Female Neolithic Clay Figurines from Italy
Iconography and Cultural Context

Maria Antonietta Fugazzola Delpino- Vincenzo Tiné
(translated from Bullettino di Paletnologia Italiana, 93-94. 2002-2003, 19-51)

Current state of the topic and a possible typological approach

The debate on small Neolithic figurines from Italy does not seem to have reached great advancement since the strong interest witnessed in our country in the 70’s and 80’s. This interest was brought up by important research projects on cult archaeology led by authors such as M. Gimbutas (GIMBUTAS 1982) and C. Renfrew (RENFREW 1985).
Only one real attempt to systematize this category of objects, even though limited to the Neolithic figurines from the Po Valley, was carried out in 1978 by B. Bagolini (BAGOLINI 1978). Therefore, most of the finds from the Italian Peninsula are only known through small descriptions in archaeological articles lacking a specific iconographic and stylistic approach. A systematic catalogue of the archaeological finds, characterized by a standard approach of description that would provide a well-structured and complete background of the data, is the only way to solve the current state of affairs and enable an effective synthesis of the archaeological situation. While waiting for the proper conditions to create this wide range academic project we believe that it is useful to provide the debate with some preliminary and general interpretative ideas especially focused on the definition of iconographical models as unique characteristics of spatial and cultural aspects.
A specific typological approach uniquely based on the distinction between schematic and naturalistic typologies, would not be useful within a comprehensive study characterized by the widest range of conventions within the same facies, and even within the same typology of figurines usually defined by both schematic and naturalistic elements. A wider correspondence to the features of this group of images could be determined on the distinction between bi-dimensional and tri-dimensional or volumetric figurines. Therefore between those figurines carved with an emphasis on the frontal axis and those modelled focusing on a larger spatial context. It has been noted, however, that a preference for detail on the front axis is also present on more articulated figurines, the generalizations of these categories does not provide, in this case, the necessary tools for specific distinctions, only the definition of a secondary characteristic.
It is only through a more specific approach focused on the characterization of precise iconographic aspects, and not only the typological and stylistic details, that it is possible to create a new interpretation of Neolithic female figurines from the Italian Peninsula. The definition of the iconographic details can not just be linked to a systematic use of complex structural models (typology), the attitude of the figurine (posture) and the stereotypes used in the modelling of the different body scheme (anatomical schematization; figure 1), but also on the recurrent emphasis on specific anatomical parts (especially sexual) or accessories. Due to the fact that iconography is more or less linked to the material culture that creates it, its interpretation has to be contextualized. The determination of common iconographic models within a specific cultural reality, is, in our opinion, one of the most important indications of the symbolic significance and the use of this particular category of objects.

