See also the article "La représentation cartographique de l’Europe à la Renaissance" in the EHNE.
Introduction. Europe's status: imagined or real?
The question has to be posed as to the actual existence of an independent entity called Europe: real or imagined? The existence over the course of the last three thousand years of something termed "Europe" has undergone considerable change. We can never be sure whether two people mean the same thing when they utter the same word. What is certain is that the land mass stretching from the "Spanish" Atlantic coast to the Eastern banks of the Black Sea has long been envisaged as being a continent and has been referred to as "Europe." The Northern boundaries of this continent were at best unclear, but the appearance of water borders (the sea) or at least information regarding their existence was taken as delimiting this concept. Greek antiquity developed clear conceptions of the earth as consisting of three continents, Europe, Asia and Libya (Africa), all of which were separated and contained by water, i.e. oceans. Europe was taken as being double the size of Asia and occupying the entire Northern hemisphere. Detailed geographical, topographical and general cultural information was available only for the Mediterranean world.
It is unclear at exactly which point the figure of Greek mythology Europa was associated with the European continent. Hesiod's Theogonie (c. 700 BC) introduced the Goddess Europa, but her relationship to the eponymous continent is unclear. The assumption that Europe was named after the Europa myth – the daughter of the Phoenic King abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull – was one widely held in antiquity, but was never more than speculation and conjecture. In other words, no one could be sure then – and we still do not know now.1
Ever since its inception, "Europe" has always represented more of an imagined than a clearly definable quantity. This is a common characteristic of cultural references, which maintain the existence of imagined cultural quantities. The imagined entity is associated with persons, artefacts, spaces and ideas, but remains flexible, changeable and widely applicable and can be adduced for a number of ends. They can provide the foundation for future plans (as is the case for Europe), facilitate communication and constitute a source of controversy. Such concepts can also act as a corrective, for example when contrasting national categories with "Europe".
The emergence of Europe as a cultural reference point
The ancient Greek conception of the world, itself decisive in the development of medieval conceptions of Europe, was initially seen as an Oikumene. Both Hecataeus (c. 550 BC) and Herodotus (c. 450 BC) divided the world into three continents, conceived of as composite land masses structured by seas and rivers. Nevertheless, Crates of Mallos (c. 150 BC) depicted the world as a globe divided into seven zones, consisting of two uninhabitable poles, the (similarly uninhabitable) equatorial zone and four inhabitable zones all separated and delimited by oceans, two in the Northern hemisphere and two in the Southern hemisphere. This division of the continents into multiple land masses separated by bodies of water represents a decisive step in the process of depicting of the world, as it provided the possibility of the continents developing into self-contained cultural references.
This step was taken in the Middle Ages. Although initially dominated by the ecumenical conception of the world continued from antiquity, medieval cartography also had zonal models existing in parallel with ecumenical conceptions of the world. Two hundred years after Crates of Mallos' map, Pomponius Melas (43 AD) depicted the world not as a number of zones, but as consisting of a single land mass structured by seas, rivers and the three continents. Medieval zonal models did not develop until the 12th century, when they were accompanied by representations of a world following a T-scheme in which three clearly separate continents integrated into a unitary structure.2
This development rested on two fundamental assumptions. Firstly, the world was the holistic product of a wise creator God. Secondly, all the events taking place within this world were part of a divinely planned salvation history. This view did not prevent a differentiated conception of events, but the ecumenical perspective remained constitutive. This picture was complicated by the fact that the important locations of the salvation history as set out by God's Word were to be found not in Europe, but largely in what was known as Asia.
