LEO AFRICANUS. Ioannis Leonis Africani Africae descriptis IX. lib. absoluta. Lugd. Batav. [=Leiden], apud Elzevir, 1632.
12:o. (110x57 mm.). 800, (16) pp.
Contemporary vellum with more recent red title label and spine tooled in gilt, somewhat worn, minor cracks to spine, old scribbling in lower margin of title leaf, small hole due to paper flaw in pp. 83-84 with loss of a few words. Armorial bookplate, probably 19th. century, of "Vidart".
The first Latin edition was published in 1556 and was subsequently used for the translations into English and Dutch. Hence this Elzevir edition is far from the first Latin edition, but probably one of the most important editions of the 16th and 17th century, due to its wide distribution across Europe.
Johannes Leo de Medicis, commonly known as Leo Africanus, was the Christian name given to al-Hasan ben Muhammad al-Fasi (1494?-1537 or 1550s?). He was a Muslim scholar and traveller, born in Granada. After receiving his education at the al-Qarawiyyin university he travelled as a diplomat and tradesman through large parts of northern Africa and the Middle East. It has been suggested that his travels took him as far south as Oalata and Djenné in West Africa, and then through Hausaland over to Egypt, although this claim is seen as doubtful by modern scholars.
After visiting Egypt, he probably took the opportunity to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1517, before being captured by Spanish corsairs in the Mediterranean the following year. His knowledge of Africa was of great interest to pope Leo X, and al-Hasan ben Muhammad ended up as a papal protegée in Rome and was baptized. According to his own words, he completed his description of Africa on 10 March 1526 in Rome.
Little is known about his life after that, but most probably he returned to North Africa and re-converted to Islam.
His description of Africa relies partly on his own experience, but much of the information was taken from other sources, oral and written. The work is divided into nine books, each treating a separate region or kingdom, with an introduction as the first book and the last one treating North African rivers, animals, plants and minerals. It is written in the traditional arabic literary genre of "the routes and the realms" (al-masalik wa-l-mamalik), favoured by the medieval historians and geographers whose works were used as sources by al-Hasan ben Muhammad. It is uncertain whether the original manuscript was in Arabic or Italian, but the first printed edition appeared in Italian, published by the Venetian printer Giovanni Battista Ramusio in 1550. It soon became very popular, going through numerous editions and translations, and remaining a main source of knowledge of the African interior up to the 19th century, when the views of al-Hasan ben Muhammad were challenged by European explorers.
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