Leo Africanus Discovers Comedy: Theatre and Poetry Across the Mediterranean

By Natalie Zemon Davis - ES51

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Using the North African diplomat Hasan al-Wazzan, known in Europe as Leo Africanus (c. 1488-after 1532), as its guide, this book offers a comparative journey through the worlds of Italian and Islamic theatre in the late medieval and early modern period. On both sides of the Mediterranean, a vigorous popular theatre was carried on in vernacular verse. Whereas in Europe by the fifteenth century literary poets had taken to drama as serious form of expression, in Islamic lands, poets preferred the high art of recitation for their panegyrics and poems of derision. Whereas in Italy religious theatre became the heart of confraternity life, in Islamic lands, religious themes remained the province of public story tellers and street preachers. What did al-Wazzan know of these varied theatrical expressions? What did he see during his diplomatic travels across North Africa and then in Italy, where he spent some years living as a teacher of Arabic, a writer, and a coerced Christian convert? What did he contribute to the new humanist interest in Aristotle’s Poetics and Averroes’s aesthetics? And what advice would he have given to his Jewish associate, Jacob Mantino of Bologna, who was working on his own translation of Averroes? Leo Africanus Discovers Comedy is thus a study in the delicate transmission of knowledge across borders, cultures, and religions.

Natalie Zemon Davis is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History emeritus at Princeton University and is currently associated with the University of Toronto. Her many publications include The Return of Martin Guerre, Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, and Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds. In 2010, the government of Norway awarded her the Holberg Prize for her work in the humanities.

216 pp., 19 ill.
ISBN: 978-0-7727-2212-6 softcover
Published: 2021


“From the pen of one of our greatest storytellers, the missing piece of the transcultural puzzle of rhetoric, theatre, and history. East meets West in a thrilling narrative from the inimitable voice that inspired generations of readers and scholars.” — Jody Enders, University of California, Santa Barbara

“In its discussion of Leo Africanus (Hasan al-Wazzan) and the part he played in the reception of Aristotle’s Poetics at the turn of the sixteenth century, this brilliant book paints a fascinating picture of the intellectual bridge both Leo and the Poetics constituted between the Arab East and Christian West.” — Philip Kennedy, New York University

“This marvelous book traces the fault lines and dynamics of cultural transmission and exchange in a way that reveals the interdependence and fruitful cross fertilization of these two cultures, allowing for a deeper understanding of these two rich intellectual and performative traditions.” — Jill Ross, University of Toronto






Glossary of Arabic Words

List of Illustrations

Cited Works