The Allegorical Continents

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The Orbis Terrarum Tabula Recens Emendata Et In Lucem Edita, “The World Map Recently Amended and Published” was published by Claes Visscher in Amsterdam in 1663. This world map features many of the common geographic misconceptions of the 17th century. For example, Australia and New Guinea are depicted as one massive land continent and seen in the depiction of North America is a misleading length of The St. Laurens River shown stretching from the New England coast reaching the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Copies of Visscher’s world map commonly appeared in Bibles after 1657 and was continuously republished and decorated for one hundred years after its first publication. The Orbis Terrarum Tabula Recens Emendata Et In Lucem Edita was one of the most widely copied world map of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Allegorical Influence

In 1593, Cesare Ripa, Italian Iconographer, published a remarkably successful emblem and iconographic book, Nova Iconologia, which included the four continents as allegorical figures. This handbook was immensely popular and widely distributed. Ripa was a man of research, he had access to hundreds of important pieces of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and early Christian literature which heavily influenced his work. The Nova Iconologia was a functional tool for interpreting the symbolic elements of allegorical figures described by Ripa. Some allegorical figures included emotions, such as grief, happiness, and lust, as well as the four elements, and the four continents. Ripa’s work provided engravers with the standard expectations to personify females as allegorical figures, and in turn led to the discriminatory and racial biases presented in Claes Visscher's Orbis Terrarum Tabula Recens Emendta Et In Lucem Edita. 

A Note about Nationalism and the European Perspective

It was not until the late 16th and early 17th century that national pride, particularly Dutch pride, became fundamental and reached the foreground of art. It was during this era that the Netherlands were victorious over Spain and won their independence in the Eighty-Year's War (1568-1648). Coming off the heels of independence, there was a renaissance in trade, science, military conquests, and this was all evident in Dutch artwork, lending the name of this period the Dutch Golden Age (1588-1672). The Dutch Golden Age brought in innovative ideas and expanded the horizons of Dutch territory though colonization. After many Dutch merchant ships sailed across expansive lengths of the ocean to reach the Far East and Africa, the Dutch East India Company was established in 1602. This was the first international corporation that functioned like a monopoly as the Dutch East India Company oversaw more than half of the world’s global sea trade. The Dutch East India Company was the most powerful business in the 17th century. Many nations were colonized during the 1600’s by the Dutch East India Company, including the modern-day countries of Sir Lanka, Taiwan, and Indonesia. Additionally, the Dutch West India Company founded in 1621 established monumental trade settlements including the ports of New Amsterdam in America which would become New York City and the Cape of Good Hope on the southernmost tip of West Africa.

It is important to understand that many of the artworks to come out of the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age were framed from the European perspective. Many of the artists and map engravers, - chose to represent the continents of Asia, Africa, and America as being ‘less civilized’ than that of Europe. This idea of open racial and ethnic biases, coupled with the new artistic style of both the Mannerist and Baroque period, which put an emphasis on the realistic nature of the body, provided the means for European dominance and colonization.