continents

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Allegory of the Planets and Continents

Italy (c. 1752)

One of my favorite things about this painting is that each figure and area of it is meant to tell a story. Being an allegory of the continents of the world, it’s understandably full of people of color. The label for this work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reads as follows:

This picture, Tiepolo’s largest and most dazzling oil sketch, represents Apollo about to embark on his daily course across the sky. Deities around the sun god symbolize the planets, and allegorical figures on the cornice represent the four continents. Tiepolo presented this preliminary sketch to Carl Philipp von Greiffenklau, the prince-bishop of Würzburg, on April 20, 1752, as his proposal for the decoration of the vast staircase ceiling of the Residenz, often considered the artist’s greatest achievement.

Even better, it comes with a key (bigger here):

In western allegories, land masses or nations are usually represented as women. Each of these frames could be a whole composition unto themselves:

The work itself is very beautiful, but the theme of these allegorical paintings have rather unsavory imperialistic (as well as sexist and racist) overtones. 

Often imagined as a grouping of three or four, the allegorization of continents through the representation of female subjects became an ever more appealing and central mode of global representation as European nations increased their imperial possession through the violent acquisition of new territories. The four continents—Africa, Asia, Europe and America—went hand in hand with the idea of woman as nature, literalizing the symbolic representation of woman as territory and allowing for an aesthetic exploration of the female body as both beautiful and sublime. Within colonial ideals of racial classification, the beautiful was most often reserved for Europe as a white woman and sometimes for a sisterly America, if rendered as a woman of European descent. Asia and Africa were displaced from the white paradigm of beauty and civilization, and America, when depicted as a Native woman, also joined this marginalized sisterhood.

This allegory then was a geographical one that through compositional and aesthetic distinctions reproduced colonial ideals of race within essentialized hierarchies through a supposed accurate representation of the types of (wo)mankind that inhabited the four corners of the earth. By the nineteenth century, the allegory of the four continents was an ubiquitous imperial trope deployed within painting, sculpture, as architectural motifs, ceramics, print culture and other forms of art and visual culture. Readily recognizable, it functioned dominantly as a celebration of European imperial expansionism while affording the white viewer the pleasurable experience of seeing the colonized “other” and of seeing themselves as culturally and aesthetically superior to the populations they were colonizing.

For more in-depth analysis of this genre of western painting, see Representing the Black Female Subject in Western Art by Charmaine A. Nelson, specifically Chapter 10: Allegory, Race and the Four Continents, from which the above text was excerpted.

When I reach for you
I am reaching for meaning,
to make more of your hands
than just fingers and palm,
to make more of myself
than just a reflection in your eyes,
to understand all that has been
so often misunderstood,
to hear that which has been
left unspoken between
the seconds, minutes, hours.
These I measure not in time,
but in the wingspan of a plane,
the distance between continents,
the lives lived in every timezone.
—  Nav K
On Eurasia

cenosillicaphobiac replied to your post: cenosillicaphobiac asked:Hi medie…

Sorry! As some of the other notes have said, I meant this sort of thing: “Of course. Asia and Europe aren’t even a separate landmass, after all.” (on your Europe tag) -> arbitrary line down the Eurasian continent of ‘other’?

Oh! I just meant political boundaries=/=physical impediment to travel. A lot of people seem to have very strange ideas about that.

Especially when that particular political boundary didn’t exist yet by a good margin. Also, the separation still doesn’t actually exist in many places.

As for “arbitrary”, it doesn’t mean “completely random”. Everything named by humans serves a purpose for humans, in this case presumably Europeans, since they were the ones who decided they were separate.

I can only speak to American ideas about this, after all. In the U.S. the idea that Europe was completely culturally and geographically isolated (and racially isolated) for pretty much the entirety of human history is very popular and widely accepted. It’s also not true.

How this belief can co-exist with The Silk Road also being (fairly) common knowledge, I don’t really understand. And the Crusades. And the Roman Empire. And the Mongolian, Ottoman, and Byzantine Empires. Vikings. Al-Andalus.

So, I explore that.

I mean, this is exactly how it goes: A film or show comes out cast entirely with white people, even though it’s meant for a pretty diverse American audience.

Viewers and fans of color are like, “wow, why isn’t anyone who looks like me on this show, or on TV/in movies, like, ever?”

White fans are like, “how dare you? It’s a European [inspiration/source/book/fairy tale]. Everyone to the last person, every single last human, in Europe was white back then (pretty much no matter when. or where.)”

I’m like, “That doesn’t make any sense if you think about it for two seconds, for about a million reasons (supernatural elements in the source, documented historical precedence, source being 100% fiction, historical facts, et cet).”

White viewers/fans: “I want to shoot you in the head.”

Me: :(

So, anyways, that is the purpose that the boundary between Asia and Europe serves for a lot of white Americans. Who think that ideas like an Asian Robin Hood would be laughable and inaccurate, who throw hissy fits over a biracial man playing Porthos in the Three Musketeers TV show despite the fact that the book was written by a mixed race author, who can’t stand Angel Coulby playing Guinevere or Sinqua Walls playing Lancelot (despite the existence of Sir Morien and several other knights of color in Arthurian canon), who are willing to become actually violent over protecting the ubiquitous whiteness of Disney films like Brave and Frozen, or video games, or really any other piece of fiction.

The supposed isolation of Europe during previous eras is used to perpetrate and excuse violence and racism in America, right now.

It shouldn’t be controversial to point out that Europe and Asia are literally the same landmass:

But in this context, it becomes very relevant, and sadly, controversial. I’m pretty bad with geography, but I’m not that bad.

All I’m actually saying is, “you may notice you can get to Europe by walking there from almost anywhere in Asia.”

And it’s like…it’s understood that there have been Europeans of color who’ve lived there for centuries….

but at the same time, no people of color, ever?

And this isn’t even getting into the whole “people had boats since 5ever” factor. Australia has been populated for 40,000-ish years, after all.

So we come back to the question: What separates Asia and Europe? The answer is, essentially, nothing. Another answer is: human social constructs. Yet another answer is: distance. Another: a political boundary.

But maybe we get a little more mileage out of NEW questions: What purpose does this boundary serve, and whom does it serve? What ideas are attached to it? Why do we care?

As you can see, this doesn’t have a ton to do with people who are Europeans, doing their thing in Europe right now…other than Europeans of color who apparently have had their histories in their nations left out or called “unimportant”.

Like I’ve said, I’m American and I can’t speak for Europeans. I’ve never claimed to, but I find their (your) input quite valuable.

As for “the standard argument” you refer to in your original ask, I honestly am not sure what that’s referring to. This is what I mean when I talk about these things, and some practical examples of why I use these terms the way I do. I hope it helped.