‘The Baptism of Queen Candace’s Eunuch,’ circa 1625-30, attributed to Hendrick van Balen and Jan Brueghel the YoungerWikipedia
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Leo Africanus Discovers Comedy

A Muslim and a Jew meet in Rome

Natalie Zemon Davis
October 24, 2022
'The Baptism of Queen Candace's Eunuch,' circa 1625-30, attributed to Hendrick van Balen and Jan Brueghel the YoungerWikipedia

In the late summer of 1518, Hasan al-Wazzan was returning from Cairo to Fez, when his boat was captured in the Mediterranean by a young Spanish pirate, Pedro de Cabrera y Bobadilla. (I once again fill in al-Wazzan’s biography before returning to our story of theatre and poetry.) In the next months, while the pirate’s boat stopped at Tripoli, Rhodes, and other ports, al-Wazzan got an early exposure to the kinds of people he was going to meet in Europe. Though Bobadilla’s brother was now bishop of Salamanca, the family was descended from Jews who had converted to Christianity and acquired property and high station. Pedro himself had been a Dominican friar for a time but, expelled from his order for his antics, had ended up in the lucrative trade of piracy.

Meanwhile Bobadilla questioned his Muslim captives to decide how to dispose of them—whether to ransom them or sell them into captivity. The Moroccan diplomat al-Wazzan, just returning from the Ottoman court, was another matter. Bobadilla presented him as a prize to Pope Leo X, who was trying to rouse Europe’s rulers for a new Crusade against the Turk. A Muslim diplomat was an opportune captive for the pope, and the gift won Bobadilla forgiveness for his piracy.

Al-Wazzan was imprisoned at the Castel Sant’Angelo, on whose upper stories were well-appointed chambers where the Pope put on Renaissance festivities and plays. In his cell down below, al-Wazzan was recognized as a faqih, a learned jurist, provided with Christian books in Arabic and Latin from the Vatican Library, and catechized. His Latin and Italian improved along the way. After fifteen months of incarceration, Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan was baptized in January 1520 at a splendid ceremony at Saint Peter’s and given the pope’s own names, Johannes Leo, Giovanni Leone. Among his three godfathers were two cardinals: the Spaniard Bernardino Lopez de Carvajal, who had long delighted in the reconquest of al-Wazzan’s Granada; and Egidio da Viterbo, celebrated preacher of a Golden Age in which a world conqueror would bring about the conversion of all peoples to Christianity. In the first years after his baptism, the seeming Christian, now a free man, went by the name Giovanni Leone, but sometimes liked to give it an Arabic dress, using the Arabic word for lion-al-asad for his Leo: “Yuhanna al-Asad, formerly named al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi”; as he wrote in 1520 while transcribing an Arabic text for the library of the diplomat Alberto Pio, prince of Carpi. (Henceforth, I will call him Giovanni Leone when seeing him in his relations with the Christian Italian world around him, and reserve al-Wazzan for his inner dialogues and his activities closely linked to his North African and Muslim past.) He was soon busy teaching Arabic to his godfather Cardinal Egidio, who hoped to advance his understanding of Islam and the Qur’an and improve thereby his skills in converting the infidels. A few years later, Egidio would put Giovanni Leone to work correcting a Latin translation of the Qur’an that the Cardinal had commissioned in Spain. Man of the church as he was, Egidio wanted to put every scrap of classical knowledge he acquired toward the advancement of Catholic Christianity.

Teaching the Cardinal Hebrew and Kabbala at the same time was a gifted Yiddish poet and Hebraist from Germany. He was known as Elye Bokher to his fellow Yiddish-speaking Jews; as Eliyahu ben Asher Halevi in presenting himself in his early publications in Hebrew; as Elia or Elias Levita to Italian Christians who would soon be reading his Latin books on Hebrew grammar; and by scholars today as Elijah Levita. In their conversations, Elia and Giovanni Leone probably used these Italian names, though Elias would come especially easy to al-Wazzan, since the Prophet Elijah—to use our English variant—appears as Ilyas in the Qur’an.

