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.
Asia appears in splendid, hemmed fabrics which are folded across the chest in the manner of East Asian garments, particularly those of Japan. She wears an elaborate headdress with curvilinear ornaments and floral decorations, alluding to the natural wealth of the continent. On her left shoulder is a chain with a pendant in the shape of a dromedary camel - the camel is mentioned by Ripa as being a popular mount in Asia.
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: Asia About 1690 © Compton Verney