The Leo Myths:

Within the scholarly literature, there seem to be at least 3 distinct myths about Leo's persona:

1. The Renaissance Man
This was the earliest of all Leo myths. Developed by the first European readers of the Cosmographia, this myth depicted a Leo Africanus who had embraced the values of Renaissance Italy to the point of rejecting his old customs.
2. The Cosmopolite
This is the 'modern' version of Leo: one fitting our 20th century vision of the true cross-cultural, global individual. Amin Maalouf's novel has done much to stress this image.

3. The Arab Traveler
In the 1930s, a generation of Arab scholars rose to reclaim Leo to their national heritage. Focusing on the ambiguities of his conversion to Catholicism and his desire to return to Tunis and Islam at the end of his life, they stressed the Arabic and Muslim dimension of his persona.

Here are the details of his life which each version chooses to remember, exaggerate and sometimes invent.

The Renaissance Man
The Cosmopolite
The Arab Traveler
Name Johannes Leo de Medici, alias Leo Africanus Leo Africanus or Hassan el Wazzan Hassan El Wazzan
Go here for more on Leo' s name
Birth Born in Andalusia. His Andalusian background prepared him for the Italian culture he later embraced. Born in Andalusia, the last bastion of Islam in Catholic Spain- and a culture more sophisticated than either the Maghrebi or the Christian. Born in Andalusia, but his early journey to Fes made him grow up a Fassi.
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Relationship with Pope Pope Leo X was renown for his interest in Oriental cultures. He adopted Leo both metaphorically and literally- baptizing him with his own hands, only 18 months after Leo's arrival in Rome. Leo embraced this new father and faith unambiguously. Leo arrived in Rome against his will, and spent the first 12 months in captivity, in the Chateau de St Ange (a Papal property). In that time he studied Latin and Italian, and the precepts of Christianity. His relationship with the Pope greatly hinged on their common love of knowledge and sciences. "Pope Leo X was thrilled to meet an expert in Arab cultures. Soon the two men became friends, thanks to Hassan's intelligence and his ability to blend in different environments. This was facilitated by the fact he spoke Castilian and was familiar with Christian ways and customs (having lived in Grenada)." (M.Hajji, Introduction to Wasf Ifriquia).
Conversion Leo converted unambiguously and died a Christian in Rome (see 1588 Preface to Ramusio)
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Leo's general approach to religion seems rather ambiguous, being neither a devout Muslim or Christian. He seemingly embraced whichever religion permitted him to live most conveniently. "Realizing that he could not live as a Muslim in Italy, he deceptively converted to Christianity (...), a decision we can understand as : "Will be punished only those who renounce God after having been believers, but not those who are forced to convert and remain believers" (M.Hajji, Introduction to Wasf Ifriquia)
Writings "During his stay with the Pope, Leo Africanus certainly must have gotten acquainted with our body of classical literature, and was justified in calling idiots [those who robbed tombs in search for treasures in the outskirts of Fes]" (G. Camps, Une Societe Archeologique a Fes).
The author is assuming that Leo's sojourn in Italy gave him a 'Classical' education and respect for relics and culture which did not exist in Morocco. According to him, Leo learnt a new set of values in Italy, and embraced them fully.
"Such a text could not have been written by a European writer in the 16th century(...) It took a rare conjunction of events for European readers to get access to this information on Africa: Leo's arrival in Europe, the quality of his education, his many different occupations, his inclination to write, his friendship with a Pope interested in Oriental culture." (O. Zhiri, Une Oeuvre entre deux Cultures, p26)

Leo's text was originally written in Arabic, while he was still in the Arab world,and he only translated it in Italian.

This is a much different position from the majority of scholars who see Leo's writings as having been produced for an Italian, and not an Arabic, audience.

Death Leo died in Rome, a Christian. Leo returned to his homeland, as he had intended to do: "I have the firm intention to sort all my writings when I will return home after my trip to Europe" (Leo, 538) Leo died in Tunis, a Muslim.
Overall Reputation An Andalusian Muslim who abjured his Muslim faith.

"An Arab geographer whose originality lies in the fact that he wrote his main works in Europe, and was most influential there." (O. Zhiri, Les Sillages de Jean Leon l'Africain, p8)

"El Hassan Ibn Mohamed El Wazzan El Fassi was a great Muslim and Arab scholar, whose scientific worth was acknowledged by the Catholics (...) On the other hand, Muslim Arabs have ignored him, and let his work remain unknown" (Hajji, Introduction to Wasf Ifriquia)

Other Myths, or Mistakes?


Since Ramusio's biography, all have believed Leo was captured near the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia. This is quite likely as Djerba was a corsair's den (though mostly Muslim corsairs), and that the island was a stage in the Venice Mediterranean trade, meaning it drew merchants and robbers alike. For Italians of the 16th century, Djerba rimed with piracy and adventure, which may explain why Ramusio placed Leo's captivity in those waters.
(For more on Djerba's history at the time, see Actes du colloque sur l'histoire de Jerba, 1986. )

For a more detailed explanation of Leo's captivity click here

Leo was indeed captured by a Christian ship, but not by regular corsairs, as his capturer was Pedro Bodiviglia, a Knight of Saint John (Order of Rhodes, then of Malta). This religious brotherhood was founded in the 11th century, at the time of the Crusades, when their mission was to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. By Leo's time, they had turned into a naval power, patrolling the seas in defense of Christian faith- robbing Muslim ships was tolerated in this defense strategy.
Pedro Bodiviglia was the brother of the bishop of Salamanqua and captain of his ship. According to Italian chroniclers who witnessed Leo's arrival in Rome, he captured Leo in the Greek waters, on the Eastern point of Crete, as Leo was journeying home from Constantinople, and not Egypt (for more see D. Rauchenberger).