Iconographic aspects within cultural contexts

The female figurines recovered from the settlements of Rendina, in the valley of Ofanto, in Basilicata (Figure 2; CIPOLLONI 1977-82) and from Favella in the Sybari Plain, Calabria (Figure 3.1; ed. by TINE V., 1996) date back to the oldest phase of the Neolithic Period in the Italian Peninsula, characterized in southern Italy by the Archaic Impressed Ware.
Only fragments of these figurines were recovered during the archaeological investigation but it is still possible to determine the features of a stylized conical-shaped upper part of the body and an extremely naturalistic detailed lower part. In this lower portion of the figurine the emphasis is focused on the pelvic area - characterized by a large space delimiting the pubic hair region, represented by dots or hatchings and that includes a relief carved vulva – as well as the buttocks protruding but not steatopygic. The head might have been totally without facial features as suggested by the truncated cone-shaped torso as well as by the hypothetical cephalic cusps recovered not associated to the finds from Favella. The posture of the modelled figurine is seated, as clearly visible in the figurine from Rendina and only imaginable through the lower part of the body recovered at Favella: a posture that can be interpreted as the process of giving birth as suggested by the dilation of the vulva. The structure and the seated posture of the figurine may be associated to a cylindrical bust as in the female seated figurine recovered at Vinca (GIMBUTAS 1982, Fig. 2.2).
Similar to this typology of figurine, finely characterized in its essential lines and that therefore seems to suggest a precise iconographic choice within the facies, is a find recently recovered at Favella (figure 3, TINÉ V. in AA.VV. 2001): the recovery consists in a large fragment and other possible ones, which can not be pieced together, of a figurine of considerable dimensions (height 13 cm; width 10 cm). In this case the portion recovered is the torso, with the exception of the upper part, the lower limbs and the whole rear side (as well as the buttocks). What is left of the figurine is more than enough to associate it to the other Archaic Impressed Ware Phase figurines from southern Italy. The difference is however considerable in regard to the size of the object and its standing posture, as suggested by the left leg fragments (similar to the figurines smaller in size is the focus on the pubic region of the body and the cylindrical structure). The standing posture and the difference in size may suggest a different use of the image, and may have been a proper cult image (possibly planned for a wider use than just in a personal or family context).
The context of use of the figurines from Favella and Rendina are always linked to a domestic environment, since all three finds were recovered within dwelling-places. The fact that the figurines were recovered in ditches filled with inhabitation structural elements and other materials from domestic environments, suggests a link between the fragmentary figurines from Favella (possibly intentionally fragmented as in the case of Endrod) and the abandonment phase of the original domestic structures.
The naturalistic details of the middle part of the body, the buttocks and the genital area, and the more schematic upper part of the figurines seem to be an intentional fusion between the emphasized female details and the sexual ambiguity of the object’s shape. The shape of the hips and the torso in the figurines from Favella and Rendina clearly reflects a masculine representation; this can be seen clearly in the larger size figurine in which the fairing of the buttocks protrude to the front of the object resembling testicles rather than female hips. The highlighted detail of the enlarged pubic triangle might be a reference to the archetypal principle of the “Great Mother’s Womb” or to the “Lap of the Sub-terranean Queen”, identified by Neumann, Diterich and Eliade and used by Gimbutas in an interpretation of the agrarian context in the “sown wombs”, associated to the androgynous aspects of the phallic upper parts of the body (GIMBUTAS 1982, 196). The link between the fertility of the fields and the fertility of the woman is quite explicit in the representation of the pubic region with dots or dashes as a cultivated field, along a symbolic pattern that would be the naturalistic introduction to the “quasi-hydeogram” of the Pregnant Vegetation Goddess, identified by Gimbutas (ibid., 201,205; 1990, 145) in the Balkan motif of the dot in the lozenge.
Most of the characteristics described so far seem to associate the earliest Neolithic female figurines from south of Italy to the figurines dating back to the early phases of Mediterranean and east-European Neolithic Period. In these regions the emphasis was focused on the naturalistic representation of the genital areas of the body and therefore on the concepts of fertility and fecundity. Many of the earliest Neolithic Period figurines from the Mediterranean region are also characterized by the hybrid representation of female and male features, as in the unitarian myth of the Huroborous (cfr. CAUVIN 1987).
Two figurine fragments recovered at the sites of Casa Soverito (NICOLETTI 1992, fig 2, 58: figure 5) and from Capo Alfiere near Crotone (MORTER 1992, 211), can be attributed to a facies of Stentinello in the later phase of the Upper Neolithic Period in Calabria. The find from Casa Soverito, that was in a better state of preservation, follows a similar naturalistic style present in the figurine from Favella, with the same emphasis on the pubic region – in this case in bas-relief – but with a more detailed carving of the upper part of the torso.
Also in Calabria, but part of a northern facies called Cassano Style, was recovered a vase handle from the cremati layer in the Grotta Pavolella. The object is considered in this study because shaped with female features (figura 6; CARANCINI-GUERZONI 1987, 788-89, fig. 3, 10). A marked realism is evident in the features of the handle, carved on all sides, and in the use of colour to highlight physical details and clothing accessories. The Late phases of the Neolithic Period in Calabria are therefore characterized by a more articulated elaboration of the anatomical features not only focused on the symbolic emphasis of female elements, which are however still important. More extensive research is required for the interpretation of Neolithic Period female figurines, of the painted ware phase, from the Tavoliere region in Apulia. Research that follows the guide lines traced by M. Gimbutas on the interpretation of the symbolic “metalanguage” of figurines, their features and ornaments. The most famous Apulian figurines were recovered at Passo di Corvo (figure 7-8; TINE S. 1983, ill. X-XI). They denote a homogeneous iconographic and stylistic pattern: the upper part of two figurines of a schematic typology were recovered, with small breasts and triangular-shaped heads linked to the torso. Hypothetically attributed, by those who found them, to the two main inhabitation phases of the site (facies Masseria La Quercia fig. 6 and facies Passo di Corvo fig. 7) they could suggest a continuity in the iconographic model also noticeable in a figurine recently recovered at Canne, unfortunately unstratified (fig. 9; RADINA 1997). The geometrical structure, the small breasts, the head slightly tilted backwards in a ‘hieratic’ manner (TINE 1983) and the facial details resemble the ones from Passo di Corvo especially from the Passo di Corvo facies. The bell shape features of the figurine seem to be dictated by static reasons rather than expressive ones: like the other objects the representation refers to a schematic female figure with a sub-triangular rather than sub-elliptical structure of the torso, cut horizontally in the pubic area. The sex is emphasized by diverging parallel lines and by a significant lozenge motif (tree shaped or ear of corn shaped), evocative of the recurrent motif of Vulva and Birth, remarkably similar to the famous bone figurine from Riparo del Gaban.