By 1523, Giovanni Leone was free to leave Rome and travel in Italy, making his way from Venice down to Naples. His most important stop was Bologna, where he collaborated on an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dictionary with a learned Jewish physician and Orientalist, Jacob ben Samuel Mantino. The two men discovered they had much in common, both of them sons in refugee families escaping forced conversion, the Mantinos fleeing to Italy from Tortosa in Catalonia about the same time the al-Wazzan family had fled to Fez from conquered Granada. Through Mantino’s initiative, Giovanni Leone was hired to make translations from the Arabic for the young Ercole Gonzaga, bishop-elect of Mantua, who was pursuing his studies at the University of Bologna. Mantino then encouraged Giovanni Leone to become an author himself, who could inform Europeans about Africa and the world of lslam.

By 1526, if not before, Giovanni Leone’s knowledge of Italian and Latin and his ability to write European script from left to right had advanced enough for him to play such a role. By 1527 he had produced Latin manuscripts on Arabic grammar and prosody for Mantino; a biographical dictionary of illustrious Arab and Jewish scholars; a work on the faith and laws of Islam; a compendium of Muslim history; and his greatest work, which he composed in Italian and entitled “The Cosmography and Geography of Africa.” It was published twenty-five years later, much edited by the humanist Giovanni Battista Ramusio, as "La Descrittione dell’Africa" (The Description of Africa). This output is extraordinary for its size; for its relative reliability (the errors and inventions, most serious in the biographical dictionary, are rather few considering that he had no access to Arabic sources); and for its balanced tone in describing the practice of Sunni Islam and the recent battles between Christians and Muslims in North Africa.

We have a double story here. Islam and Christianity were embattled. As al-Wazzan/Giovanni Leone was writing, the island of Rhodes had fallen to the Ottomans, and Sultan Suleiman’s army had just defeated the Christians in Hungary. The Portuguese and Spanish were acquiring land and forcing conversions along Africa’s Mediterranean coast. Preachers on both sides were calling for jihad and world conquest. Muslim and Christian captives, enslaved on both sides of the Mediterranean, were of necessity learning something of each other’s culture; most, though not all, returned home when finally released and brought that information with them. At the same time, Christian pilgrims were visiting and writing about Muslim lands on their way to Jerusalem; and active trade between Venice and the Ottomans brought many Turks and other Ottoman traders to residence in Venice. Coexisting with war and conflict were spaces for confronting the meaning of difference and even for some exchange.

As for al-Wazzan/Giovanni Leone, he widened the stream of European knowledge of Africa and of the lives of Muslims there, at least for those willing to pay attention. During his Italian years, he himself was in some sense both a Christian and a Muslim at the same time, that is, outwardly a Christian and rather curious about that religion and its performance, but inwardly still a Muslim. This experience changed him, giving rise to his efforts toward peaceful coexistence of the religions. Other features of those years, especially his work for Egidio da Viterbo correcting a Latin translation of the Qur’an, may have prompted unsettling questions about the stability of sacred religious texts more generally. These changed sensibilities and insights he took back with him when he returned to North Africa and Islam in 1527, after the Sack of Rome.

Al-Wazzan/Giovanni Leone managed his double life in Italy through strategies of performance, now much expanded beyond those he had to use as a diplomat. Muslim law allowed for dissimulation, taqiyya, when the faithful were forced to convert, so long as they stayed true in their hearts to Islam. As was said in the Qur’an (16:106):

Whoever disbelieves in God after being a believer
— except in the case of those who are forced
and whose hearts are still at rest in their belief­
[...] upon them will be anger from God,
and they will have a grievous punishment.

When required to perform Christian rites or say Christian prayers, the true believer would be doing or saying Muslim things in his or her mind. Some of those Muslim slaves in Italian households who had been compelled to convert were presumably using taqiyya as well. But Giovanni Leone, with his Italian name and Italian garments and hats, was also performing more playfully as a trickster in the tradition of the wandering poet of the maqamat, who adopted various disguises and took on different roles, some of them risky, but always ended up safe and sound. In his “Cosmography and Geography of Africa,” al-Wazzan/Giovanni Leone recounted the tale of the amphibious bird, who lived in the air till the bird tax-collector came by, and then plunged into the water and lived with the fish until the fish tax-collector came by, when he returned to the air. And so he lived without ever paying any taxes. Giovanni Leone concluded that he would do the same with his different origins, insisting on his Granadan birth or his African upbringing as it suited his needs and reputation.

