Italy is known for its Renaissance art and it's great masters. But some of its greatest art dates from the prehistoric period. In Lombardy, in Italy's north, Valcamonica is a subalpine valley that is also the site of one of the world's most extensive collections of ancient rock drawings and carvings.
Over 250,000 petroglyphs (prehistoric rock carvings) exist here dating back to over 8,000 years ago and continue up through Roman and medieval times almost to the present day. With depictions of scenes of agriculture, navigation, war and magic they are not only beautiful but have provided valuable evidence about the people who inhabited this valley and their way of life.
The first drawings date back to the eighth millennium BC during the Upper Palaeolithic period and were done by the Cammuni tribespeople who lived in the hillsides. The practice continued throughout the Neolithic period (3,000-4000 BC), towards the end of the glaciation period when landslides would have been common in the area (keeping the hunters in the hills away from the valley floor. Here the first depictions of a religious nature appear and the human figure becomes central in the depictions of daily life. This was a high point in Cammunic art.
During the Eneolithic (3000-2000 BC) the quality of the carvings increased, an important development at this time is the appearance of depictions of female initiation rituals. After 1000 BC the isolation of the Cammuni people ended and they began to encounter other people. Battle scenes are carved into the rocks as well as drawings showing huts, wagons, harvests and weapons.
Between 1600 BC and 476 AD the Romans occupied the valley. There were iron mines in the area and Celtic craftsmen were able to extract high quality metal from it. Full Roman citizenship and governmental autonomy was bestowed on the inhabitants of Valcamonica. Even during Roman times the valley was subject to invasion from the barbarians of the north. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Herulians arrived and then the Ostrogoths, who brought much death and destruction in 542.
The Langobards ruled the valley between 568 and 774 when it was taken over by the Franks and Benedictine monks were sent into the hillsides to Christianise the inhabitants. period plenty followed prompting the inhabitants to request self-rule and 'Le Vicine' was formed a series of 52 communes or 'vicini' made up of farming communities.
From 1428, Valcamonica came under the Republic of Venice, however the territory continued to be disputed by Milan for the next 25 years. The valley came under the rule of Brescia in 1797 but the region broke away three years later. The valley suffered greatly under Napoleonic rule but it was reannexed by Austria. When the new state of Italy was formed the 52 communes were split up and the three districts of Breno, Edolo and Pisogne were established.
Today the collection of drawings and carvings exist in a park that was Italy's first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 8000 year-old narrative represents an extraordinarily beautiful depiction of how people lived and an insight into their mind-set and customs.
It is often easy to assume that art and Italian society started with the Romans and continued under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church, but this is evidence of a rich culture that existed long before. These pagan hunters and subsequent Celtic warriors and craftsmen are as much a part of Italy's heritage and its modern identity as the Classical and Renaissance periods.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty