The prehistoric art of Val Camonica


When it comes to Italy and art, you know it goes back quite a long way. The Renaissance masters? The religious medieval art? The ancient Roman mosaics? Well… what about 11,000 years ago, right in the stone age? The carving park of the Val Camonica, in Lombardy, is a unique area encompassing a whole valley in which several populations lived since the dawn of times. Each civilization literally left its mark on the rocks of the mountains faces, on boulders and seemingly everywhere they could, turning the area into a sort of open-air museum of over 300,000 carvings up to the age of iron (1,000 years b.C.). Some additional works are from the ancient Roman and medieval times, but they are a minority of no particular historical interest.

Visiting the park is not always easy, as most carvings are left at their original locations and they can be a challenge to reach. Some of them even require to take hair-raising kikes on cliffside trails consisting of narrow, unprotected ledges – not really your thing if you suffer of vertigo, but definitely worth it for everybody else.
Do not expect a quick tour either: the carvings are spread over 24 different municipalities, in about 180 different areas with dozens of rocks each. Every one of them was inscribed with several pictures. In some cases the density is so high that the carvings even overlap one another; more often they look like collections of pictures from different ages, or they actually tell a recognizable story of a religious rite, a hunting expedition or a fight.

The subjects are as varied as you can imagine in a collection of hundreds of thousands pieces, with a few surprises waiting. Several human figures, in examples, are drawn with strange bubble-like helmets on their head – leading to the popular definition of “astronauts”. Some carvings are actual maps, and they led researchers to burial and worshipping sites in the vicinity.

Just as interesting are the latter carvings, in which the beginning of a written language can be seen. Here literal pictures are slowly substituted by more and more abstract versions, until they look like early ideograms. The most famous of them all is the so-called rosa camuna, or “rose of the Camunes”, the ancient local civilization. In a slightly modernized form, it has become the official logo for the Lombardy region, showing that good art really never dies.