His own amphibious situation may have made Giovanni Leone especially interested in the varied dramatic forms being practised in Italy. That theatre had flowered over the centuries, including religious theatre, despite the forceful claim of Saint Augustine that drama was an inappropriate medium for communicating Christian truth. Augustine had left in his “Confessions” a fervent account of the wrongful hold the Roman plays had had over his emotions in his pre-Christian days: the performances had aroused his lust and diverted his feelings of pity away from actual human needs toward the made-up people on the stage. The theatre, he said, was a setting par excellence for the pagan gods and their antics: “have not the priests as well as the mimes represented Priapus with an enormous phallus?” Certain features of profane classical culture, such as those concerning eloquence and oratory, could be put to good use by the Christian teacher in interpreting Scripture and spreading the true message of the Gospel. In contrast, dramatic plays “vanities”; “frivolities” (nugae) originating in “theatres of wickedness,” could not spread the Word even with Christian actors. “In order to be true […] we ought not to become false by imitating and taking the role of others as do actors.”

Augustine’s condemnation of theatre had its followers among some later men of the church. As some Muslim ulama criticized plays and the excess associated with them, so too, did some Christian theologians. Reproaching priests for their fancy chanting of the service, Agobard, bishop of Lyon in the early ninth century, compared them to “tragedians” and affirmed with the Fathers that the church had no place for “theatrical little rhythms.” Like the Muslim faithful, however, Christian believers ignored the learned censure, and went about making theatre. Jugglers, acrobats, street-singers, and folk actors continued their tricks unabated from early times in both traditions. Medieval lawyers freely used their rhetorical skills, as urged in the classical texts they had studied with care. By the fifteenth century, they were sometimes heard acting out their clients’ cases in the course of a plea before the judge.

Preachers, too, found that they had to use dramatic techniques if they wanted to compete with the singers and storytellers who were bringing people to tears with their stories in the markets and squares. For his Passion Sunday sermon, a Franciscan preacher in early sixteenth-century Umbria held up the head of a dead man. Meanwhile, medieval religious had long been singing the office at feast days like Epiphany and Easter in narrative form, with some taking the part of the Magi, for instance, others the shepherds, others the angels, and the rest. Likewise, medieval nuns sometimes turned to dramatic forms to advance their spiritual understanding. The celebrated example is the tenth-century Hrosvitha of Gandersheim Abbey in Saxony. She took the lives of early women martyrs and repentant prostitutes from a hagiographical text and recast them in two-act “Comedies” in rhymed Latin prose, using Terence as her model. In her preface, Hrosvitha talked only of future readers, but it is likely that her sister Benedictines read them aloud or even acted them out, the tortures of the “sacred virgins” being reported as happening off stage. Since the “lascivious” acts of Terence’s “Comedies” were here replaced by the victories of chastity, the use of drama within the convent walls would be appropriate.

Outside of such walls, drama was expanding as well. Encouraged by and often in collaboration with their priests, Christian laypeople developed forms of religious theatre, expanding their laude (that is, their musical ballads about the life of the Virgin and the Passion of Christ) into plays mounted by the artisanal, charitable, and youth confraternities of Italian towns. Thus emerged the sacra rappresentazione, the Italian equivalent of the French miracle or mystery plays, which dramatized biblical stories in vivid scenes.

What exposure did our Giovanni Leone have to this religious theatre? His godfather Egidio, vicar-general of the Augustinian order though he was, did not agree with Saint Augustine’s denunciation of all theatrical performance. Christian Neoplatonist and humanist, Egidio composed eclogues and put them to Christian use, read and annotated the tragedies of Aeschylus, and was ready to quote from a play by Euripides in support of an argument. Current performances of religious theatre surely had some appeal for Egidio, including the Passion Play traditionally mounted in Rome’s Colosseum on Good Friday by the prestigious Confraternity of the Gonfalone. Claiming to be Rome’s oldest sodality, the Gonfalone had both wealthy men from great families and mere artisans among its members, and important cardinals among its protectors. We can expect Cardinal Egidio would have been eager to introduce his converted godson to its Passion Play. Let us imagine, then, Giovanni Leone in the audience with the cardinal already at Good Friday 1520, not long after his baptism.

The day began with a procession of the white-hooded brothers across Rome from their church to the Colosseum, passing through the Jewish quarter on the way. Once the huge crowd had found their places in what was left of the Colosseum’s ancient marble seats, an Angel, speaking in Italian verse, prepared the audience for the double story: of Judas, his decision to betray Jesus, and his final despair and suicide; of Jesus being denounced and taken in bonds “and sent to false Herod by cruel Pilates,” being scourged, led to the cross, nailed upon it and lifted up, “and you’ll see him expire”; his side having been pierced by the lance of a Roman soldier.

