‘The four parts of the world’ – representations of the continents

 Recently when I was in Milan I noticed in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (one of the world’s oldest shopping malls) personifications of the four continents – they are in the arches above the crossing point of the two ‘arms’ of the building. See photos below.

Milan 1

V E gallery – continents in arches at top

Milan 2

Facing the other way – two more arches

One of the chapters in my Master of Arts thesis was about depictions of the four continents – I looked at certain illustrated books published in London and Paris from about 1775 to 1806. All of these ‘travel’ books depicted personifications of the continents in their frontispieces (the illustration that often faces the title page of the book).

A personification is a person representing something else, for example, a virtue, a city, or continent. In Greek art, with very rare exceptions, the sex of the personification accords with the gender of the noun. Many personifications are therefore represented by women, even though women were often thought not to possess the quality depicted (e.g. strength, fortitude, justice). But these figures are not from real life. It is usually through their clothing and attributes (objects accompanying them) that they are shown to ‘stand in’ for something else. They have a long history and were commonly used in history painting, tapestries and wall decorations, sculpture and in illustrated books.

Personifications of three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) originated in classical times. Occasionally men represented the continents, but women were more usual, and all the personifications are female in the books in my study. Their depiction in art became common after European explorers ‘discovered’ America, and a personification of America was added to make four continents or ‘four parts of the world’ as they were usually called at the time.

Europe is commonly depicted wearing a crown and imperial purple and surrounded by classical architecture, objects of the arts and sciences, Christianity, and war. Asia is clothed in rich fabrics and accompanied by an urn of burning incense and sometimes animals such as the camel. Africa is either depicted as a black person (usually a woman) from central or southern Africa or a paler-skinned woman from northern Africa. She is quite often naked or lightly clothed and usually surrounded by animals, serpents and birds. The images below show three of the continents at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (Europe was half covered in scaffolding so I haven’t included it here):

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As Central and South America were explored by Europeans before North America, the clothing and animals of these tropical countries became the attributes for the personification of America. One of the earliest images of Native Americans was a German woodcut of Tupinamba (Brazil) Indians engaged in cannibalism, and dressed in feather skirts and headdresses.[1] This derived from descriptions in Amerigo Vespucci’s account of America – woodcut illustrations were made to accompany various editions of this account. All of these items – the feather skirt and headdress and parts of bodies – would become standard attributes of the personification of America, although sometimes she was depicted naked. A bow and arrows and various ‘typical’ animals were also soon added. The birds and animals included the parrot or macaw, turtle, armadillo, tapir, sloth, jaguar, and alligator. These were not always depicted accurately and were sometimes confused with some of the ‘typical’ African animals such as the rhinoceros, lion and elephant. The bow and arrows and body parts, signifying cannibalism, show the European view of the ‘savage’ nature of the continent.

At this time Christian Europeans considered themselves superior to other peoples – and thus when the four continents are depicted together, Europe is often in a superior position, for example, on a throne, and clearly intended to be read as more ‘civilised’ than the others. Her attributes are cultural (human) products whereas Africa’s and America’s are natural. Asia has a mix of the two, but the cultural products are those associated with luxury.

One of the first modern atlases depicted the continents in its title page. In 1570 Abraham Ortelius (1527–98) produced Theatrum orbis terrarium, a collection of 70 maps that was a huge success, reprinted many times and translated into six languages by 1612. As well as the four continents, a bust of a woman, with a flame on the plinth, was also depicted. Ortelius explained this was the fifth continent yet to be fully known, which his world map depicts as a vast extension of Tierra Del Fuego (she is often called Magellanica).[2]

Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia first published in 1593, but not illustrated until 1603, became the handbook to which many artists turned for depictions of personifications. Where possible, he drew on classical sources. The first edition illustrated with woodcuts, depicted Europe with attributes of power – a crown and sceptre – holding a temple (signifying Christianity) and with implements of war and a cornucopia (symbolising abundance). Asia was well-dressed, holding an incense burner and plants, with a camel beside her. Africa was clothed in a simple tunic with a headdress in the shape of an elephant’s head; she held a scorpion and a cornucopia, and was accompanied by a lion and a snake. America, partly naked, had some feathers in her hair, held a bow and arrows, stood on a European head (with an arrow through it) and was accompanied by a large reptile.[3]

