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Venus of Savignano

Female figurine in serpentine stone
Gravettian sculpture: 26,000 BC

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Venus of Savignano, Italian serpentine statuette
Venus of Savignano. Image by Luistxo. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Oldest Italian Sculpture

The Italian stone statuette known as the Venus of Savignano, is a prehistoric sculpture dating to the era of Gravettian culture (25,000-20,000 BC), although debate continues about its precise age.

The figure belongs to the series of venus figurines - a style of mobiliary art seen across Europe during the Gravettian and Solutrean periods - although at 22 cms in height, it is taller and heavier than most others discovered to date.

Together with the Fumane Cave Paintings (34,500 BC), the Venus of Polichinelle (25,000 BC), and the Grimaldi Venuses (25,000 BC), the Savignano Venus ranks among the oldest art in Italy. See also the Addaura Cave engravings (10,000 BC).

Today, it is part of the collection of Upper Paleolithic art, at the Pigorini Museum (Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico L. Pigorini) in Rome.

Discovery

The figurine was discovered in 1929 at Savignano sul Punaro, near Modena.

It was found buried under a metre of earth during building works, by Olindo Zambelli, who handed it over to Professor Giuseppe Graziosi, who then donated it to the paleolithic art collection at the Luigi Pigorini Museum in Rome.

The spot where it was found was completely devoid of any archaeological content, such as fossils or artifacts, which made direct dating impossible.

So, in order to gauge its antiquity, scientists used stylistic analysis to compare it with similar items of prehistoric art - like the Italian Venus of Polichinelle (25,000 BC) or the French Venus of Monpazier (23,000 BC).

Based on these comparisons, the Italian authorities have dated it to the mid-Gravettian, around 26,000 BC.

However, at least one archaeologist considers it to be a Neolithic carving (6,000-2,000 BC).

To see how the Venus of Savignano fits into the chronology of Stone Age rock art, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

Venus of Savignano: Characteristics

The Venus of Savignano measures 225 mm in height, 48 mm in width, 52 mm in depth and weighs more than 500 grams. It is carved from a block of polished greenish-yellow serpentine stone.

Like all the venus figures, it portrays an obese naked female, with exaggerated female features and genitalia. The large bust is tilted backwards, the belly and buttocks bulge outwards.

As usual, little attention is paid to the rest of the body.

Her head is shaped like a cone; she has no shoulders, while her arms are only implied and without hands. Her large thighs end in short tapered legs but no feet.

A few traces of red ochre are still visible on the head, right arm and buttocks.

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Interpretation

Why were venus figurines created? What was their purpose?

The traditional theory is that these characteristically obese, female figures were linked to reproductive or fertility rites.

They could have been designed and used as some kind of symbol to help boost male and female fertility.

Other researchers believe they had multiple meanings and served multiple purposes.

Chronology

Here is a chronological list of the oldest venus figurines from the Aurignacian and Gravettian cultures.

References

(1) "The Venus of Savignano has returned to Pigorini." Giorgio Pancaldi. Ponte Alto Associazione culturale. April 2014. (In Italian.) (2) "Previously undescribed Figurines from the Grimaldi Caves." Bisson M., Bolduc P., 1994: Current Anthropology, 35 (4), p. 458-468. (3) "Imagerie féminine du Paléolithique : l'apport des nouvelles statuettes de Grimaldi." (Paleolithic female imagery: the contribution of Grimaldi's new statuettes) White, R., Bisson M., 1998: Gallia préhistoire. Tome 40, 1998. pp. 95-132.

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