Indeed, the audience could see devils seizing Judas’s soul after his suicide and taking it to hell through an ancient archway, and watch angels, lowered by an iron contraption from on high, removing Jesus from the cross and soothing his soul. A chorus of “Gentiles” added commentary, especially condemning the Jews, “who give no thought to the [...] harm they do to God [...] Jews, full of wickedness, of venom, of hatred and rage. At certain moments during the play, the Gonfalone brothers in the audience would flagellate themselves with their silver-tipped whips and throw fruit and other objects at the actors playing roles of the Jews.”

Egidio da Viterbo was surely moved by Christ’s suffering in the play, but as a Christian Hebraist and student of Elia Levita, he may have been troubled by the violence enacted against the Jews. He certainly disapproved of the performers and other Gonfalone members who went to the Jewish quarter afterward to stone the houses. Jews were to be converted, not harmed, so Egidio believed, and the Passion Play should best be oriented toward that hope.

At least Elia Levita, Egidio’s instructor in Hebrew and Kabbala, could stay safely indoors in the cardinal’s own dwelling, where he and his family had been given lodging. Still, humiliation for the Jews had already begun in Rome several weeks earlier as a custom established by Pope Paul II for Carnival in 1466. On the ninth day before Lent—sometimes a cold season in Rome—Jewish men, in ridiculous hats and naked from the chest down, were compelled to run before the pope and the public. Elderly Jews were part of the race as well, and the audience laughed as they struggled and fell. The Jewish footrace was thought a high point of Carnival comedy.

Levita had turned 51 by the time he met Giovanni Leone. Even if he had not been forced to be among the runners after his arrival in Rome several years earlier, he certainly knew all about the race. Giovanni Leone may have witnessed it already at his first Carnival, and together with the excess of the Passion Play, he would be ready to commiserate with Elia. Al-Wazzan was accustomed to the forms of deference required of the dhimmis of North Africa (to use the term for the legal status accorded to Jews and Christians in Muslim lands). When a Muslim sat down, a dhimmi had to rise. A dhimmi was not permitted the honour of riding a horse. As Giovanni Leone recounted in his Africa book, the Jews of Fez were not allowed to wear shoes, but only rush sandals, and there were rules about the colour of the hats for Jewish men. Jews, or Muslims dressed as Jews, were the butt of village plays. But back home al-Wazzan may never have witnessed an event as humiliating as the naked foot race of the Roman Carnival.

As for the Passion Play, Giovanni Leone had his own grounds for disapproval. He recalled the Colosseum when he came to write his “Geography of Africa”: its enormous cut stones reminded him of the walls built by the Romans in Tunisia. The Passion Play that he had seen within the Colosseum would be strange, however. Insatiably curious, he was undoubtedly intrigued by the actors’ agile movements and the contraption lowering the angels from heaven. But he would have found the performance troubling, perhaps even repellent, a reaction he would have had to conceal from his godfather. Al-Wazzan/Giovanni Leone carried his Muslim identity deep within him, but the inner dialogue affirming his true belief—the dialogue central to his practice of taqiyya and which shielded him from the seductions of Catholic ritual—could suffer under the onslaught of a Passion Play.

For a Muslim, any suggestion of a divine Christ was an insult to God’s supreme sovereignty. The Qur’an and a long line of Muslim polemic made this clear. Jesus was a Prophet, an Envoy, but he was human: Jesus was the son of Mary, lsa ibn Maryam. As God had created the human Adam without parents, so he created Jesus without a father. Jesus had not died on the cross and been resurrected, but was living with God until he returned with the Mahdi at the end of time. As the Qur’an said: "[the Jews] did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them [...] God raised him up to Himself.” Theatrical representation made the error worse, intensifying false belief in just the way that had been feared by the Muslim al-Jawzi and the Christian Augustine.

Reprinted from Natalie Zemon Davis, “Leo Africanus Discovers Comedy: Theatre and Poetry Across the Mediterranean” (2021), with permission of the Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies.

Natalie Zemon Davis is a Canadian and American historian of the early modern period. She is currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada. She is the author of The Return of Martin Guerre, Women on the Margins, and Trickster Travels, among many others.