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Staging the Southern Continent 1565-1606.

The classical idea of Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem ("all the world is a stage") pervades many maps produced during the early modern period. The theatricality of the world is of special interest in relation to the mythical Southern Continent. For as long as the Pacific remained uncharted, geographical discoveries and fantasy interacted in the construction or invention of this large area of the world.

The maps looked at in this paper are cultural, social and spatial representations that stand at the threshold between the moralized geography prevalent in the Middle Ages and the post-enlightenment representations with which we are now familiar. Thus, many early modern maps present a vision of the world that is both moral and geographical. Reality and fantasy merge in the histrionic representation of the world as a stage that influences the mapping of the Pacific at the time the journeys of Alvaro Mendana and Pedro Fernandez de Quiros took place between 1567 and 1606. Reinforced by a view of life as representation, and of the world as a stage where humans follow the designs of divine destiny, these maps, like the narratives that often accompanied them, create a universe where fiction and reality are representation both for the actors and for the viewers.


Theatricality is deep in every cultural action. (Dening, 109)

The classical idea of the world as a stage, Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem, pervades many maps and narratives of exploration during the early modern period. This notion infuses many world maps, which offer a vision of a fragile universe, reminding viewers that human life is short and ephemeral. Much like Hamlet, the mirror these maps hold up to view reflects an image of life as being briefly performed upon a stage, as well as of human mortality.

These sixteenth- and seventeenth-century world maps present a vision of the world that is both moral and geographical, as demonstrated in the way they display ostentatiously the baroque theme of vanitas. (1) These stock themes crossed the Christian divide between Reformers and Catholics to become one of the prevalent notions underlying exploration and mapmaking from the second half of the sixteenth century till well into the seventeenth.

The histrionic notion of the world as a stage is of special interest in relation to the early modern maps of the hypothetical Southern Continent. As long as the Pacific remained uncharted, geographical discoveries and fantasies interacted in the invention of this large area of the world. These maps stress the religious notions underlying Renaissance geography and the idea of a histrionic world that is divinely ordained. Among these, the heart-shaped world map of Jodocus Hondius, Typus Orbis Terrarum, published in 1589 (Fig. 1), offers some interesting insights. (2) This miniature map is the first known work of Hondius, who fled the religious struggles in the Netherlands to live in London in the 1580s before returning to Amsterdam in 1592 or 1593. Here the image of the whole universe, which is suspended by a cord held by the hand of God and thereby subject to God's divine power, has clearly been constructed by human action. This is seen by the map's incorporation of recent discoveries and its open acknowledgement of the recent circumnavigation of the world by Sir Francis Drake (1577-80). (3) The rounding of the southernmost tip of South America and the presence of the island baptized by Drake as Insula Regina Elizabetha attest to the achievements of the journey. Two concepts that seem to us to contradict each other, scientific progress and religious predetermination, are clearly combined in this map.


The ways cartographic representations highlight the meaninglessness of exploration and construct world geography as a theatre are neatly summed up in a map produced nearly at the same time as Hondius, and usually known as the "Fool's Cap" map c. 1590 (Fig. 2). (4) This map, which follows that of Abraham Ortelius in its geographical features, is derived from one made by Jean de Gourmont c. 1575, and is designed to emphasize the overlapping of exploration and vanity. (5) The characterization of the world as a fool offers a wide array of possible interpretations, for the fool was a cultural icon embodying multiple meanings.


These meanings ranged from the relationship of madness with wisdom, inherited from the classical tradition, to, as Peter Whitfield sums up, the role of scapegoat:
 The Fool's origin and central role seems
 to have been in magic: he was a kind of
 scapegoat who drew down upon himself
 the forces of evil, unreason or ill-fortune,
 and by confronting them, averted the
 power from his community. He was
 licenced [sic] to break rules, speak
 painful truths, and mock at power and
 pretension, and the grotesque shape he
 bore was a kind of living punishment ...
 it is now the whole world which takes on
 the Fool's costume, thus forcing the
 viewer to confront the possibility that the
 whole created order is irrational, alien
 and threatening. (78)

Equally relevant in the context of Pacific exploration is one of the most famous representations of moralised geography, Hondius' "Christian Knight" map of c. 1597 (Fig. 3).


