This sculpture is one of four marble busts that represent the four continents: Europe, Africa, Asia, and America. As female personifications, they are adorned with individual attributes taken from Cesare Ripa’s famous emblem book the Iconologia (1593). This book was widely used by artists, poets, and speakers to give form to abstract ideas. Although not geographically accurate, at this time the four continents were used symbolically to represent the whole world.
Africa is portrayed as a young woman with a turban wrapped by a crown of flowers and ears of grain, alluding to the fertility of the continent. In particular, the grain refers to the role of Africa, especially Egypt, as the granary of Rome in antiquity. The snake that wraps around Africa’s head is also mentioned by Cesare Ripa and alludes to widespread assumptions from antiquity that this continent was populated by poisonous animals.
Along with his son Domenico Antonio Vaccaro (1678-1745), Lorenzo Vaccaro was one of the leading sculptors of the late Baroque period in Naples. He was also as a painter, architect and a talented silversmith. We don’t know where these busts were originally displayed. The narrow bases are decorated with ornamental cartouches which have been left blank. It is likely that they were sculptured for a secular patron, or for a representative building, where they would have emphasised claims of dynasty or status. Vaccaro designed another cycle of the Four Continents, in silver and full figure, for the Viceroy of Naples, Francesco de Benavides (1640-1716), which are now in Toledo Cathedral.
Lorenzo Vaccaro The Four Continents: Africa About 1690 © Compton Verney