Prehistoric Art

When and where

When the species of Homo sapiens arrived in Europe ca. 40,000 years ago, coming from the East, significant cultural changes occurred in lifestyle, material productions and funeral rites. Modern man first produced images, choosing as subjects the people or animals surrounding him or creating fantastic figures (men with animal masks) or geometric and linear signs.

Paintings, engravings and bas-reliefs became symbolic messages written onto the walls of caves (parietal art), as, in the same way, did small sculptures, engravings and paintings made on bones or stones (portable art); representations meant to spread those values and ideologies shared by the whole community.

The first European sapiens culture, the Aurignacian, developed a non-verbal communication system which associated figures and images with symbolic thought, thereby creating a veritable visual culture. That system persisted in Europe throughout the late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (40,000 to ca. 7,000 years ago), before undergoing a transformation with the economic, social and ideological changes brought about by the Neolithic.

Themes of representation

The two major themes of Palaeolithic visual culture are the animal world and the female subject. The various representations of animals and hunting scenes reflect the economic system of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer peoples while female figures, most often represented pregnant, symbolise fertility.

These themes were very widespread on the entire European continent and were only rarely re-elaborated across geographically limited areas. Such diffusional capacity indicates that all peoples recognised themselves in the symbolism conveyed by the images.


Styles and tendencies in representation

In the course of the more than 30,000 years of its diffusion, the representational system manifested itself in the form of two different styles, which had existed from the Aurignacian onwards: naturalistic – a high sense of realism and great importance attached to respecting natural proportions – and abstract – consisting of schematic volumes. We can distinguish two main stylistic tendencies:

  • Franco-Cantabrian style: originated and diffused across Europe from the Aurignacian onwards, it is associated with naturalistic representations of the Franco-Iberian area. Its chief characteristics are its adherence to the anatomic proportions of the subject, its realism and its attention paid to anatomic detail.
  • Mediterranean style: a definition coined by Paolo Graziosi in 1956 to describe a naturalistic, though rather simple style widely used in Southern Europe, from Spain to South Italy. Its main features are schematic profiles of animals without any anatomic details which exhibit a few distinctive graphic tendencies (e.g. the bovines' horns are pointed to the front and their extremities are left unclosed). Towards the end of the Palaeolithic, the figures became more schematic and rigid and a new geometrical and linear style emerged, which, ca. 10,000 years ago, replaced the naturalistic zoomorphic component.

Rock art

Rock art refers to engraved and painted representations depicted on the walls of caves and shelters, on ceilings, or on large boulders; in essence on all types of immovable surfaces.
In Italy these findings are not numerous. Their development seems to follow, in broad terms and on the basis of style, that of portable art (see "portable art"), i.e. a presence of Franco-Iberian influences in the Early and Middle Upper Paleolithic and their scarcity in the Epigravettian until its definitive disappearance at the end of the Late Glacial with the establishment of the Mediterranean style (according to Graziosi). The problem of their detailed chronology is not easy to solve and remains open, as the chrono-cultural assumptions are based mainly on features of style and on the stylistic similarities to previously dated movable art productions on a chrono-stratigraphic basis or with radiometric chronology.
The parietal evidence is scattered throughout the entire peninsula, all the way to Sicily.

Portable art

Portable art refers to the varied figurative and ornamental productions depicted on "movable" supports, that is portable, as opposed to the category of artistic immovable productions (see: Rock Art).
Portable art consists of the techniques of painting, engraving, of small statuettes, and of bas-relief.
The supports used was of bone, horn, ivory, molluscs and stone.
Regarding the objects used during the phases of human presence at a site, typically the artistic evidence is found in the dated archaeological layers or with radiometric dating systems (for example C14), or on the basis of the production's characteristics of the period and of its faunal associations. This allows one to process a chrono-cultural grid of reference allowing the evolution of styles over time to be verified.
This is supportive to the hypothesis of parietal art dating.
The most ancient portable art production is related to Neanderthal: linear signs, often non organized, engraved on lithic or bone supports (see: Grotta Costantini, Grotta del Cavallo, Grotta Spagnoli, Grotta Fumane, Riparo Tagliente, Grotta Maggiore di San Bernardino, Valle Radice).

Decorated artifacts

A large number of functional artifacts (spear point, rods, awls, spatulas), decorated with more or less elaborate carvings, have been documented in the graphic production of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic.
These are “minor” works compared to the portable zoomorphic, anthropomorphic and geometric-linear evidence, not comparable with those productions of an objectively higher quality and more complex.
However, it is significant because it illustrates a decorative trend, although not specifically artistic, of the hunter-gatherer peoples during the Upper Paleolithic, perhaps most pronounced in its final phase, and also during the Mesolithic.
A selection of the most significant decorated artifacts, grouped by site, is presented here.

Simple signs on various supports

The historical reconstruction of “making marks” in the Paleolithic and Mesolithic must also consider the abundant graphic production including slightly developed marks (lines, zig zag...), simple signs engraved on various types of support (flint flakes, pebbles, bone fragments). These works do not possess those quality requirements which allow an assessment of the figurative methods (see: Portable Art) or are similar to the practice of decorating functional artifacts (see: Decorated artifacts).
The meaning of these simple marks, sometimes also disorderly, can not be reconstructed. They could be symbolic signs or possibly a tally.
Their widespread use in time (during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, more abundantly in the final phase, and during the Mesolithic) and in location (from Trentino to the South of the peninsula) validates a clear graphical trend, a language shared by the communities of hunter-gatherer peoples.


The so-called “Venuses” are small statuettes depicting pregnant women. They have a very standardized formal structure, without individual portraiture attributes, consequently they acquire a universal value. The body mass of the woman becomes conceptually disassembled and reassembled emphasizing only parts (breasts, abdomen, buttocks, thighs), those which more than others recall motherhood.
Other parts are not erased but fade into the background: the head is an anonymous volume, sometimes decorative; the arms are not ignored but they fade, sometimes integrated into the large breast curves on which they are supported; the feet are never represented.
This conceptual method, which has become a symbol of fertility, is most frequently three-dimensional, yet at times two-dimensional, and was maintained for some tens of thousands of years (from the Aurignacian until the Early Mesolithic).
The European inventory of the small female statuettes is not numerous, consisting of about 70 statuettes. The Italian evidence account for almost a third of European production.

Azilian style pebbles

The "azilian" tradition, a highly specialized trend of Pyrenean origin that spread in some areas of Europe at the end of Palaeolithic age.
It, refers to specific type of graphic production on pebbles and cobblestones, decorated with paintings, both schematic and linear (only one pebble is engraved).
Originating in Italy in the final Epigravettian, the "Azilian style" lasted until the ninth millennium BP.
Painted pebbles are located in some cultural complexes in regards to the various Italian regional facies dating from the Late Pleistocene to Early Holocene.
It's important to mark the conceptual and stylistic unity of this graphic phenomenon.

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