Hondius' map is important not only for being a quasi-contemporary of Pedro Fernandez de Quiros' depiction of his journey to the Pacific as pilot of the second fleet equipped and led by Alvaro de Mendana in 1595, but also because of the salient place here occupied by the mythical Southern Continent in it. Here, in the large space supposedly occupied by the undiscovered southern territories, the various Christian notions that remind humans of the meaninglessness of earthly endeavours and the worthlessness of worldly riches are all placed in Terra Australis Incognita. The World, Sin, Flesh, Devil and Death (Mundus, Peccatum, Caro, Diabolus and Mors), are located around the central figure, the Knight in armour. This Christian Knight who steps on the Flesh, Caro, is inspired by the Holy Ghost hovering over him, much like the explorer Quiros was when naming Vanuatu Austrialia del Espiritu Santo. (6) These images surround the knight with the paraphernalia of the theatrum mundi, where man is placed in a universe that is geographically and spiritually histrionic. The world, its riches and confines are thereby moralised. Contradictorily, then, these maps present an invitation to discover and define the unknown universe that is couched as a warning against forgetting that the ultimate common destiny of all humans is death and one ought to be prepared for it.

From the point of view of production and consumption, these maps can be treated as narratives. This treatment is especially useful in maps in which it is difficult to draw a line between cartographic representation and narrative, as happened in the contemporary atlases. Other than in atlases, many early modern maps were accompanied by often-elaborate textual explanations. These were added in adjacent pages, were written as explanations on the map itself, or were included in vignettes that could be read individually or sequentially. The intimate relationship between map and narrative is obvious in the most important collection of maps that made up what is considered the first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of Abraham Ortelius (1570) (Fig. 4). (7)


Ortelius, like Ptolemy and the classical geographers who were his models, saw geography and history as inseparable aspects of knowledge. (8) In his famous Theatrum, he included a lengthy description of the land depicted in the maps in the pages in between the maps, where geographical, botanical, ethnographical, folkloric and even literary information can be found. A good mixture of fact, fiction and interpretation, these sections rightly complement the decorative and informative aspects of the maps themselves. This provided the grounds for his rationale of the explanations:
 Because we thought it would be a thing
 nothing pleasing to the Reader or
 Beholder, to see the backsides of the
 leaues altogether bare and empty; we
 determined there to make a certaine
 briefe and short declaration and
 Historicall discourse of euery Mappe, in
 the sam[e] manner and order as we said
 we obserued in the Mappes themselues;
 omitting nor concealing any mans name,
 that we had occasion to use. (np)

The premises outlined here by Ortelius were thereafter followed in the construction of atlases as well as in collections of city views, such as the Civitates Orbis Terrarum, where the charts were always accompanied by explanatory narrative. (9) Ortelius' Theatrum thus set down the intimate relationship between map and narrative, further suggesting the impossibility of separating geography from history, and religion from the idea of the world as theatre. (10) This interdependence is also seen in the development of the Theatrum from its first publication to the numerous editions, translations and additions it underwent in the following decades. (11)

The success of the Theatrum led to its increase in size and its eventually being made into a pocket edition, the Epitome, which made the atlas cheaper and more widely available. After the atlas had gone through the multiple editions and translations that made his compiler wealthy and renowned, Ortelius complemented it from 1598 onwards with a section dedicated to "The Geography of Holy Writers", the Parergon (Fig. 5). (12) This addition of the Theatrum included maps of ancient civilizations drawn up by Ortelius. The relationship between history, religion, geography and the idea of the world as a stage is prominent in this section, which John Gillies calls a "historical geography" (60). In the Parergon, Gillies suggests, geography is made into a "historical 'theatre'":
 In these maps of bygone empires and
 events, the idea of geography as a
 historical "theatre" is made graphically
 manifest ... To their purely cartographic
 function, Ortelius adds a narrative-theatrical
 function. As well as describing
 regions, these maps tell histories.
 Accordingly, the cartography is
 complemented by a variety of narrative or
 pictorial devices ... Textual legends appear
 before or within or beneath maps, in order
 to convey the historical dimension of the
 geographic image. (72) (13)


If the early modern theatre represents a microcosmic image of the world, the world is also compared to a theatre, where everything is ephemeral and where humans are nothing but actors. (14) This theatrical universe is an "invention", much as each new discovery is said not just to represent but also to invent anew a geographical area for Europeans.

