Venezia: IDOLS, the power of the image

I remember that the first time I saw a statuette from the Cyclades I was surprised to learn, in my youthful ignorance, that it was no work by Brancusi or Modigliani, but it was about 5,000 years old and it came from the Aegean Sea.


The charm of those statuettes has marked my professional life ever since, it has become my aesthetical archetype. Their eternal, essential, and perfect beauty seems to connect art’s remote past with the present and even future. Hence I coud not miss the exhibition, unfortunately only just closed, which Fondazione Ligabue set up in Venice.

“IDOLI, il potere dell’immagine” (IDOLS, the power of the image) is an extraordinary trip which, from the 5th to the 2nd millennium B.C., takes us to “the origins of the depiction of the human body”, as writes Inti Ligabue, the Fondazione’s president.

However, our aesthetical appreciation for these most ancient figures should not make us forget that they were first and foremost idols, i.e. forms embodying the sense of the divine and of supernatural mystery always present in man’s mind.


The overview of the 100 exhibits starts from the Iberian Peninsula and reaches Central Asia and the Indus Valley through the Mediterranean Sea, the Near East, and the Arabic Peninsula. Moving from one showcase to the next and from country to country, it becomes apparent that almost all of these artefacts show female figures; therefore it would perhaps not have been inappropriate to subtitle the exhibition “When women were Mother Goddesses” in order to underline the mysterious power of female gender in those ancient societies.


After the 2ndmillennium B.C., however,  production of this female image began to wane, or rather it was assimilated into the pantheon of “structured” religions, and the Mother Goddess was superseded by the Man-Father God.

Little do we know about the meaning and function of these statuettes, other than that in essence they were public and private cult objects connected with rituals or with the burial of important members of the community.

The common stylistic element of almost all these statuettes is the stylised body, sometimes with an abstract shape. Rarely do we observe a naturalistic search, possibly because the metaphysical value of these figures went through a process of idealisation of the human body intended to be a reflection of the divine.

There were quite different variants linked with the different geographic origins, even though in certain areas, like for instance in Sardinia and the Cyclades, the two most common forms of the Goddess coexisted—the steatopygous one with big thighs, buttocks, and breasts, and the stylised one, in which the body becomes schematic and only recognisable by analogy.

The same happened in the Arabic Peninsula too, where steatopygous Goddesses  evoke an absolute power. In Asia Minor there are three variants: an abstract one in the shape of a violin, a highly stylised one with an elongated back of the head, and one with a disc-shaped body but a naturalistic head.

An important section is dedicated to the so-called “Bactrian Princesses” from Bactria, a region of Central Asia north of present-day Afghanistan. These elegant anthropomorphous stone figures feature a well-modelled head attached to a body in which the volumes cannot be made out due to the covering of a wide mantle decorated with geometric patterns.

The exhibition ends with a terracotta figurine from the Indus Valley, the body quite realistically modelled and extremely simplified.

The beautiful catalogue, edited by archaeologist Anne Caubet, is an exhaustive essay on the mysterious Idols that for more than 3,000 years have represented human art and spirituality.

Renzo Freschi

Renzo Freschi - asian art
Renzo Freschi
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