Most of what is known about his life is gathered from autobiographical notes in his own work. Leone L’Africano was born in Granada in around 1494 but his family moved to Fez soon after his birth. In Fez he studied at the University of Al Karaouine. As a young man he accompanied an uncle on a diplomatic mission to the Maghreb, reaching as far as the city of Timbuktu (c. 1510), then part of the Songhai Empire. In 1517 when returning from a diplomatic mission to Constantinople on behalf of Sultan of Fez Muhammad II he found himself in Rosetta during the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. He continued with his journey through Cairo and Aswan and across the Red Sea to Arabia, where he probably performed a pilgrimage to Mecca. On his way back to Tunis in 1518 he was captured by Spanish corsairs either near the island of Djerba or more probably near Crete. He was taken to Rome and initially imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo but when his captors realised his importance he was freed and presented to Pope Leo X. He was baptized in the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in 1520. It is likely that Leone L’Africano was welcomed to the papal court as the Pope feared that Turkish forces might invade Sicily and southern Italy, and a willing collaborator could provide useful information on North Africa.
Leone L’Africano left Rome and spent the next 3 or 4 years traveling in Italy. While staying in Bologna he wrote an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin medical vocabulary, of which only the Arabic part has survived, and a grammar of Arabic of which only an eight page fragment has survived. He returned to Rome in 1526 under the protection of Pope Clement VII. According to Leo, he completed his manuscript on African geography in the same year. The work was published in Italian with the title Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili cheiui sono, per Giovan Lioni Africano in 1550 by the Venetian publisher Giovanni Battista Ramusio. The book proved to be extremely popular and was reprinted 5 times. It was also translated in other languages. French and Latin editions were published in 1556 while an English version was published in 1600 with the title A Geographical Historie of Africa. The Latin edition which contained many errors and mistranslations was used as the source for the English translation.
It is unlikely that Leone L’Africano visited all the places that he describes and he must therefore have relied on information obtained from other travelers. In particular, it is doubtful whether he ever visited Hausaland and Bornu and it is even possible that he never crossed the Sahara but relied on information from other travelers that he met in Morocco.
At the time he visited the city of Timbuktu, it was a thriving Islamic city famous for its learning. Timbuktu was to become a byword in Europe as the most inaccessible of cities, but at the time Leo visited, it was the center of a busy trade carried on by traders in African products, gold, printed cottons and slaves, and in Islamic books. Nothing is known of Leo’s later life. According to one tradition, he left Rome shortly after the sack of the city in 1527 and is said to have died in 1554 in Tunis, having reconverted to Islam.