Particularly important are the marks that can be found on the bodies of all figurines from the Tavoliere region and the interpretation of their message. As clearly noticeable on the figurine from Canne these marks can not be simply defined as decorative or as clothing elements. M. Gimbutas (GIMBUTAS 1990) and S. Tiné (TINE S. 1983) had already underlined the symbolic importance of the “zig-zag/grass snake” motif and the “hour glass/butterfly” motif on the more elaborate figurine from Passo di Corvo. Motifs interpreted by the scholars as linked to water, an element generally associated to a source of life and therefore one of the main aspects of the Goddess. This symbolism is even more evident in the figurine from Canne: the large “sun shaped” circular motifs near the breasts and kidneys, with the repeated sequence of double marks (the importance of the repetition has been widely discussed by M. Gimbutas in reference to finds from the Balkan region; GIMBUTAS 1982), and especially in the tree shaped motif present near the vulva clearly linked to human and plant fertility radiating from the Earth-Goddess’ womb.
The small idol from Montocchio (Cremonesi e Bianco in AA. VV., no date available, fig. 10) may also be placed in this category of schematic figurines with symbolic elements. The object is a simple clay cylinder with a lower appendix interpreted as feet and with gaps in the areas of the head and arms (head and arms were possibly added on); an extensive decoration of horizontal and ‘zig-zag’ marks decorated in vertical strips the whole surface of the body. The possibility that the decoration is applied through graffiti instead of incisions and the (confused) association with graffiti decorated ware, as well as with evolved typologies of impressed techniques, may link the object to the Graffito Ware facies contemporary to the painted ware of the Middle Neolithic Period in the Tavoliere region. Ware on which are concentrated these kinds of representations with explicit symbolic value linked to the graffiti that cover the whole body rather than specific regions.
A substantially smaller number of female figurines from the Neolithic Period have been recovered in central Italy compared to the southern part of the peninsula.
The only examples of female clay figurines dating back to the Early Neolithic Period in the eastern region of Central Italy were recovered at the site of Ripabianca di Monterado (fig. 11; LOLLINI 1965) where Adriatic impressed ware was also recovered. Three schematic female figurines were found, with a simple rectangular body structure slightly expanded on the shorter sides. The relatively early appearance of these styles in the Adriatic northern-central region can be compared to the rise of schematic typologies in pre-VBQ such as Fiorano and archaic VBQ such as Ponte Ghiara. On the grounds of the absolute dating (around 6200 BP) and the recovery at the site of Ripabianca of depurated ware with vertical handles, figurine ware and a pottery shard painted with red strips it is possible to suggest a very long abruzzese-marchigiana facies with a use of impressed ware until the late phases of the Early Neolithic Period.
Another figurine was recovered at Catignano, a site that provides the name for one of the Adriatic facies (fig. 12, TOZZI-ZAMAGNI 2000-2001). This figurine is quite different from the other contemporary ones from the painted ware phases of southern Italy; the figurine is completely cylindrical in shape instead of flat or convex as in the figurines from Passo di Corvo. This characteristic is also different if compared to finds from the northern Adriatic and sub-Adriatic area such as Ripabianca di Monterado and Sammardenchia. A further difference between these objects is the marked rastremation of the upper chest area along a pattern impossible to associate – even replacing the lost arms – to a sub-rectangular typology slightly expanded on the shorter sides. From a stylistic point of view these differences seem to suggest a fusion with typologies common to northern-central Adriatic area, even though there are some similarities between the figurine from Catignano and other figurines from southern Italy such as the use of symbolic motifs, carved or as graffiti, in this specific case represented by a V.
Among the typology of seated female figurines crafted in a rough manner can also be included a find recently recovered at Sesto Fiorentino (Sarti in AA. VV. 2001; fig. 13) in the Tyrrhenian area, along with the fragment of a figurine possibly referable to a seated posture but crafted in a more realistic fashion. The chronological table of the figurines from Sesto Fiorentino, fixed through cultural association to the VBQ phase, may date the spread of this typology of seated figurines, more or less stylized or realistic, back to the apex of the main cultural koine of the Neolithic Period in the north: it is within this cultural area that are found the prototypes of this typology of figurines that because of its geographical extension and stylistic homogeneity may again suggest the willingness to use a consolidated cult iconography.
At Poggio Olivastro (fig. 14), in the Latium northen area, has recently been recovered a, clearly volumetric and at the same time abstract figurine lacking anatomical details: what has survived is the lower portion of a seated figurine with flat buttocks and the feet slightly set apart. The emphasis is set on the seated posture of the figurine and on the central part of the body, but lacking any kind of sexual details. The archaeological layer in which it was recovered seems to present finds dating back to the Late Middle Neolithic Period (with the tubular handles resembling Serra d’Alto and with tree coloured ware). On the missing torso and head it is very difficult to advance suggestions: a comparison with similar typologies of seated female figurines may suggest a sub-elliptical or bidimensional schematization.
A figurine with completely different characteristics was recovered during archaeological investigation at the site of Tufarelle di Allumiere in the Monti della Tolfa, in the Latium region(fig. 15). At the site a settlement built on terraces along the side of a hill was discovered, inhabited, without continuity, between the Early Neolithic Period – impressed ware, Cardial ware and Red Bands painted ware – up to the middle of the Bronze Age. The chronological-cultural interpretation of the object is only possible through style comparison because the object was recovered within an archeologically mixed layer full of materials from different Pre-historic and Proto-historic phases. Because of its bi-dimensional schematization the figurine can be associated to the Early Neolithic one unearthed at Ripabianca di Monterado, but it presents some peculiarities such as upper and lower gaps, probably used to anchor, through the use of wooden pins, the lower limbs and the head or to fix the object to some sort of base. Composite elements were used already from the early phases of European Neolithic Period and as attested by the Koros di Endrod 39 context, have an important cult role in the practice of dismantling the figurine and the redeposition of the parts within a votive pit: the possibility that this was a figurine with head and limbs made out of wood, or stone, would suggest a link with the objects characteristic of the Calcolithic facies of Rachmani in Tessaglia.