Without wishing to generalize about the corpus of over 1100 medieval maps, the consequences of these two fundamental assumptions can be explained using the famous Ebstorf map. Consisting of 30 parchment leaves and measuring 3.56 m by 3.58 m, this 13th century map, probably the largest of its kind3 was destroyed during an air raid in the Second World War, but reconstructed in the Ebstorf Abbey on the Lunenburg Heath.4 The observer can see Christ's heads, hands and feet. This means that the earth was conceived either as the body of Christ, or is being borne by the Lord. The following locations from the salvation history are marked:5 Jerusalem, as the centre of the Earth (Christ is shown as rising from the grave with the flag of victory), Paradise on the Eastern edge of the Earth, Joseph's corn stores in Egypt, Noah's arc on Mount Ararat (Armenia, currently the Eastern border of Turkey), the Tower of Babylon and Sodom and Gomorrha. Biblical locations from the Gospels such as Bethlehem (with the star which led the three Magi) are also present, just as the "wild peoples of Gog and Magog, which were said to have been lured into imprisonment by Alexander the Great until the time when they will ravage the earth in the service of the antichrist."6 Europe is marked by Rome and other significant centres of Christianity (including Ebstorf Abbey) responsible for spreading the Gospel. Despite the presence on the map of the centres of European evangelization, it makes clear that Europe was not the source of Christianity and came to significance only as the salvation history progressed. Moreover, the map also expresses a more realistic appreciation of European geography; Europe no longer constituted half of the world's surface, but only a quarter.
This point was later sometimes extended, expressed by the generation of alternative names such as Japethian or The Land of Japeth (the map of the world from Hans Rüst). As the heathen Europa myth did not lend itself well to any Christian legend of the formation of Europe, historians made recourse to Japeth, one of Noah's sons, who according to Genesis, was given dominion over Europe and a section of Asia, thus becoming the progenitor of Christian Europe. Others attempted an (albeit unsuccessful) Christian reading of the Europa myth. The sum of all these elements shows that despite all the effort directed towards maintaining a unified world view within a universal salvation history, Christian Europe gradually developed into a separate continent which could be evoked as a cultural reference point.
The mid-15th century saw the acceleration of this development. The apparently unstoppable Ottoman expansion and the fall of Constantinople (1453) were seen as a tragedy leaving Europe isolated in the world. Despite the continued existence of the Trebizond Empire and the as yet unthreatened status of Vienna, Europe perceived herself as the only remaining bastion of Christendom. It was this perception – itself a fallacy, as the Orthodox Christians in the new Ottoman Empire were not forced into conversion – that led to the conception of Europe as the Christian "House of Europe" by Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405–1464), later crowned as Pius II. By the 15th century, Europe stylized itself as the house of Europe, a Christian Republic standing alone in a fallen world, a metaphor which lent itself easily to artistic depiction. So singular was this self-conception that the discovery of unknown peoples, who were called Indians, in the new extra-European world could only be dealt with through recollection of the old ecumenical salvation history of world unity, in order to be able to classify them as fellow humans.
The constitution of Europe as a cultural reference
In this way, Europe had become a cultural reference to which could be referred, addressed evoked and instrumentalized. It could even become politicized or the subject of mythology. The term "cultural reference" is justified insofar as Europe did not truly exist: there was no single empire ruling something called "Europe," even if this had been the subject of a considerable number of dreams and illusions. Indeed, even the geographical definition of this supposed continent was a matter of intense controversy.7 Writing in 1570, the famous geographer Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) located Europe's Eastern border along a line drawn from the Black Sea to the White Sea, running only a little to the East of Moscow. The phrase "from the Urals to the Eastern border" was yet to be coined. In 1575, the French cartographer André Thevet (1502–1590) moved Europe's Eastern border as established by Ortelius a little to the North and East, but still had it running into the White Sea. In a very daring move, Philippus Cluverius (1580–1622) pushed it even further eastwards, thus establishing the rivers Don, Volga, Kama and Ob as Europe's eastern border. This border continued the eastwards trend, exceeding the delimitations established by Ortelius and Thevet. One conception developed in the 17th century by the Dutch Gerard Valck (1651–1726) saw the European boundary run from the Black Sea and through the Caucasus to the Caspian Sea, the Ural River, Tobol, Irtysh and Ob. In the 18th century, after spending time in Russian captivity after the battle of Poltava (1709), the Swedish officer Phillip Johan Strahlenberg (real name: Philip Johan Tabbert, 1676–1747) produced a schema in which the Urals represented a definite border separating Europe and Asia. It was not the existence of the mountains as such which moved him to this conclusion, but the differences in vegetation and other natural features on either side of the mountain range. The spread of this empirical approach lead to widespread acceptance of a conception of Europe as stretching from "the Atlantic to the Urals;" that the concept gained currency served to obscure the still controversial nature of this act of demarcation and parallel definitions continued to flourish. Indeed, the move to establish the existence of a "Eurasian continent"8 represents just one move to a radical re-interpretation of the concept of Europe. The foundation of the Soviet Union gave added support to the belief in this geographical construct, which exhibited an almost identical boundary with that of the USSR.
