Mt. Bego, a rediscovered manuscript

Print Friendly


The oldest written document regarding European rock art is stored in the Turin State Archive. It is entitled the Academia de Giardini di Belvedere (the Belvedere Gardens Academy).

The manuscript is a copy made around the mid seventeenth century by Pietro Gioffredo, historian of the Savoy House, on the basis of another manuscript, written by Honorato Lorenzo, dating back to the end of the previous century, around 1591, or a few years later.

by Andrea Arcà

Honorato Lorenzo, Pietro Gioffredo
and the Mt. Bego, a rediscovered manuscript

short notes about the most ancient written document about European rock art

Rock art is often metaphorically defined as a precious stone archive: its rocky pages, indeed, are able to store for millennia irreplaceable images from a faraway past, witnessing details, or even actions, which would be otherwise forever lost.

What to say about the opposite path, i.e. the finding of rock art related documents into real archive folders? Sometimes, such findings may reveal surprising elements, which may enrich research history and shine a new light over rock art knowledge.

Gioffredo's booklet

From the booklet of P. Gioffredo, transcription of the “handwritten book of Honorato Lorenzo, or ‘dij Laurenti’, entitled Academy of the Belvedere gardens”, page 27 (Turin State Archive, section Court and Ancient library, aut. 3882/28.28.00 – 10.10.2014; click to enlarge)

This may be the case of the Academia dei Giardini di Belvedere manuscript (the Belvedere Gardens Academy), which I rediscovered – better to say recognised – in March 2014, while reading the Pietro Gioffredo’s pages, stored in the Turin State Archive, in the section devoted to the ancient Savoy duchy archives.

Pietro Gioffredo, born at Nizza in 1629 – the county and the city of Nizza, today Nice in France, were under the Savoy dukes and kings between 1388 and 1860 – was a priest, a tutor, a librarian; above all in 1663 he was appointed official historian of the Royal Savoy House. He received an exclusive free access to all the Savoy archives, a deep immersion into the written sources and a privilege that few scholars had been (and will be) able to reach. As well as other important and weighty works, between 1661 and 1692 Pietro Gioffredo wrote Dell’Historia dell’Alpi Maritime, accompanied by the Corografia dell’Alpi Maritime (the history and the geography of the Maritime Alps). This considerable work was published as a printed book only in 1839 (Gioffredo 1839), during the Italian Risorgimento.

Regarding the research history of Mt. Bego, the 16 lines of printed text contained in the Gioffredo’s 1839 Corografia are widely reported in literature – since Blanc 1878 – as one of the first written sources; they treat the Lakes of Marvels and report a plethora of fantastic figures, like birds, fishes, mechanic and military tools, engraved on the variously coloured rocks by shepherds “vogliosi di fuggir l’ozio”, i.e. wanting to run away from idleness.

The paragraph related to the Marvels Lakes from the apocryphal manuscript of the Pietro Gioffredo Maritime Alps corography, which shows a XIX cent. hand

The paragraph related to the Lakes of Marvels from the apocryphal manuscript of the Pietro Gioffredo Maritime Alps corography, which shows a XIX cent. hand (Turin State Archive, section Court and Ancient library, aut. 3882/28.28.00 – 10.10.2014)

The problem, already outlined by Paola Sereno in 1984 (Sereno 1984), is that the Gioffredo’s printed text of the Corografia – the chapter related to the Lakes of Marvels – is a fake, written in the thirties of the nineteenth century by the Italian historians, who needed to complete the manuscript of Gioffredo, which was left undone. This fact is easily demonstrable by reading the original Gioffredo’s seventeenth century manuscript of the Corografia, where the corresponding pages are blank; anyway it was not a totally invented text: the counterfeiter’s imagination was helped by the original Gioffredo’s notes.