The current archaeological information regarding northern Italy unfortunately lacks any kind of evidence of figurines within the Impressed Ware facies from Liguria. This gap makes it impossible for scholars to suggest a cultural correlation with the contemporary peninsular facies of the Early Neolithic Period and especially with the figurines from southern Italy.
The Neolithic Period cultural groups present in the area of the Po Valley and the Alps – Gaban, Vhò and Fiorano – are carefully characterized under the aspect of figurative expressions, within each cultural aspect, referable to a specific iconographic option with a related typological pattern solution.
Considerations that emphasize the Mesolithic role in the Gaban Group have been elaborated on the grounds of some elements interpreted as traditional both in the lithic assemblage as well as in the ornaments (BAGOLINI 1980). Along this interpretative approach the conservative aspects of the Gaban Group find confirmation in the persistent use of “Paleolithic type” figurative options in the Castelnoviana and Proto-Neolithic phases.
As well as two female figurines, carved on a bone shard and a sus tooth (fig. 16-17, BAGOLINI 1980), there are even more problematic antropomorphic representations on a pebble and diaphysis of a human thigh-bone. The “archaic” appearence, of the first two objects, may have been dictated by the materials on which they were carved and therefore by the limits associated to the rendering of the material (cd. Contours decoupées). On the grounds of their style both these figurines can be actually placed in the stylistic contexts of the following Square Mouthed Pottery phase, in the typology defined by B. Bagolini: “figuretta con torso a gruccia” (figurine with coat-hanger shaped bust) especially the ones “with the arms to the breast” (therefore according to the terminology suggested in this article as sub-elliptical torso schematization). In both figurines there is a clear the emphasis on the genitalia, expressed through the deep mark of the vulva positioned at the centre of the prospective.
In the figurine carved on the bone shard the lower part is carved in a pubic shape and the vulva is surmounted by a specific tree-shaped motif. As this emphasis constitutes, without doubt, a recurrent motif already in the Paleolithic Period, since the earliest incised art expressions from Aurignatian Dordogne, but it also seems to be one of the main-motifs of the earliest Mediterranean Neolithic representations, because of the emphasis of the hips. Detail that is recurrently found in the figurines from the Gaban culture. The presence of the tree-motif, interpreted by Gimbutas(GIMBUTAS 1990, 102) and later also by Guilaine (GUILAINE 1994, 390) as a symbol of vegetal rebirth from the womb of the earth, strengthen the Neolithic characterization of this representation, that has to be linked to agrarian fertility. Along the same theory it could also be important the presence of red ochre in the lower part of the body, hypothetically intended to be fixed into the ground.
During the Early Neolithic Period a cultural group, from the north of the peninsula, with specific characteristics regarding female representation is the Piadena’s Vhò Group. A cultural horyzon that expanded throughout the whole Po Valley region. A group of “mushroom shaped head” clay figurines moulded with elaborate hairstyle, roughly modelled arms, buttocks emphasized in contrast to the flat-convex structure of the body and cylindric shaped lower limbs with expanded base was recovered at the sites of Campo Ceresole and San Lorenzo Guazzone (figure 18-19; BAGOLINI-BIAGI 1977, AA.VV. 2001). It is important to specify that it is, stylistically a very homogeneous group of figurines and clearly characterized in their iconography. The same typology as in the Vhò Group is also attested (in the contemporary and similar in style to the Alba Group) in other areas of the Po Valley. A fragment of figurine traceable back to a “mushroom” shaped style (one of the fragments from the Alba group) (figure 20; VENTURINO GAMBARI 1992) is especially interesting not only because of its good state of conservation, important for comparison, but also because of an ornate chevron decoration derived from the characteristic motifs present on the ware from Alba and therefore attesting the local production of the figurine.
A less particular typology, but equally homogeneous, is attested by the group of figurines uncovered at the site of Sammardenchia (fig. 21; Pessina AA.VV 2001) referable to the contemporary group of Fagnigola-Sammardenchia from the Friuli region. Rather than defining the 5 figurines as schematic – definition that would imply an intentional abstraction – they appear only slightly naturalistic because of a rough crafting technique; the female characterization of the figurine is rendered by the breasts, the size of the hips and the emphasis of the sex through the opening of the lower limbs. The roughness of the upper limbs is common in the stereotype of many volumetric figurines (sub-rectangular with upper and lower expansions). An intentional sexual ambiguity is clear in the figurine’s head shaped as a simple flat protuberance. Particularly interesting within this group of objects from Friuli, and absolutely unique in the Italian Neolithic Period, is the figurine “with a bundle in its arms” (fig. 22; Pessina AA.VV. 2001) that has been interpreted as a kourotrophos. A similar schematic typology of representation, bidimensional as in most Neolithic Period figurines from the Pianura Padana, but with a sub-elliptical shaped torso, can be noticed in the female figurines of the cultural facies from Fiorano del Veneto and the region of Emilia (BAGOLINI 1980, 179). This correspondence is attested in the famous figurine which presents holes positioned in the area of the roughly modelled arms recovered during archaeological investigation at the site of Chierici ad Albinea or at Rivaltella (Gaggia in BAGOLINI 1978). A fragment of “torso a gruccia” recovered at Chiozza may be referable to this same typology and to the same cultural group (Fiorano Group).
