Historical overview

The output of imagery during the Paleolithic and Mesolithic in Italy includes some rare engravings rendered by Neanderthal Man (Middle Paleolithic), a non substantial documentational record of Homo sapiens relative to the Aurignacian and Gravettian cultures (especially when compared with the more abundant European collection) and an important series of Epigravettian and Mesolithic evidence, dating back to the end of the Late Glacial.

The markings of the Neanderthals

Homo neanderthalensis does not depict recognizable subjects but realizes uniquely linear compositions. Its evidence are limited to rare fragments of rock or bone on which appear linear engravings both precise and organized.

They do not attest to a complex representational system, but rather a beginning of a very simple symbolic process that accompanies the primitive search for the "sense of beauty". One example is the use of bird feathers probably as decoration at the Grotta Fumane.
The Italian productions are consistent with the infrequent European demonstrations and this indicates a conceptual, cultural and behavioral homogeneity.

The iconographic tendencies of the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic

The representational experience of Aurignacian Homo sapiens finds affirmations also in Italy at the Grotta Fumane and also validates Italian peninsula's insertion in the larger cultural unity of the Aurignacian which distinguishes the origin, around 40,000 years ago, of the "first Europe". It is in this cosmopolitan cultural context that an iconographic system is born, which spreads from the eastern borders of Europe as far as the Atlantic coast. This system, traditionally referred to as the Franco-Cantabrian style, continues until the end of the Paleolithic.
The rare Italian productions of the Gravettian (Grotta Paglicci and Grotta of Roccia San Sebastiano, the Balzi Rossi Venus, the Barma Grande and the Cavern of Arene Candide evidence) and Early Epigravettian (Grotta Paglicci) indicate the adoption of the cosmopolitan Franco-Iberian style.
In the Epigravettian there are several documented iconographic trends. One line returns to the traditional European system (Franco-Cantabrian style), originating in the Epigravettian it evolved a new style ("Mediterranean" as defined by Paolo Graziosi) more essential and concise in its depiction, continuing the schematic style already known since the Aurignacian and in the end propagates the output of the little pebbles painted in the Azilian style.
In the recent Epigravettian period the cosmopolitanism of the Early Upper Paleolithic crumbles and also the Franco-Iberian influence diminishes, together with the gradual regionalization of various production and behavioral aspects, while the engraving practice acquires local expressions or in attention to inspirations coming from the Eastern European regions.
The new trends see a decrease in the zoomorphic repertoire and favor the development of geometric and linear patterns.
In Mesolithic the scarce Italian evidence continue following the tradition of the Final Epigravettian, with a further development of the geometric-linear markings and loss of the zoomorphic theme.

Crono-cultural definitions

Middle Paleolithic
Upper Paleolithic

The end of this period delimits the Paleolithic phase in which the species Homonea nderthalensis and their culture, the Mousterian, spread throughout Europe and the Near East.

The chronology has been debated, especially concerning the beginning of the phase. Conventionally, however, it has come to be located between 250,000 and 40,000 years ago.


The Mousterian signifies the totality of Neanderthal Man's cultural characteristics, which varied across Europe on a micro and macro-regional basis. Above all, variabilities are to be found in the lithic production, although varying behavioural features - resulting from different environments and climactic districts - also existed in strategies related to hunting and settlement.

In the overall picture of cultural evolution, amongst the great acquisitions of the Mousterian were the beginning of funerary practices by interment and the first evidence of depictions. The Neanderthals went extinct around 30,000 years ago.

The graphic productions of this period were exclusively linear, with varying levels of elaboration. There is no evidence of naturalistic depictions portraying any recognisable subjects.

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