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Mapping Meaning: Ethnography and Allegory in Netherlandish Cartography, 1570-1655

  • Elizabeth Sutton

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As was the norm with frontispiece illustration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the figures personifying the four continents on the title page to Abraham Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum were allegorical stand-ins, representing both a geographical place and its identifying features, symbolised by their appropriate accoutrements (fig. 1). They were not meant to serve as documentary evidence of diverse peoples, which partially explains why the personifications of the four continents are generalised and generic and adopt classicising ideals for body type and posture. In contrast, Willem and Joan Blaeu's map of Africa from 1655 includes ethnographic images as border decorations (fig. 2). These are more naturalistic and taken from contemporary travel accounts, suggesting the presence of factual information sources. Yet both the title page and the map share a visual language that signalled culturally-specific meaning to the viewer.

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* Elizabeth Sutton is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Northern Iowa and has recently completed her doctoral dissertation on “Economics, Ethnography, and Empire: The Illustrated Travel Series of Cornelis Claesz, 1598-1603”. Research interests include the nature and implications of Dutch exploration and trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly to West Africa and the Atlantic and the theory of intercultural encounters and exchange.

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Mapping Meaning: Ethnography and Allegory in Netherlandish Cartography, 1570-1655

  • Elizabeth Sutton

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