Geography, myth, theatre and religion are likewise eloquently woven in the Parergon's initial address to the readers, entitled "The Geography of Holy Writers". Here, Ortelius deals with one of the places that became all-important in the exploration of the Americas and of the Pacific, the Solomonic land of Ophir. This land is visible in the map that opens the Parergon, Geographia Sacra (Fig. 6), and is also highlighted in the inset map in it where he positions Ophir in the east, above India and the Malayan peninsula (Fig. 7). From this mythical land, Ophir, Solomon was thought to have taken the gold to build his famous temple in Jerusalem. Ortelius' own words, as translated by John Norton in the first English edition of 1606, demonstrate this religious-cum-mythical link:
 We haue vpon the side in a void place set
 the Mappe of the whole World, whereby
 the diligent student of Diuinity by
 conferring might easily see, what and
 how great a portion of the same, the holy
 history doth mention and comprehend:
 and at once, iointly with the same labour
 to find out the situation and position of
 two famous places mentioned in the holy
 Scriptures: namely of the situation of the
 country Ophyr and the earthly Paradise.
 Of the which although many men do
 write many and diuers things, and the
 opinions of the learned be different, yet
 we haue also set downe our iudgement,
 willingly giuing leaue to the learned
 Reader, his discretion, to take which him
 pleaseth: and he may read, if he thinke
 good, that which in our Geographicall
 Treasurie, we haue written more at large
 of Ophyr. Of Paradise also there is the
 like controuersie and question amongst
 the Diuines. (np)


The Ophirian legend informs and is informed by the journeys of exploration to the South Pacific at this time, and it articulates the overlapping of geography and chimera. This articulation takes the form of the stock theme of world-as-a-stage, which is, I am suggesting, part and parcel of the epistemology of the early modern period. By the time the Theatrum was published, the relationship between the Ophirian conjecture and the exploration of the Pacific had a long tradition, which started in the classical era and culminated in many sixteenth-century representations. In fact, Ophir was also confused with, among other places, the lands described by Marco Polo as Beach, Locach and Maletur. (15)

Contemporary maps and narratives therefore weave to varying degrees the Spice Islands with the islands of gold and silver, Chryse and Argyre, the biblical Ophir and Tharshish, Ptolemy's Golden Khersonese or his southern landmass, (16) Cipangu, the Southern Continent and Polo's Beach, Locach and Maletur. Journeys to the South Seas show these mythical or real places as their stated or implied objectives in an elusive merger of dream and reality. This alternation underscores the appearance of Argyre or Isla de Plata in the map of the Pacific, Maris Pacifici, included in Ortelius' Theatrum from 1589 onwards (Fig. 8, Fig. 9). From 1570 to 1587, in all editions of Ortelius' atlas, the Map of Asia has only the large island of Iapan and various smaller islands, including Fermosa (today's Taiwan) and Lequeio (Lequio in the Philippines). This map remains unchanged in later editions, but the new map of the Pacific, Maris Pacifici, includes an island, larger than Japan, north of this country and identifies it with the classical Argyre in the legend next to it. These versions alternate freely in various post-1589 editions. (17)


Reinforced by a view of life as representation, and of the world as a stage where humans follow the designs of divine destiny, these maps, like the narratives that often accompanied them, create a universe where fiction and reality are representation both for the actors and for the viewers. Much like the explorations on whose information they relied, the maps of the early modern Pacific merge not just fact and fiction but, more interestingly, beliefs, chimeras and theatricality. (18) By means of this alternation, these maps construct an epic history that uses myth for religious, imperial and state-building purposes.


