In 1550, a remarkable book about Africa, La Descrittione dell’Africa, came off the Giunta press in Venice, as the first volume of Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s celebrated series of Voyages. It had been written by an African, Ramusio assured his readers: Giovanni Leone the African, “Giovan Lioni Africano.”
In fact, for most of his life its author had been called al-Hasan ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan. Born in Granada around 1486–88, Hasan al-Wazzan had been taken by his family to Morocco around 1492, at the time of the Catholic conquest of his ancestral land. After studies in grammar, rhetoric, law, and theology at the esteemed madrasas of Fez, he followed in his uncle’s path and became a diplomat for the Wattasid sultan of Fez. In that capacity and on occasion as a trader, he visited polities all over Morocco. By caravan he crossed the Sahara to the Land of the Blacks (“le terre de li Nigri,” as he translated into Italian the Arabic “Bilad al-Sudan”) and made stops among other places at Timbuktu and Gao, where he met the great Songhay emperor Askia Muhammad, and Agadès, from which town a Tuareg elite ruled over their slaves and the black people of the countryside. His duties took him on horseback from Fez to the Berber kingdoms of Tlemcen (Tilimsan, present-day Algeria), and Tunisia and on to the wonders of Cairo, where in 1517 he witnessed the fall of the Mamluk dynasty to the Ottoman emperor Selim. He crossed the Red Sea to Arabia, made hajj, and then traveled to the Ottoman court at Istanbul. In the summer of 1518, on his way by sea from Cairo back to Morocco, his boat was seized by a Spanish Christian pirate, Pedro de Cabrera y Bobadilla. Realizing what a find he had made, Bobadilla decided not to seek ransom for al-Wazzan, nor sell him as a slave, but instead make a gift of the diplomat, with his pouches full of travel notes and dispatches, to Pope Leo X, then in the midst of urging a crusade against the Ottoman Turks.
Incarcerated at the Castel Sant’Angelo, al- Wazzan was catechized over the months by the pope’s master of ceremonies and two other bishops. In January 1520, amid the blazing candles of Saint Peter’s, al-Wazzan was baptized by the pope’s own hand, and given the pope’s names Joannes Leo, Giovanni Leone. Three cardinals served as godparents, all of them supporters of a crusade against the Turks and their “false” religion. The most important for our convert’s future was Egidio da Viterbo, general of the Augustinian order and eloquent preacher of a golden age, in which the world would be united under the pope, and Muslims, Jews, and the Indians of the New World would be converted to Christianity.
Now free from prison, though dependent on Christian favor, Giovanni Leone thought of himself in Arabic as Yuhanna al-Asad, or even better, as he signed a 1524 Arabic manuscript, “Yuhanna al-Asad al-Gharnati [the Granadan] previously named al-Hasan ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi [of Fez],” suggesting the multiple identities he carried around during his Italian years. To begin with, highly placed figures in the church and political life were interested in what he could tell them. Some were seeking him as a fakih, an Arab learned in Muslim law and religion (he was already called “the faqih Hasan” by the Vatican librarian, who was lending him Arabic manuscripts while he was in prison); others wanted to learn more about Africa; others sought his service on both grounds. Until his death in December 1521, Leo X surely quizzed the former diplomat about current North African and Ottoman politics and goals, and if there was time, inquired about the poetry of the Arab nomads, which Giovanni Leone, himself a poet, knew well. Clement VII, who in 1523 became the next Medici pope, also must have put questions to him, as Sultan Sulayman moved from triumph to triumph.