History of research

Research on Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Art in Italy

From the first half of the nineteenth century onwards, European researchers had been aware of the existence of a 'human prehistory', an era dating back to the ice age of the Pleistocene. They had furthermore discovered tools during excavations in the areas where ancient populations used to live, and had been able to attribute those to the so-called 'stone age' (or Palaeolithic age), the first of several eras without any evidence of writing which preceded the Neolithic age and the metal ages. It was in France shortly after the first half of the nineteenth century, then, that scientists acquired the certainty that those peoples also had the capacity to produce images (in the form of paintings, engravings or bas-reliefs).

The first Italian studies on Palaeolithic art date back to the beginning of the twentieth century and dealt with the 'Venuses' found during the excavations undertaken by Alexandre Julien at Grotte dei Balzi Rossi in Ventimiglia, Liguria. In 1905 two naturalists, E. Stasi and P. E. Regalia, who were excavating in a cave on the Salento coast, the Grotta Romanelli in the Otranto region, discovered some incisions on a stone wall (possibly depicting profiles of women). Those, however, were 'occasional findings', which, initially, did not develop into a field of study. Further occasional findings were made in 1925 when locals accidentally discovered a female statue in Savignano on the Panaro River, Modena, which was recognised by the then young Paolo Graziosi as a Palaeolithic object, and in 1938 on the shores of Lake Trasimeno (a female figure in soapstone) and in Chiozza (a further statue).

It was Paolo Graziosi, palaeologist and anthropologist at the University of Florence, and the founder of the Museo e Istituto Fiorentino di Preistoria, who further developed prehistoric art as a branch of research. To him we owe numerous studies and inquiries which, from the first decades of the twentieth century onwards, brought eminence to Italian representational heritage, both within the country and abroad. Having emerged as a figure of authority in his field, and acquired fame in all of Europe, Graziosi would always support his fellow archaeologists in their endeavour of deepening and consolidating the study of prehistoric art.

Between 1950-70, numerous discoveries were unearthed which have left a significant mark on the subject's history, and brought figurative Italian evidence to attention across Europe: Grotta Cala dei Genovesi at Levanzo in Sicily (1949-54), Grotte dell'Addaura e Niscemi near Palermo (1953), Grotta Polesini in Lazio (1951-55), Riparo Tagliente near Verona (1958), Grotta Paglicci in Gargano, Northern Apulia (1961), Grotta Riparo del Romito on Mount Pollino in Calabria (1961), Grotta del Cavallo (1963) and Grotta delle Veneri near Lecce (1966), Riparo di Vado all'Arancio near Grosseto (1969-70), Grotta Giovanna in Syracuse and Grotta del Caviglione in Liguria (1971). Some of these are to be considered bedrocks of the Italian Paleolithic, as they have borne evidence that carries more than just artistic significance.

Especially since 1970, incremental developments both in the research and the number of students of Palaeolithic archaeology has led to the acquisition of figurative complexes of great significance. Those include, but are not limited to: Riparo Gaban, near Trento, Grotta Fumane, Verona, Riparo Dalmeri, on the Asiago plateau, Trento and Riparo Villabruna A in the Venetian Dolomites. These constitute the main discoveries of art produced by hunter-gatherers in Italy. There have, however, been other discoveries over the last few decades which have enriched our knowledge, sometimes enhancing the already-noted repertory at some of the aforementioned sites (for example, at Grotta Paglicci, Riparo Tagliente and Riparo Dalmeri) and allowed us to update the historical narrative into which the visual culture is inserted.


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