It seems more logical to interpret the fragments of limbs with expanded terminations, recovered at Rivaltella (Gaggia in BAGOLINI 1978), as possible influences or exchanges with the Vhò culture and subsequent reception of iconographies in an archaic phase of the VBQ rather than interpreting it as an association to the “torso a gruccia” typology. The same theory can be applied to the recent amazing recovery of 75 fragments of female figurines at Ponte Ghiara near Salso Maggiore in Emilia (fig. 23-24; BERNABO BREA M. et. al. 2000). Within this group of objects there are several elements attributable to “torso a gruccia” female figurines (sub-elliptical schematization), cylindrical shaped head with nose in relief and seated posture, similar to the VBQ from Liguria, along with expanded termination fragments and mushroom shaped heads similar to the figurines common in the Vhò group. The first kind of typology is mainly made up of lower body fragments with the limbs fused together into one curved appendix. This characteristic can be found in two variations modelled on all sides or flat (one side modelled the other one flat) it is therefore possible to highlight, in the Early Neolithic Period cultural groups from the north of Italy preceding the VBQ koine, peculiar figurative elements that are not lacking, with the exception of the Vhò Group, a common stylistic ground that will fully evolve in the following phase. From the stylistic point of view it can already be noticed, in this phase, a common use of torso representation, a tendency to model anatomical features only on one side, probably induced by a bi-dimensional concept of view that tends to flatten the object.
Apart from the schematic representation of the figurine it is also evident a willingness to emphasize female sexual details, especially (as in the Vhò Culture) the genitalia area and the hips, while the breasts are only slightly modelled. The head always lacks details, sometimes only represented as a truncated cone appendix, more or less expression of a sexual ambiguity.
A typology of female representation with unified characteristics such as the Geometric-Linear Style of the Square Mouthed Pottery initial phase is attested during the Middle Neolithic Period in the Po Valley. The core can be traced to the Liguria area, as suggested by the abundance of finds (BERNABO BREA L. 1946; 1956; TINE S. 1975; 1999) as well as their precocity. A figurine’s head with a projecting nose (TINE S. 1999, fig. 165) that can be attributed to a transitional typology from the VBQ, also present in a fragment from Quinzano Veronese (BIAGI 1974, fig. 18) was recovered from layer XIII of the Arene Candide. This level is characterized by the Pollera Style of graffited wares, that is probably the starting point of the Square Mouthed Potteries and that attest significant connections with the situation in Fiorano.
The two typologies elaborated by Bagolini (BAGOLINI 1978) regarding this series of objects are “figurines with coat-hanger shaped bust” therefore with atrophic arms and flat bust (sub-elliptical schematization using the terminology suggested in this article) and “figurines with arms to the breast and loose hair” (fig 25-26 TINE S. 1975; 1999). These two varieties, however, seem very hybrid especially because of the lack of complete figurines. A recent find from Grotta del Varè of a “torso a gruccia” figurine with its surviving head (Fig. 27; ODETTI 1992)that attests the evolution or hybrid aspect between the two stylistic solutions (but in this case the hair does not fall on the shoulders but is instead held in a sort of chignon) is further evidence of a substantial identity of the two typologies. Even the difficulty in differentiating the two supposed variations on the grounds of the find’s topographical and stratygraphic origin appears symptomatic of their substantial homogeneity regarding iconography. The figurine’s heads are usually “cylindrical” in shape disregarding of the hairstyle fashion; the facial details (nose and eyes, some times with marked eyebrows) are not very evident.
Little is known regarding the modelling of the lower part of the body; a chance discovered find recovered in the Pollera Cave is modelled in a seated posture with its legs crossed, as in a yoga position, while lower body fragments recovered at the Arene Candide Cave are modelled in a seated posture with flexed legs, the most probable posture for this kind of figurines.
On the grounds of these elements it seems important to underline the common aspects that link all of these VBQ figurines, that can be placed to one generic schematic typology, characterized by a sub-elliptical dilatation of the upper body in spite of the modelling of the arms (atrophic or bent under the breast) that can be interpreted as a stylistic secondary element of the same iconographic model.
A different typology, but probably still within the VBQ phase might be identified in a unique find recovered in the 800’s in the Arene Candide Cave (fig. 15; BERNABO BREA L. 1946). This figurine is modelled with an elliptical head rather than cylindrical, and the shape of the torso is not sub-elliptical but instead sub-rectangular, slightly expanded in the lower part, with atrophic arms. So far there is no evidence of figurines from the following Late Neolithic Period in the Po Valley, a period archaeologically characterized by widespread use of the Chassey-Lagozza Ware. The lack of evidence of female figurines in the Western Neolithic world seems to suggest that it was not really involved in the ideology of the Great Mother rather than a lack of specific archaeological data.