(1) Vanitas means the representation, in the arts, of objects and ideas designed to illustrate the transitoriness of human happiness and meaninglessness of worldly possessions. J. A. Welu discusses the use of vanitas on Dutch maps, suggesting that: "the Dutch led the way in mapmaking during the seventeenth century, [and] they also, at the same time, popularised vanitas imagery in cartographic material" (100). I have examined this topic in relation to women and the land in "That map which deep impression bears."

(2) The whole map is only 90 mm in diameter but is very precisely engraved.

(3) Hondius also celebrates Drake's "famous voyage" in a broadside map of 1595, where he marks the route of Drake's circumnavigation. This map was in all likelihood copied directly or indirectly from the chart that Drake gave Queen Elizabeth with his diary and which hung in the Palace of Whitehall. Unfortunately, it was lost in the fire of Whitehall in 1698. For a description of this and other maps used by Drake, see Wallis.

(4) According to Shirley, "Seven or eight copies of another foolscap world map are known, based on but quite different from Jean de Gourmont's earlier foolscap world map ... The geographical details follow Ortelius' latest plate, and thus indicate a date post-1587 ... There is an allusive reference to the foolscap map in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy ..." (189).

(5) To quote Shirley again, "There is some uncertainty over the origin of this woodcut map of the world which is framed in the face of a jester's head. The small oval map is derived from Ortelius' world map of 1570: around it and as part of the jester's dress are allusive epigrams in French reciting the vanities of this world. Across the fool's shoulders is the dour motto Nul eureux qu'apres la mort" [There is no happiness until after death] (157).

(6) Peter Barber identifies "the Christian Knight" with King Henri IV of France and argues cogently for an allegorical reading of the map as a celebration of Henri's defeat over the dark forces of Catholicism (59).

(7) Indeed, Ortelius' Theatrum, as Peter van der Krogt has argued, "can essentially be called the first (world) atlas" for it "is the first publication with maps which have been exclusively designed to be issued in a book together with other, similar maps ... Through the text, introductory matter and registers, the maps truly form one whole" (60). Van der Krogt remarks that: "'Theatre' as a metaphor for the world was used as early as 1561 in the title of a morality work, viz. Le Theatre du Monde ... (Paris, 1561) by Pierre Boaistuau [translated into English around 1566] ... However, it is unclear whether Ortelius knew about these works ... Another possibility is that he drew from classical sources" (64).

(8) In his initial address to the "courteous Reader", Ortelius explains the Ptolemaic relationship between history and geography, where geography is portrayed as "the eye of history," as follows: "This so necessary a knowledge of Geography, as many worthy and learned men have testified may very easily learn'd out of Geographical Chartes or Mappes. And when we have acquainted our selues somewhat with the use of these Tables or Mappes, or haue attained thereby to some reasonable knowledge of Geography, whatsoeuer we shall read, these Chartes being placed, as it were certaine glasses before our eyes, with the longer be kept in memory, and make the deeper impression in us. ... [T]he reading of Histories doeth both seeme to be much more pleasant, and in deed so it is, when the Mappe being layed before our eyes, we may behold things done, or places where they were done, as if they were at this time present and in doing." On this topic, see Conley, The Self-Made Map 170-71.

(9) On the relationship between word and image in city views, see my Practising Places, especially 45-66.

(10) Whitfield believes this to be a medieval, encyclopaedic concept: "The idiom of that visual language is drawn from the aspirations of the society that created it: it is a secular language, a language consciously rooted in a largely mythical past, and a language of externals. It has no spiritual or religious dimension and the inner world is not represented. This graphic idiom revived the world map's role as a visual encyclopaedia, a concept familiar from the Middle Ages" (74).

(11) Starting from 53 map sheets, the contents of the Theatrum increased to 129 by the time Ortelius died in 1598, plus the 36 maps included in the Parergon in 1598. For a full account of the maps and mapmakers participating in this enterprise, see Karrow.

