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Allegories of Alterity: Flora’s Children as the Four Continents

Miranda Mollendorf, Harvard University

The British botanist Robert John Thornton (1768?–1837) described his book, The Temple of Flora (1797–1812), as “a Universal Empire of Love” that contains the “choicest flowers of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America,” while the continents themselves are referred to as “children of the goddess Flora.” Each plate in Thornton’s book depicts a flower that is given human traits by means of accompanying poetry, while each humanized flower is also inscribed within a landscape background, firmly linking the flower to the territory from which it came. Thornton’s representational choices raise questions of placement and displacement that will be the focus of my paper. One strand of my argument examines the strategic positioning of colonial plants in native landscapes rendered in European pictorial styles, a convention that is consistently adopted in the Temple of Flora. The other strand is concerned with the selective placement and displacement of sexuality in the flowers themselves; Thornton renders the colonial specimens from Africa, America, and Asia as hypersexual, fertile, and abundant plants that are openly available and ripe for European cultivation. I argue that both these aspects are informed by the tradition of representing the four continents as allegorical female figures: the conventional hypersexuality of Africa, Asia, and America is here transferred onto the colonial flowers of Thornton’s Flora. I reinterpret Thornton’s flowers as hybrid objects of exotic or colonial desire, as commodities that can be bought, sold, collected, exchanged, and ordered in a global community between two covers of a book.


Miranda Mollendorf is a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her interests include the relationships between art and natural knowledge from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries in England and France, especially botany, natural history, anatomy, and collecting practices. She has presented papers on anatomy and gender, gardening and natural history, and the visual culture of death. She was a junior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in the spring and summer of 2012.

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