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It Wasn’t Leo

In response to:

Among the Infidels from the March 23, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

The New York Review has added a picture to Clifford Geertz’s thoughtful and interesting review of my Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds [NYR, March 23] and has given it the caption “A portrait, thought by some to be of Leo Africanus, by the Venetian painter Sebastiano del Piombo, circa 1520.” As readers of the book can see (pages 4 and 302, note 55), I am not among the “some” who think this. In his book Sebastiano del Piombo (Oxford University Press, 1981), Michael Hirst dates the painting about 1519–1520. If 1519, Giovanni Leone was still clamped in his prison cell under his Muslim name al-Wazzan. But whatever the date, Hirst has pointed to the strong resemblance between the Italian man in the portrait, with his gloves and scholar’s tools and European books, to the face, hair, and beard of Sebastiano’s young humanist friend Marcantonio Flaminio. Nor does the picture adhere to the usual Renaissance conventions for representing figures and items of North African or Muslim origin.

In the early 1520s, the convert Giovanni Leone was on the fringes of Rome’s humanist sodalities, still just a teacher and transcriber of Arabic for great figures, most at ease with Syrian Christians, learned Jews, and other outsiders. Not a likely subject for an elevating portrait. Decades later, when the manuscript on Africa he left behind got published, his Venetian editor may have wished for a picture of Giovanni Leone, but by then he was long since gone from Italy.

Natalie Zemon Davis

Toronto, Ontario

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