Corografia dell'Alpi Maritime by Pietro Gioffredo

The autograph manuscript of the Corografia dell’Alpi Maritime by Pietro Gioffredo; the title-page to the left, the chapter V to the right, left blank by the author (Turin State Archive, section Court and Ancient library, aut. 3882/28.28.00 – 10.10.2014)

Another text is cited in literature as a very ancient source, firstly in Hirigoyen 1978, wrongly reported with the title of Accademio dei giordani di Belvedere, a strange and unlikely Italian-Occitan mix, with a nonexistent place or family “giordani” name. The text quoted by Robert Hirigoyen includes the curious and famous citation of the Pasiphaë Cow, since then repeatedly reported in literature, although without any check of the original document. The problem, the second one, is that Hirigoyen died before publishing his book, devoted to the Valley of Marvels; so the text, edited posthumously and based on his notes, besides reporting a wrong title, doesn’t give any information about the position and the cataloging of the manuscript, which at this point may have been presumed as imaginary.

So, resuming, one source is a fake and and the other was missing or uncertain.

Happily, archives are doing their job. The king of Sardinia Vittorio Amedeo III of Savoy in 1773 ordered the Gioffredo’s Maritime Alps history to be bought, 80 years after the author’s death, paying to the heirs the considerable sum of 1500 liras for three tomes and 21 notebooks. All these are now conserved in the Turin State Archive. I was really surprised discovering that one of these notebooks, marked as the G booklet, handwritten by Gioffredo before 1661, who copied and summarized many ancient archive documents, contains our wanted Academia dei Giardini di Belvedere, also cited by Gioffredo as Delicie de Bellovidere (the pleasures of Belvedere). Belvedere is a delightful hamlet of the Gordolasca valley, bordering Valley of Marvels to the west. Its pleasures are related to its gardens (the Giardini), where a company of gentlemen – the so-called and self-entitled Academy of the Gardens, that gathered during the summer in the gardens of their holiday houses at Belvedere – regularly met together to tell stories about the most interesting, curious or terrible occurrences of the hamlet and of the surrounding country.

The original text was written in the late sixteenth century – likely after 1591 and before 1600 – by Honorato Lorenzo (his name is variously reported in Italian, French and Latin), a lawyer of the Provence parliament who had been appointed archbishop of Embrun ten years before dying. His signature, along with that of his brother, is marked on a graffito of the Valley of Marvels: “Antonio Lorenso 1591 | Honorato Lorenso priore 1591” (all in capital letters).

Marvels Valley, the signatures of Antonio and Honorato Lorenso engraved on the Z IV. G II. R 20A1 rock in 1591

Valley of Marvels, Mt. Bego area, the signatures of Antonio and Honorato Lorenso engraved on the Z IV. G II. R 20A1 rock in 1591 (photo Musée d’Anthropologie Préhistorique de Monaco and tracing from Lumley de 1995, fig. 254.4)

Pietro Gioffredo did not copy the entire Lorenzo manuscript. Happily the six pages containing the detailed description in Italian of the trip – it could be better defined as an expedition – to reach and explore the Laghi della Maraviglia, the Lakes of Marvels, are complete. Antonio and his brother wanted to see “de visu”, with their own eyes, the “pietre figurate”, the illustrated stones. Seventeen stones are described; for the first seven rocks a detailed description of the engraved “drawings” is present – the complete list for the first five – citing 93 figures. For the remaining eight stones the author introduces scenes and characters of classical mythology.

It is not correct to say that Lorenzo’s descriptions of the observed engraved figures are fictional and inappropriate. In fact it is possible to recognize, among a congeries of decapod crustaceans and of eight-legs arachnids – like crayfish, scorpions, tarantulas, crabs – the well known Mt. Bego horned figures, very similar to insects if viewed from above with extruding paws, tails, ears and horns; the same for the cited weapons and tools, like crossbows, compasses, slingshots, hay forks, manure forks, rakes, tongs… in the same way rods, signs, pikes, standards, spades may be linked to the only today well understood Copper age halberds. Only the passionate and reiterated Bicknell’s intervention, along with the late eighteenth century firstly available archaeological comparisons, will catch a glimpse, three centuries later, over the correct identification of such an old and culturally distant iconography.

