Palaeolithic Rock Art of the Italian Peninsula

Review by George Nash

Until relatively recently, European Palaeolithic rock art outside the Franco-Cantabrian area (south-west France and northern Spain) was considered a rare occurrence. This belief was partly based on harsh climatic regimes in the northern and alpine areas of Europe, where it was thought that human settlement would not have been possible. Over the past 50 years, however, significant research inroads have been made outside the two main areas of western Europe, with discoveries in the southern British Isles, Portugal, Romania, and Italy.

Dispersed across the Italian peninsula is a small assemblage of Upper Palaeolithic open-air rock outcropping (usually on schists) and cave sites (usually within limestone areas of central and southern Italy). The artistic themes from each site comprise animals such as bovines, cervids, fish, and equids, as well as geometric forms and occasional handprints. Accompanying the rock art is the complex stratigraphy associated with multiple occupation sequences in caves, and occasional portable art (for example, engraved onto bone and antler).

Dario Sigari’s book provides the reader with an essential narrative of the discovery, fieldwork, research, and publication of all known Upper Palaeolithic rock art within the Italian peninsula. The book is organised into 13 sections, with Chapters 3 to 10 focusing on specific sites where identifiable Upper Palaeolithic rock art has been discovered, along with discussions of the history of archaeology and (Italian) methodological and theoretical approaches in recording and dissemination. The methods section (Chapter 2) is useful for those readers who are engaged in fieldwork, prospection, and recording.

Sigari provides the reader with detailed accounts of the history and archaeology of Balzi Rossi, Bàsura Cave, Arene Candide Cave, Luine Hill, Fumane Cave, Romito rock shelter, Paglicci Cave, and Romanelli Cave. Many of these sites revealed very early occupation dates that extend to the Aurignacian period, some 34,000 to 29,000 years ago, at a time when early modern humans were beginning to advance and settle into southern Europe. Of particular interest is the engraved rock art present on Luine Hill, located within the southern Alpine area that is the Valcamonica in Lombardy. Here, rocks No.6 and No.34 reveal exquisite engravings of elk in various stances and styles, suggesting that the site was used and known about for many thousands of years. Surrounding these two rocks is a plethora of engraved imagery that dates from the Bronze and Iron Ages.

This book, published in English and lavishly illustrated, is a significant contribution to early prehistoric rock-art research in Europe, hopefully challenging some of the ideas associated with the south-west-European-centric artistic tradition. It is clear from Sigari’s book that artistic endeavour extended much further east, with a style that is significantly different to the art present in the Iberian peninsula and south-west France, and was produced at a time when early prehistoric communities began to make their mark on the landscape.

Palaeolithic Rock Art of the Italian Peninsula 
Dario Sigari 
Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici 
£27 ISBN 978-8886621625