From iconography to ideology

In this article, the authors have tried to underline, even though in a very synthetic manner, the substantial uniformity, especially regarding the iconography and frequently the stylistic point of view, of female figurative representations within the main Italian Neolithic Period cultural facies. Analysing the figurines within their cultural context we can identify some typological series that seem to represent the characteristic expression of the universal image of female... within the single cultures. (cfr tab 1).
As regards the subject represented, a wide spread uniformity and a repetition of the female representation within the single cultural realities suggests an ideological religious background based on a “female monoteism”. The whole group of Italian female figurines might then be interpreted as a cult images repertory. To be more specific, these figurines were probably used by individuals or families - as suggested by the frequent recovery within domestic structures - and not by collective groups (as in the case of Paleolithic Period burials in cult grottoes).
As from the stylistic point of view we can still agree - in general terms - with the conclusions expressed by Graziosi (GRAZIOSI 1973): “the eclecticism and the apparent incoherence of a kind of Italian post-Paleolithic art manifestation, within their natural context, may derive from the flow, in different periods, in our Peninsula, of cultural elements of different origins and of the succession and differentiation of many civilizations. This certainly did not help the melting between the different art expressions and their diffusion through out a large geographical area and a wide span of time”. The use of specific stylistic models can be found at a particular location and time period, and especially in the context of the cultural facies based on more selective archaeological information (such as pottery and lithic assemblage). As regards the iconographic repertory from Southern Italy the presence of common styles in the following cultural facies in the region prevents the authors from agreeing with the theories expressed by Cremonesi (in BAGOLINI-CREMONESI 1987, 47): “the diversities of shapes and attitudes fully justify, also for the Central and Southern areas of the Peninsula, the refusal of simplistic theories linked to the Great Mother” and “even if some unitarian currents can be identified in the expression of art in Central and Southern regions of the Peninsula during the Neolithic Period, these are limited to generalized themes, that in their definite expression, reveal a wide variety and homogeneity of shapes...” (ibidem, 49). On the contrary, a clear expressive significance –in terms of function and fruition – of the finds taken in to consideration is suggested by their link to a clear iconographic model, within the specific cultural context.
Even clearer is the substantial uniformity of the female figurine model in the Middle Neolithic Period in the Po Valley, a fundamental characterizing element of the cultural unity of the Square Mouthed Pottery cultural phase. The specificity of the figurative art characterizing each single cultural group of the Early Neolithic Period in Northern Italy, instead, underlines the independence and articulated complexity of these realities.
The gradual stylistic evolution of the female figurine representations in the phases preceding SMP in the Emilia area (Fiorano and Archaic SMP sites) and in Liguria (Ligurian Graffito Ware) seems to underline an artistic cultural unification. This is in opposition to the theories presented by Bagolini that emphasize the articulation represented by the many “female stereotypes” within the SMP phase and defined it as “proof of an articulate ideological patrimony in which female representation of women takes on different meanings and more than one distinctive role” (BAGOLINI-CREMONESI 1987, 42 quoting BAGOLINI 1978).
Rather than associating the totality of Italian finds regarding the Neolithic Period female representations to “ a variety of magic-thaumaturgic models, different from culture to culture and multivalent within their context” (BAGOLINI 1978, 4), it seems more reasonable to associate them to a conception, even if generalized, of “monotheism” of the female deity, linked to the concept of fertility/fecundity – therefore a concept of reproduction in a broad sense – expressed in each single culture by a characteristic iconography, even though with the obvious variations in style.
In conclusion it seems possible to perceive, as regards the articulated repertory of the female representations in the Neolithic Period in Italy, specific iconographic models for the modelling of the female representation and recognisable as characteristic of specific geographical and cultural realities. These formal connections of individual cultural facies to a wider iconographic pattern seems to suggest a narrow semantic context for these clay representations. A context to which can still be adapted, if bypassing an hypercritic tendency common in last few decades, the old definitions of “Mother Earth” or “Great Mother. This cult figurative expression through a female representation may still be find confirmation in the classic definition by Neumann (NEUMANN 1981, 99) of Prehistoric representations of the Great Mother as: “representations of the Goddess of fertility, pregnant, commonly considered woman of birth and pregnancy... archetypal symbol of fertility and symbol of the elemental, helping, protective, nourishing nature”.


