The Life of Leo Africanus

TNR reviews a new biography

Now Davis brings this project of twentieth-century historiography full circle: not writing the life of someone unknown who did not write, but writing the life of someone famous who wrote a great deal but not much about his own life. The challenge here is to coax biographical details out of a non-biographical text. Few are better at this than Davis. And in pursuing this project, in tackling a well-known figure about whom little is known, Davis has poured new life into an old-fashioned genre: the “Life and Work” biography re-interpreted as the “History of the Book.”

Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan was born in Granada around 1486-1488. He died, perhaps in Tunis, sometime after 1532. Between 1518 and 1527, this same person lived in Rome and went by the names Joannes Leo (Latin), Giovanni Leone (Italian), and Yuhanna al-Asad (Arabic). Posterity knows him by still another name, given posthumously: Leo Africanus, his nom de plume. But who was he? This is the puzzle facing Davis. Unlike Martin Guerre, whose story lay buried in an archive, but buried whole, the man formerly known as Leo Africanus hides in plain sight.