The study of a supposed "European history" has not helped to resolve the boundaries of a singular European continent. The division of the Roman Empire into the East and West was to have a long-term impact, culminating in the struggle for Greek independence in the 19th Century. The Ottoman incorporation of the Byzantine Empire served to conserve its political, cultural and religious borders albeit under new conditions. The displacement of the centre of the West Roman Empire away from the Mediterranean to the region north of the Alps under the aegis of Charlemagne (747–814) and his explicit reference to the continuity between his and the Roman Empire did not mask the fact that the new construct comprised not only territory South of the Limes but also Germanic and Slavic areas. Only after the Renaissance did historians attempt to construct a single, unitary narrative for the events both North and South of the Alps.9
The idea of a universal monarchy had a long and passionate history right up until the time of Napoleon I (1769–1821).10 Despite the consistent interest in and repeated attempts to establish such an institution, it was never truly realized and the late Middle Ages saw Europe develop into a pluralism of individual states which eventually were to crystallize into the nation state system of the 19th and 20th centuries. A single universal European empire never once existed, regardless of the hierocratic claims of the Papacy. This division and plurality was compensated for by the existence of the concept of Europe as a cultural reference point. Indeed, things without real existence are always easier to imagine and have a higher degree of multifunctionality. Europe had developed into an imagined forum and justification for ideological conflict.
Europe's function as a cultural reference point can be illustrated by the example of France.11 The defeat of Emperor Otto IV (1175–1218) by the French King Philipp II (1165–1223) at Bouvines in 1214 paved the way for his replacement by Phillip's preferred candidate, Frederick II (1194–1250). This complex of events produced a specific version of Europe as a reference point: France performed the role of the "honest broker", watching over Europe's welfare. Despite also being claimed in the 16th century by England, France was most consistent in seeking to embody this role. "Europe" acted as a reference point with a changing addressee depending on the political situation, especially in terms of its own self-conception. This development continued into to the 1630s with Maximilien de Béthune Sully (1560–1641), not only minister but also friend to Henry IV (1553–1610). His memoirs represent a conglomeration of the ideas and plans regarding Europe which he had attempted to sell to his former political master. Excerpted and summarized as his Grand Dessein, even Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was to believe that Henry IV was the author of what would have represented a complete revision of the European political settlement12 in which France made no territorial gain, acting just as the "honest broker" of European politics. Louis XIV (1638–1715), Louis XV (1710–1774) and Louis XVI (1754–1793) were more than happy to adopt and continue this design. The assumption by France of this referee function was not unrelated to her self-conception as the "eldest daughter" of the Church growing out of her role in the first Crusades and thus her self-appointed role as the "sentinel" of the true (Catholic) Christian Europe. Contemporary French politics still feels a certain obligation to this role as paten of an undefined Europe for which she carries responsibility without seeking dominion. Cum grano salis – the same applies to further European states which ground their actions on the necessity of acting for Europe.
Europe as reference point in modern times
A literal understanding of a cultural reference, i.e. the conception of Europe as a culture referenced in various contexts, makes recourse to the European continental allegory and the intellectual conception of Europe as a culture. The former gained in significance in the late 16th century, the latter during the mid-18th century.
Continental allegories ascribe entire continents the status of a civilization, giving them the appearance of a civilizing unit in possession of key cultural characteristics. The European example provides a crown, a horse, a Church, a clothed figure, and depending on the context and effort expended, many further attributes, which increased in the course of the 18th century and which highlight components of European culture seen to be of significance. Thus, music, architecture and scholarship are represented by certain symbols. America was represented by feather costume, nakedness, a bow and arrow and a wild animal. The embodiment of Africa displays large amounts of dark skin and is accompanied by a wild animal. Asia is often portrayed as Europe's closest sister, a tie established by her also being her being fully dressed. She is symbolized by spices and an animal native to the continent such as a camel. Europe is often shown holding a brimming horn of plenty as the expression of her abundance and prosperity.13
The European continental allegory has been emphasized in various directions, depending on the interest in and motivation behind its use. This becomes clear upon closer investigation of the corresponding symbols chosen, but also through the visual programmes of the space, façade or garden included in the allegorical depiction. Various aspects of European identity were emphasized at different times, alternating between Christian missionary endeavour, political and cultural superiority,14 the division of the world following the quadriad division of existence (the four seasons, four elements, four continents etc.) or even other aspects.