Personifications of the continents appeared in a variety of media – tapestries, ceramics, paintings, and sculpture. Perhaps one of the most famous and largest of the eighteenth century was Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s (1696–1770) ceiling fresco completed in 1753 in the Residenz in Würzburg, Germany. The order in which the continents are viewed by a person coming up the stairs emphasised the European view of a progression towards civilisation. From the bottom of the stairs only America and a part of heaven above could be seen – Apollo as sun god (and metaphor for the ruling prince-bishop) is oriented to be seen from this direction and thus appears to rule over America. At the first landing as the viewer turned around they would face Europe, with Africa on the left and Asia on the right. By turning, Apollo and the greater part of heaven are no longer oriented to the viewer so it becomes more generalised and Europe appears to dominate. From this viewpoint the gestures of Asia and Africa also appear to refer to Europe. [4] Although Tiepolo follows Ripa’s iconography in some respects, he deviates from it in others and is likely to have sourced many of the extra details from travel accounts.[5] He rarely indicates geographical place by the clothing or physical appearance of people (for example, there are a number of figures wearing turbans in the America fresco); this is more likely to be indicated by activities, animals or the use of ‘standard’ attributes. Most of the costumes and facial types he had used for many years.

Allegory of Europe, on Albert Memorial, Hyde Park, London

Allegory of Europe, on Albert Memorial, Hyde Park, London

Europe’s attributes – items associated with arts and sciences, and sometimes war and commerce – indicate that Europeans saw their own continent as the measure of civilisation. Saint-Sauveur’s personification of Europe includes a helmet and spear, a globe, books, artist’s palette and brushes, and various scientific instruments. Two putti hold some of the emblems (they signify genius – in the sense of creative spirit / inspiration – and in particular the flames on their heads symbolise thoughtfulness, according to Ripa). The 1796 edition has a ship flying a French flag in the background, whereas the 1806 edition has classical columns and the sun on a cloth, representing Enlightenment. The two images are similar but with the position of Europe and the putti reversed. In the 1806 image Europe wears the helmet instead of resting her hand on it and the globe is also more prominent, but whether this is to show her as more imperial, in keeping with the Empire declared by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804, or simply for variety, is not known.


Europe, 1796, Grasset de Saint Sauveur


Europe, 1806, Grasset de Saint Sauveur

In general, the Europeans considered Asia to be second to Europe in its level of ‘civilisation’– it had some luxury products such as silks and pearls, and some cultures with ancient histories such as China, but its better days were thought to be over and it was now considered the home of despotic government and indolence. Saint-Sauveur says in his 1796 Asia text: “In general the Asians are weak, indolent, love ostentation, slow and patient … If there is despotism there since the ‘good old days’, it is because the governed are too lazy to shake the yoke and break the chains”. Saint-Sauveur’s personification of Asia encapsulates these attitudes in her reclining position on a divan and her feet on a cushion, her fur-trimmed gown, jewellery, the swathes of curtains and the incense burner behind her.


Asia, 1796, Saint-Sauveur

In Saint-Sauveur’s personifications, the 1796 America shows a bare-breasted woman looking over her shoulder. She wears a feather headdress and feather skirt, carries a quiver of arrows and rests a bow in the other hand. A beaver, tortoise and gold are shown, along with a few schematic plants. The 1806 America has the same pose as the 1796 woman except reversed, but now she wears a knee-length tunic and the plants have given way to a cloth and a ship (a similar ship to that in the background of Europe in the 1796 edition). Also, the gold is replaced by what appear to be cannonballs and a ship’s anchor. America now sits on a neoclassical stone seat as compared to the wooden box seat of the 1796 edition.


America, 1796, Saint-Sauveur


America, 1806, Saint-Sauveur

Little of the turbulent political times in which Saint-Sauveur’s books were published is reflected in these frontispieces or the introductions. There is not much change in the introductory texts between the 1796 and 1806 editions – 1806 is mainly a much-abbreviated form of 1796. He can say in both editions (in the Europe introduction) that Europe “conquered America and holds it under its yoke with as much facility as the Roman Empire held Corsica and Sardinia”. This is after the United States has won independence; France has lost its most prosperous colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti from 1 January 1804) and sold the large tract of land known as the ‘Louisiana purchase’ (1803) to the United States; and slavery had been abolished under the French revolutionary government in 1794, but a few years later re-imposed in the French colonies by Napoleon. If the image of America represents a more ‘civilised’ view in the 1806 edition, there is little corroboration of it from his texts. There is a small section of new information in the America introduction to the 1806 edition – he lists some of the principal exports of America, which may explain why he included the ship in the background. He also lists which European powers possess colonies in the Americas, but there are two inaccuracies at the time of publication – he still includes Saint-Domingue as a French colony, and he says Spain yielded Louisiana to the United States.[6] This suggests the text was written before 1800 and not updated for the 1806 publication; which no doubt reflected the exigencies of publishing rather than politics.

