The title page of the 1600 English edition.
The title page of the 1600 English edition.

Description of Africa is a largely firsthand geographical book that was published under the title Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili che ivi sono by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in his collection of travellers' accounts Delle navigationi e viaggi in Venice in 1550.[1] It contained the first detailed descriptions published in Europe of the Barbary Coast (modern Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) and the gold-trading kingdoms of west-central Africa.[2] The book was dictated in Italian by Leo Africanus, the famed Moorish traveler and merchant who had been captured by pirates and sold as a slave. Presented, along with his book, to Pope Leo X, he was baptized and freed. Leo, whose name he took in baptism, suggested that he recast his Arabic work in Italian; it was completed in 1526.[3] It was republished repeatedly by Ramusio in his Delle navigationi e viaggi, translated into French and into Latin for the erudite, both in 1556.

The Descrittione is in nine books, an introductory book and an appendix on rivers and fauna and flora, with seven books between, each describing a kingdom: the kingdoms of Marrakesh, Fez, Tlemcen and Tunis, and the regions of Numidia, the sub-Saharan regions, and Egypt. The work circulated in manuscript form for decades. It was in Ramusio's manuscript that Pietro Bembo read it and was astonished: "I cannot imagine how a man could have so much detailed information about these things", he wrote to a correspondent, 2 April 1545.[4]

The book's importance stemmed from its accuracy at a time when the area was little known to Europeans,[5] and its publication at precisely the moment when Latin Christian power was on a collision course with the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, while at the same time Western Africa was becoming more accessible to Europeans.

The book was an enormous success in Europe, and was translated into many other languages,[6] remaining a definitive reference work for decades (and to some degree, centuries) afterwards.[2] In English it was served by John Pory, whose translation appeared in 1600 under the title A Geographical Historie of Africa, Written in Arabicke and Italian by Iohn Leo a More... in which form Shakespeare may have seen it and reworked hints in creating the title character of his Othello (ca. 1603).[7]

A twentieth-century rediscovery of the originally-dictated manuscript revealed that Ramusio, in smoothing the grammar of Leo Africanus's text had coloured many neutral details,[8] to make it more palatable to Christian European audiences; French and English translators added further embellishments. Modern translations which incorporate this manuscript are thus more true to the original.[9]



  1. ^ Black, Crofton (2002). "Leo Africanus's Descrittione dell'Africa and its sixteenth-century translations". Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 65: 262–272. doi:10.2307/4135111. JSTOR 4135111.
  2. ^ a b "A Man of Two Worlds". Archived from the original on 2010-01-13. Retrieved 2008-01-09.
  3. ^ The date on the sole surviving manuscript, in the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emmanuele, MS 953.
  4. ^ Black 2002:264 and note
  5. ^ Other European works concerning Africa were Azurara's Cronica do Descobrimento e Conquista de Guiné (not translated until the twentieth century), Francisco Alvárez, Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia (to give it its English title, it being also issued in French from 1556 onwards), and Frigius' Historia de Bello Africano (1580), with a circulation limited to savants.
  6. ^ See Black 2002.
  7. ^ A suggestion offered by Lois Whitney, "Did Shakespeare Know Leo Africanus?" PMLA 37.3 (September 1922:470-483, archived 11 October 2021 at the Wayback Machine).
  8. ^ Modern editors have taken him to task, such as D. Perocco, Viaggare e raccontare (Alexandria) 1997:55, noted in Black 2002:268 note37.
  9. ^ "Bibliography".

Further reading

  • Hunwick, John O. (1999). "Leo Africanus's description of the Middle Niger, Hausland and Bornu". Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan down to 1613 and other contemporary documents. Leiden: Brill. pp. 272–291. ISBN 90-04-11207-3. Contain a translation into English of Leo Africanus's descriptions of the Middle Niger, Hausaland and Bornu. Corresponds to Épaulard 1956 Vol II pages 463-481.
  • Masonen, Pekka (2001). "Leo Africanus: the man with many names" (PDF). Al-Andalus Magreb. 8–9: 115–143.
  • Jean-Léon l'Africain; Épaulard, Alexis (1956). Description de l'Afrique: Nouvelle édition traduite de l'italien par Alexis Épaulard et annotée par Alexis Épaulard, Théodore Monod, Henri Lhote et Raymond Mauny (2 Vols). Paris: Maisonneuve. Scholarly translation into French with extensive notes.
  • Rauchenberger, Dietrich (1999). Johannes Leo der Afrikaner: seine Beschreibung des Raumes zwischen Nil und Niger nach dem Urtext (in German). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. ISBN 3-447-04172-2.