Although iconographic archetypes for the continental allegories can be traced back to antiquity, it is unclear just what caused the proliferation of continental allegories dating from the late 16th century. A personification makes especially clear that the subject of the depiction is conceived as an entity; it was chosen in order to emphasize European unity by giving it a visual expression. One depiction of Europe as a continental allegory from 1537 shows the geographical contours of Europe stylized into a female body. Produced by the humanist Johannes Putsch (1516–1542), this depiction seeks to illustrate the idea of the Christian republic. An unclear transmission and origin15 means that it is difficult to ascertain whether the later continental allegories have anything to do with Putsch's depiction of Europe.16 Nevertheless, European expansion in the 16th century, the Turkish threat and the growth of empirical research into the European regions provided sufficient material with which to conceive of and adequately depict the growing conception of Europe as an independent entity, which had already announced itself in the medieval mappae mundi. The unitary nature of European existence was most pronounced in the cultural sphere: it was this "European culture" which provided a counter-model to the increasing level of regionalization and nationalization of the cultures in Europe, thereby bolstering Europe as a reference point. The heyday of "Europe" function as a cultural reference was the 16th century, a period leaving a clear mark in European iconography. The female European allegory unites a number of traditions and narratives, whilst the continental allegory in its strictest sense was only to be found in the context of the four continents. The female Europa figure, probably derived from the Greek myth but shorn of her specifics could stand alone. Both literature and iconography depicted Europe as the plaintive, feisty and ultimately triumphal Europa.17 This depiction even went as far as plays and literature in which Europe made both a real onstage and figurative literary appearance.18 A Europe with such a level of "real," independent existence is ideal for referencing. The continental allegory incorporates the elements of the Christian Republic and the continent, as early modern portrayals of Europe in the context of the continents necessarily entailed expressing the Christian character of Europe in its character of the "Christian Republic," something to which was referred in all the European peace treaties as Christianitas.19 In reality Europe never actually existed as Christian Republic; this concept was exclusively the figment of a vivid public imagination. However, such an existence did not prevent its being evoked at many and varied opportunities.
18th century cultural historiography developed a concept of European history conceived of not as the sum of a number of national histories, but a single European narrative, produced by a number of processes of Europeanization. Important figures in this process included Voltaire (1694–1778) , William Robertson (1721–1793), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) or a figure from the 19th century, François Guizot (1787–1874).20 The existence of a single European culture became a cultural reference used to establish the fact of belonging (or not belonging) to Europe. The identification within enlightenment historiography of European culture as the agent of progress leading to a peak of human development produced an asymmetric view of the world. Armed with this "insight," European travellers now believed themselves able to identify a distinct developmental gap between West and East and South East. The European cultural reference had thus mutated into a Western European reference. Crossing the Oder brought the traveller outside Europe – the same was applicable to the South East.21 Despite such a pronouncedly "European" 19th century, such conceptions also anchored themselves in West and East. Thus the events of 1989 (the fall of the iron curtain) and 2004 (the Eastern expansion of the EU) were interpreted as a "return to Europe," something initially applied to the Eastern bloc, later to be extended even further Eastwards.
Europe as a cultural reference after 1800
Alone the increase in the number of attributes in the European continental allegory points to its development as a reference system. The analytical tool "reference system" is highly appropriate for investigating this case, as the construct eludes all attempts at definition and must be reduced to a concrete category in order to be able to engage with or communicate it in any meaningful fashion. The use of the continental allegory allows us to reference European culture as such. For this reason, the crisis of this discourse in the 19th century22 did not lead to its obsolescence, but saw its renaissance during the period of high Imperialism.