1 Among the rare works on a national level GRAZIOSI 1973 (predominantly anthological) and CREMONESI-BAGOLINI 1978 (short general considerations surpassed by the current elements recovered from new sites). A recent exhibit of figurines, from the whole Italian Peninsula, held in the Museo Nazionale Preistorico ed Etnografico “L. Pigorini”, possible through loans from other museums, highlighted the of the archaeological interpretation. Even though anthological rather than systematic, this exhibit titled “Donne, uomini e animali. Oggetti d’arte e di culto nella Preistoria” enabled the publication of a small collective catalogue, unique in the fact that collects a series of female Neolithic figurines outside of their regional context. (AA. VV. 2001)

2 In this research project are not included figurines from Sardinia and Sicily because of their unique characteristics concerning the iconography (very articulated in Sardinia, generally “bird shaped” and non-female in Sicily), the context of recovery (also from burial sites in Sardinia in clear contrast to the use in the rest of the Peninsula) and the material used (usually stone). All of these characteristics limit any kind of typological schematization to a regional level.

3 For an approach from the point of view of the “context of fruition”, archaeologically determined, in the works of JOICE 1996, cited by Tine V. In TINE S. And others, in press.

4 Are taken in to consideration only clay female figurines strictu sensu, therefore representations of the whole human figure or at least the significant portion; will be considered female all figurines characterized by at least one anatomical detail, breasts or pubic triangle and/or a marked steatopygy. These representations of the body and not just of the head are the only ones that can be analysed according to complete context, the posture of the figurine, essential for a correct iconographic interpretation. On the grounds of these parameters even limited fragments of torso or limbs are more valuable than elaborated and in perfect condition heads. Are generally excluded from this research the many interesting clay heads and other typologies of anthropomorphic representations, not made out of clay, recovered during investigation of Italian Neolithic Period contexts, especially from the south: these finds would be best analysed in a separate study, avoiding general assimilations, that would lack typology, iconographic and interpretative conclusions.

5 See MARANGOU 1996a for an interpretative model of the possible use of figurines.

6 This motif seems also typical of the decorative repertory of many Italian Neolithic cultural facies as Stentinello, Fiorano and Sasso Sarteano and European within the Linear Band Keramik.

7 The analysis of the Sicilian figurines of the Stentinello phase, from Uzzo Cave and Kronio Cave, characterized by a “bird shaped” iconography and in some case non-female, is outside of this study ( regarding the problem of iconographic continuity-discontinuity with the Paleolithic Period refer to the section Culti in TINE V., edited by 1996). Its important to highlight the coherence of iconographic options in the Sicilian Neolithic figurines than - actually different from the rest of the Peninsula - seem to reflect the same reference to a lack of random and everyday subjects. A suggestive reference might refer to – with cautions – the birds represented in the cult images of the Near East (CAUVIN 1997) and to the studies carried out by Gimbutas on the “bird-goddess”.

8 F. Radina (RADINA 1992) instead interprets the motif incised at the base of the figurine as a man in adoration, with horn shaped terminations and with hands, represented to show the link between the divinity and the offerer.

9 The figurine from Montocchio (Cremonesi and Bianco in AA. VV.) might be included in this highly symbolic characterized schematic series. It is a simple clay cylinder with short appendix representing the feet and broken areas corresponding to the arms and head (possibly attached?); the possibility that it is a graffito decoration rather than incised and the association to ceramic decorative elements made through this technique, as well as through impression techniques, might locate it to a facies – the Graffito Ware Culture- substantially synchronous to the Middle Neolithic period painted ware from the Tavoliere region, where are common these representation with an explicit symbolic characteristic through the use of graffiti that cover the whole body rather than a specific articulation.

