition with much respect - he died in
could well be 'good news' for Leo scholarship, as it opens up an entirely
new avenue for the study of his life and personality! The 1931 has yet
to be thoroughly edited and published... something for a next Fulbright,
or other intellectual mercenary to do!
the information above was compiled from Oumelbanine Zhiri's enlightening
article on this manuscript: "compositoreIl " ou l'autobiographie
eclatee de Jean Leon l'Africain", O. Zhiri, in Le Voyage des
Theories, sous la direction de Ali Benmakhlouf, Editions le Fennec,
information on Leo scholarship and a complete Bibliography, please go
Rauchenberger was putting the final touches to a laborious transcription
of the Manuscript - he and Zhiri are two of the very few scholars who
have seen the manuscript and probably the only ones who have photocopied
the entire document].