(12) The Parergon [Greek for a subsidiary work, a by-product of a more important work] is entitled "Parergon, sive veteris geographiae aliqvot tabvlae" [Parergon, or some tables of ancient geography], and the cartouche underneath emphasizes the famous motto that "Historiae Ocvlvs Geographia".

(13) Gillies' work on Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference illustrates the relationship between geography, history and theatre, suggesting that: "Renaissance theatre and 'cosmography' are conceptually interrelated. The theatre was cosmographic and, to an extent, geographic, in its conceptual character ... Cosmography, for its part, was 'theatrical,' in the sense that 'theatre' is an important enabling metaphor" (35).

(14) To quote Gillies again: "The world was a theatre in the sense of its delusiveness and emptiness ... For its part, the theatre was a world in the sense of the microcosm's epitomisation of the macrocosm" (76).

(15) The association of these islands with Chryse and Argyre, as well as Polo's "mysterious islands" and Ptolemy's Golden Khersonese, is noted by Oskar Spate, who writes: "Ptolemy's Golden Khersonese was an obvious candidate; so were the mysterious islands of Veach [Beach] and Locach and Maletur ... some Portuguese thought that Ophir would be found in East Africa, in the hinterland of Sofala, where later romance would place 'King Solomon's Mines': Magellan opted for the Lequeos, Columbus thought he had found it in Espanola ... And in Peru ... tales of Tupac Yupanqui's Inca fleet with 20,000 men, which had found black people--and gold--in islands to the west; while across the Pacific in the Moluccas, Galvao had heard that in Chile Valdivia had news of an island king, beyond whom 'were the Amazones, whose queene was called Guanomilla, that is to say, the golden heauen', so that there must be great riches there, 'and also at an Island called Solomon'" (119-21).

(16) According to Whitfield, "The most celebrated enigma of the Ptolemaic map is the land linking South-East Asia with Africa. We have no knowledge of Ptolemy's source for this idea; the land is completely featureless, and it may have been added as a purely theoretical balance to the lands north of the equator" (8).

(17) This feature was brought to my attention in the exhibition hosted by The British Library in 2001 under the significant title "The Lie of the Land."

(18) On this topic, see Fausett's description of the "Discovery of the Austral World" (10-27).


Barber, Peter and April Carlucci (eds), Lie of the Land: The Secret Life of Maps. London: The British Library, 2001.

Conley, Tom. The Self-Made Map: Cartographic Writing in Early Modern France. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

Dening, Greg. Performances. Carlton: MUP, 1996.

Fausett, David. Writing the New World: Imaginary Voyages and Utopias of the Great Southern Land. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1993.

Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge: CUP, 1994.

Karrow Jr., Robert W. Mapmakers of The Sixteenth Century and Their Maps: Bio- Bibliographies of the Cartographers of Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Chicago: Speculum Orbis Press, 1993.

Maroto Camino, Mercedes. Practising Places: Lazarillo, Saint Teresa and the Early Modern City. Atlanta/Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

Ortelius, Abraham. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. London, 1616.

Shirley, Rodney W. The Mapping of the World: Early Printed World Maps 1472-1700. London: Holland Press, 1983.

Spate, Oskar H. K. The Pacific since Magellan, Vol I, The Spanish Lake. Canberra: ANU, 1979.

Van der Krogt, Peter. "The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum: The First Atlas?" in Marcel van den Broeck, Peter van der Krogt and Peter Meurer (eds) Abraham Ortelius and the First Atlas: Essays Commemorating the Quadricentennial of His Death 1598-1998. Utrecht: HES, 1998. 55-78.

Wallis, Helen. "The Cartography of Drake's Voyage" in Norman J W Thrower (ed) Sir Francis Drake and the Famous Voyage, 1577-1580. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 121-63.

Welu, James A. "Vermeer and Cartography." PhD Diss. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1977.

Whitfield, Peter. The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps. London: The British Library, 1994.

Mercedes Maroto Camino. The University of Auckland, New Zealand.
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Author:Camino, Mercedes Maroto
Publication:The Globe
Geographic Code:0PACI
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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