10 A tendency, also in the south-eastern area of the Peninsula, towards a more naturalistic approach – with the abandonment of the old symbolic code linked to graphic symbols – might be suggested by some female heads, recovered within Late Neolithic Period contexts in Apulia. The finds from Grotta Pacelli (STRICCOLI 1988, fig. 48) and from Cala Scizzo (GENIOLA-TUNZI 1980), refer to the Serra d’Alto facies, are the closest thing to a portrait expressed in Neolithic Italy. The conservation of a Hieratic characteristic is especially evident in the head with polos from Pacelli Cave, undoubtedly linked to a cult use.

11 Other fragments of the figurines from Catignano are still unpublished (quoted by Cremonesi in BAGOLINI_CREMONESI 1987 and by TOZZI-ZAMAGNI 2000-2001).

12 G.M. Bulgarelli at the IV Convention “Preistoria e Protostoria dell’Etruria”, Manciano 2000, in press.

13 Unpublished, archaeological investigation by M.A. Fugazzola Delpino.

14 Within the Italian Prehistoric “history of art” the thorough research by B. Bagolini (especially BAGOLINI 1978 and 1980) brought an emphasis on the northern region of Italy; we refer to all of his work but especially the catalogue of the exhibit held in Venice (1978) for the description of the iconographic characteristics of each single facies which we only discuss.

15 An interesting female figurine carved on a deer’s horn with diamond shaped decorations and expressive motifs common of the Paleolithic period contexts was recovered in the Late Mesolithic layers from Gaban(BAGOLINI 1972).

16 The probable origin of this typology of representations has been linked to the Balkans and more specifically to the Koros culture. (BAGOLINI-BIAGI 1977).

17 Gaggia in BAGOLINI 1978 instead attributes it to the SMP phase

18 Following BAGOLINI 1978, 45

19 This typology is suggested by the reconstruction of the disembodied, fragments of limbs, busts and heads and follows the typology elaborated by BERNABÒ BREA for the fragments from Arene Candide (BERNABO BREA L. 1956, 98). The alternative with a simple conical shape of the bust and head, suggested (BERNABO BREA M. And others 2000, 285) on the ground of a clear predominance between the fragments of lower body as opposed to the upper body, seem to be in contrast with finds of clear conical termination of the upper body.(unless we interpret this way the circular and semi-circular elements seen as “legs” in BERNABÒ BREA M. And others 2000, fig. 6-9)

20 According to Bagolini (BAGOLINI 1978) the predominance of finds from Liguria is due to the cult use of the object better associated to grottoes, common to the area, instead of open sites in the Po Valley region.

21 Is important to remind the attempt by S. TINÈ (TINÈ 1975) opposed by B. Bagolini (1978, 47) to identify a progressive stylization within the stratygraphic sequence of the figurines from Arene Candide Cave. A sequential interpretation, from more stylized to more naturalistic examples, has been formulated by Tine (TINE 1999, 323) on the ground of interpretation of the already described extremely stylized finds recovered from the level 13 of the Arene Candide, as possible archetypal of the series.

22 None of the current alternative models of interpretation of clay female figurines seem to adapt to the Italian situation, which is typologically well structured within the different cultural horyzons but lacks articulation regarding the choice of subject represented. Different ERMENEUTICI approaches regarding different cultures: BAILEY (figurines interpreted as representations of individuals), BIEHL 1996 (interpreted as a system of symbolic communication), PICAZO 2000 (interpreted as representation of women), TREUIL 1983 and TALALY 1993 (interpreted as dolls, children’s games, models of the real world). The interpretative models by MARANGOU 1996 (interpreted as a system of initiation and spread of knowledge) and RICE 1981 (interpreted as symbols of maternity and femininity) can coexist with our interpretation of female figurines as “cult images”.

23 Theory shares by Bagolini (BAGOLINI-CREMONESI 1987).

24 On the importance of cultural association for the contextualization of figurines see BARTEL 1981

25 In regards to the theoretic component of this analysis see FLEMING 1971 ( study to which willingly or unwillingly seem to connect the Italian interpretation of the 70’s and 80’s) and more recently NICHOLAS 1994. A recent collective work edited by L. Goodison and Ch. Morris (GOODISON-MORRIS 1998) elaborates a more equilibrated interpretation and a reuse of the “cult” context.

26 Seems also reasonable the definition expressed by J. Guilaine (1994, 363): “the Great-Mother is widely interpreted as diversified representation of a fertility cult generally represented, through a variety of ways, as a obese goddess (characterized by the emphasis on the hips, sex and breasts).


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