The same applied to the Europe of the Europa myth, often referenced in emblematic form. One typical example of this is found in a number of hotels such as the Grand Hotel in Rome built in the Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlanda in 1890 and displaying continental allegories between the windows on the fourth floor. Hotels of this class point to the highly mobile cosmopolitan European middle and upper classes of the late 19th and 20th centuries, at home throughout Europe and meeting in its large hotels. These institutions sometimes even called themselves Hotel Europe, such as that in Prague,23 and referenced Europe through their very name, placing themselves in the tradition of the continental allegory or the Europa myth.
These iconographic references retain their attractiveness until today, despite being concerned more with the mythical Europe and less with any sort of continental allegory. Iconographic references are usually more abstract, although the European flag also makes recourse to a specific view of Europe: that of the integrated continent, united in a project of harmonious co-operation. Hotel Europa and Café Europa remain popular references to Europe.24 In contrast to the early modern period, iconographic artistic variations of the Europe myth are also to be found in Eastern Central Europe, from in the second half of the 20th century at the latest.
Europe as a reference system involves much more than iconography. The rebirth of Greek antiquity as a system of reference following the work of the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768)25 and its development into the oft-cited "source of all European history" achieved wide acceptance from the mainstream Philhellenism and following the widespread support for and interest in the Greek movement for independence from the 1820s.26 This referencing system was given expression in a private and public architecture inspired by classical Athens and employed throughout Europe, especially in 19th century Athens. Other supposedly "European" artistic styles were revived during the 19th-century, altering Europe's urban face and brought past epochs back to the public mind. Neo-romanticism, neo-gothicism, neo-renaissance, neo-baroque, neo-classicism and neo-byzantiumism shaped the appearance of public buildings, boulevards and middle-class houses and reflected European history and culture from Greek antiquity onwards. The choice of building style and the traditions to which they alluded followed a distinct rationale. Town halls built in the neo-gothic or neo-renaissance style were intended to evoke the zenith of urban middle class self-confidence and late medieval and renaissance patrician dominance. The temple architecture of parliaments gives a clear message. Neo-roman and neo-gothic Churches were constructed to a high level of perfection as a homage to the romanticised lost Middle Ages in which (following Novalis [1772–1801]) the unitary world still worshipped according to a common faith, unsullied by dogmatic or theological division.27
Historical edifices invested with significance for European history and culture developed into harmonious entities. Famous examples include Cologne Cathedral and the Louvre. Presenting themselves today as imposing, complete and harmonious units, they first attained such status in the course of the 19th century. For instance, the Louvre was never intended to reach its current extent and was first developed in the 19th century as part of plans to show off Paris as the cultural capital of Europe.
Passing through small and large towns and cities alike, the European architectural observer was presented with a canonized version of European history and culture as narrated by a series of clear cultural references. This collection of references only lost its unity as a result of the First World War and the congruent growth of nationalism. After the Second World War, the European Council accepted its self-appointed task of resurrecting this European reference system by establishing or renaming town squares named after Europe and erecting commemorative plaques informing the visitor of this initiative. The effect does not bear comparison to the historical urban campaigns of the 19th century; the shabbiest of squares (such as that in Brussels) are often chosen for this undertaking.
After the Second World War, the European reference system has moved from the realm of the image to that of the idea. The terrible nature of war-time atrocities was taken as representing a break with traditional European values. Descriptions such as "uncivilized" and "Holocaust" were not part of the immediate post-war discourse, but the contradiction between the war crimes and European tradition was clear for all to see. Europeans underlined the importance of democracy, legality and human rights as parts of European historical tradition and the necessity of returning to their observation after the hiatus of the war years. Since then, the meaning of "Europe" has often been condensed into a number of key terms which function as a reference system, providing a specific model of "Europe" as a Europe of values and a positive history of their realization. New aims such as an economic community, closer alliances and the values of peace, prosperity and solidarity now provide the framework of reference for the common European project.
The gradual assumption of the status of a cultural reference by the European Economic Community (EEC), the European Community (EC) and now European Union (EU) is also assuming negative connotations. Buzzwords such as "Eurocracy", "Eurosclerosis" and, the precedence of the national over European interest are gradually being attached to the European Union. Often equated with the EU, Europe is gradually developing into a negative cultural reference and as such, and are juxtaposed against national and regional and even local identities as new frameworks of reference.