Whereas Saint-Sauveur uses a frontispiece at the beginning of each continent and therefore depicts each personified continent separately, the three English books in my study have one initial frontispiece which depicts all four continents together. These more obviously show the relationships among the continents as they were seen by Europeans at the time. Middleton’s frontispiece shows the continents with their typical attributes – Europe sits on a throne, with emblems of the arts and sciences around her; Asia, Africa and America wear or carry the items mentioned in the text below the frontispiece, clearly intended as tribute to Europe. However, even more imperialistic is Thomas Bankes’s frontispiece where the four continents are shown presenting their tribute to Britannia. Alan Bewell believed Bankes’s frontispiece was the first to show a personification of the ‘South Pacific’ (probably a Tahitian woman) offering a bouquet of flowers to Britannia.[7] I disagree with this interpretation. I believe the woman with the ‘bouquet’ is Europe holding a cornucopia (it contains a necklace as well as flowers) – a standard attribute for Europe; she also wears a tiara. At the bottom of the image, Bankes includes the following text to explain the symbolism:

Neptune raising Capt Cook up to Immortality, a Genius crowning him with a wreath of Oak and Fame introducing him to History. In the front ground are the Four Quarters of the World presenting to Britannia their various stores.

This indicates that the four women shown are the usual four continents (Europe, Asia, America and Africa). Although it may seem unusual to separate Britannia from Europe, after England’s victories against France in the Seven Years’ War (1757–1763) it was perhaps not unexpected for an English book celebrating maritime discoveries to show Britannia victorious. At least Europe is depicted on an equal level with Britannia whereas the other three are all subservient to differing degrees (especially America, who is almost obscured behind Britannia’s throne). There is no indication of the fact, as it was when this edition was published in 1790, that the American colonies had won independence from England. It is probable that he has continued to use an image from earlier editions as was quite common in book publishing of the time to save time, effort and hence money.


Bankes, 1790, Frontispiece


Middleton frontispiece

The fact that the attributes of the four continents became standard by the early seventeenth century and lasted well into the nineteenth says more about a European world view than anything about the continents themselves. Even when new knowledge became available (or new images from recent voyages) the personifications were not usually changed, as they needed to be recognisable to a European audience. America, which at this time usually included Oceania, was generally depicted as a ‘savage’ although she is tending to become more ‘civilised’ by the later eighteenth century. The earlier view of America was becoming increasingly outmoded after American independence in 1783. Despite the illustrated encyclopaedias including the latest Oceanic discoveries, on the whole their frontispieces remain traditional, and by subsuming Oceanic peoples under America, they say practically nothing about this part of the world. As a summary of the narrative of the book, the frontispieces therefore could be seen as incomplete, but they also clearly reveal European views of their own superiority, which colours their views of the other parts of the world.

The titles and publishing details of the books can be found in the article based on my MA (‘Exotic depictions‘) in the August 2014 archives. See also this depiction of America, c. 1590, from the ‘Public Domain Review’.


[1] Hugh Honour The new golden land: European images of America from the discoveries to the present time, New York: Pantheon Books, 1975, p. 12.

[2] Denis Cosgrove, Apollo’s eye, 2001, p. 131

[3] Described from the illustrations in Le Corbeiller, 1961.

[4] Svetlana Alpers & Michael Baxandall, Tiepolo and the pictorial intelligence, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 115–118.

[5] Mark Ashton, Allegory, fact, and meaning in Giambattista Tiepolo’s four continents in Würzburg’, The Art Bulletin, 60 (1) March 1978, pp. 109–125.

[6] France ceded Louisiana to Spain following the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Spain and the United States signed a treaty in 1795 giving some recognition to US interests, which may be what Saint-Sauveur is referring to. France regained control of Louisiana in 1800, but sold it to the United States in May 1803 after Napoleon gave up his ‘western design’ having lost Saint-Domingue.

[7] Alan Bewell, ‘Constructed places, constructed peoples: Charting the improvement of the female body in the Pacific’ in ‘The South Pacific in the Eighteenth Century: Narratives and Myths’. Papers from the 9th David Nicol Smith memorial seminar; Jonathan Lamb, Robert Maccubbin & David Morrill (eds), Eighteenth-Century Life, 18(3), Nov 1994, p. 41.


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