In the 16th century, Europeans conceptualized the world as being divided into four continents: Africa, America, Asia, and Europe. Each of these continents was believed to represent a specific quadrant of the world, aligning with the cardinal directions: Africa in the south, America in the west, Asia in the East, and Europe in the north. This division was congruent with the Renaissance era’s inclination to categorize the world into fours, such as the four seasons, four classical elements, and four cardinal virtues.
Historical Division and Perception
16th Century Perspective
The four continents were not just a geographical division but also found representation in various forms of art and culture. In this context, personifications of the continents became popular, depicted primarily as female figures, each adorned and posed in a manner that reflected the continent’s perceived characteristics. Europe was portrayed as regal, Asia as exotic, while Africa and America were often shown with fewer garments, emphasizing their ‘exotic’ nature.
Pre-16th Century: A Tripartite World View
Before the Americas’ discovery, the known world was divided into three parts: Europe, Asia, and Africa. This tripartite division was prevalent in classical and medieval geography, emphasizing the Euro-centric view of the world. Asia was believed to stretch from the Mediterranean to the exotic East, while Africa and Europe completed the world’s known parts.
The Enlarged World: Adding a Fourth Corner
With the discovery of the Americas, the worldview expanded to include a fourth continent. However, the boundaries between these continents were still viewed through a European lens, with Asia starting beyond the Hellespont and stretching into the exotic Orient.
Iconography and Personifications
Influence of Cesare Ripa
Cesare Ripa’s “Iconologia,” published in 1593, played a significant role in establishing the iconography of the continents, influencing depictions for centuries to come. Each continent was personified with distinct characteristics and attributes, reflecting contemporary perceptions and stereotypes.
Europa was depicted as a powerful, abundantly rich queen adorned in fine clothes and surrounded by symbols of power and prosperity.
Africa was shown with an elephant headdress and surrounded by animals native to the continent, with imagery drawn from Roman coins and a mix of Eurocentric perceptions.
Asia was presented as exotic and wealthy, with rich clothing, spices, and a connection to religion.
America was portrayed as a Native American maiden, symbolizing the wilderness and savagery attributed to the continent. However, this depiction also carried misconceptions and stereotypes.
Collections and Representations
The depiction of the Four Continents found its way into various forms of art and collectibles, including porcelain figures and allegorical prints. James Hazen Hyde’s collection, now housed at the New York Historical Society, is a testament to the enduring fascination with this theme.
Geographical Rivers and Fountains
The Four Continents theme extended to major rivers’ association, with each continent represented by a specific river. This theme found expression in art and architecture, such as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Rome.
Decline and Contemporary Relevance
With the discovery of Australia and Antarctica, the “Four Continents” theme began to lose its prominence. However, the concept survived in classicizing contexts and remains a part of historical and cultural discussions. Today, when continents are grouped by landmass, four continental landmasses emerge: Afro-Eurasia, America, Antarctica, and Australia, each with unique characteristics and histories.