The Cosmographia Del' Africa and the 1931 manuscript

     In 1550, a Venetian editor published the 1st volume of what would become the most notorious geographical periodical of the times:Navigationi 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.
This 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 her efforts.
      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.
 The 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.
The 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 2002).

But this 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!

Most of 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, 2000.

For more information on Leo scholarship and a complete Bibliography, please go to Bibliography.

[In 2005, 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].