Mothers of Time

The Balzi Rossi Figurines

Venus Figures from the Balzi Rossi and Other Sites

Between 1883 and 1895, Louis Alexandre Jullien discovered fifteen figurines at the Balzi Rossi. This is the largest series ever found in one place in Western Europe, and the pieces can be traced back to the Gravettian chronology and culture. Seven of the figurines were displayed in an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1995.

With the exception of The Mask, all of these carvings can be seen as variations on the Palaeolithic Venus, a model that we now recognize as fundamental to the artistic repertoire of the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic. Research shows that this model occurs, with regional variations, in many places in Western Europe, Central Europe (the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for example), Eastern Europe (Ukraine and the Russian plain) and even in the Lake Baykal region of Siberia.

In most cases, the figurines are miniature sculptures of well-rounded female nudes, fashioned - depending on the region - from ivory, antler or soft stone, and sometimes even clay, which was later fired. The treatment seems to have followed certain rules, the most obvious being an overemphasis of the fleshy parts of the body (buttocks, stomach and chest) and, at times, an explicit portrayal of various sexual attributes.

In general, little attention seems to have been paid to the rendering of the legs, which are hardly suggested; the arms, which are often missing; and the head, which, if it exists at all, is often faceless. In a number of statuettes, one sees details in the headgear, hair and even the clothes.

Although this is, to some extent, an accurate description of the main features of the Palaeolithic Venus, it does, nonetheless, need to be qualified, since it comes to us from prehistorians at the turn of the century who had only a small sample to work with. Indeed, the Balzi Rossi figurines exhibit such an astonishing range of variations as to raise doubts about the authenticity of some of Jullien's pieces.

The Seven Figurines