Mt. Bego petroglyphic complex, horned figures

Mt. Bego petroglyphic complex, horned figures (oxen): it is clear how a XVIth cent. observer may have described these figures as insects (scorpions, tarantulas), shellfish (shrimps, crabs), or tools (compasses, slingshots, forks, tongs);. the first four images are from Fontanalba, the last two from the Valley of Marvels (photos AA)

Among mythological characters, the Pasiphaë Cow is obviously on the stage, like a prima donna, worthily followed by the Daedalus labyrinth. Regarding the author, the use of such mythological keys seems to imply the awareness of a more profound and symbolic meaning of the figures and scenes he saw on the “pietre maravigliose”, the marvelous stones.

At the present state of the research, we may consider the Lorenzo’s manuscript of the end of the sixteenth century as the oldest analytic written source, not only for the Alpine rock art, but also for all Europe. If in the case of the Portuguese and of the Panóias engravings and inscriptions we may cite the 35 pages of the Memórias Históricas do Arcebispado de Braga (Contador de Argote 1732: 325-359), on the other hand the earlier European iconographic documentation of an engraved rock is reported to be the Peder Alfsön watercolor of a Bohuslän rock, in Sweden, dating back to 1627, today stored in Copenhagen.

Mt. Bego petroglyphic complex, Copper and Bronze Age halberd figures

Mt. Bego petroglyphic complex, Copper and Bronze Age halberd figures; in the Academy of the Belvedere gardens manuscript they are described as rods, signs, pikes, flags and spades (first and fourth image from Fontanalba, others from the Valley of Marvels; photos AA)

Indeed, half a century earlier than the manuscript of Honorato Lorenzo, around the thirties of the sixteenth century, John Leland wrote a few lines containing a description of cup-marks:

“On the farther ripe of Elwy (…) is a stony rock caullid Kereg the tylluaine, i.e. the Rock with hole Stones, &c. there is in the Paroch of Llanfannan (…) a place wher ther be 24 hole stones or places in a roundel for men to sitte in, but sum lesse and sum bigger cutte oute of the mayne Rok by manne’s hand” (Toulmin Smith 1906: 99).

But while these few words represent only a short reference, the Lorenzo’s manuscript clearly assumes a much greater relevance, revealing a scientific need of investigation and of shared knowledge; if the marvelous and illustrated Mt. Bego stones were already popularly known, since forever we may presume, this manuscript was the first to transfer such contents to the erudite and academic world, the first step towards a future archaeological research.


Andrea ARCÀ
– Pisa University, Dottorato in Scienze dell’Antichità e Archeologia;
– IIPP, Italian Institute of Prehistory and Proto-history;
– Footsteps of Man archaeological society


(Regarding Pietro Gioffredo, his copy of the Honorato Lorenzo manuscript, and other seventeenth century documents related to Mt. Bego geography and engraved stones, a detailed and more complete paper is waiting to be published, with the complete transcription of the Lorenzo’s text)


Cited references

Blanc E., 1878. Étude sur les sculptures préhistoriques du Val d’Enfer près des Lacs des Merveilles, Mémoires de la Société des Sciences Naturelles & Historiques des Lettres et des Beaux-arts de Cannes et de l’Arrondissement de Grasse, Tome VII, 1877-1878, pp. 72-87, 1 pl. h.t.

Contador De Argote J., 1732. Memorias para a Historia ecclesiastica do Arcebispado de Braga, primaz das Hespanhas, dedicadas a el Rey D. Joaõo V. nosso senhor, aprovadas pela Academia Real, escritas pelo Padre D. Jeronymo Contador de Argote, Titulo I, Tomo Primeiro, Joseph Antonio da Sylva. Lisboa Occidental, 455 p. + LX.

Gioffredo P., 1839. Storia delle Alpi Marittime, corografia, libro I. In Monumenta Historiæ Patriæ, edita iussu Regis Caroli Alberti, Scriptores, Storia delle Alpi Marittime di Pietro Gioffredo libri XXVI, e Regio Typographeo. Augustæ Taurinorum, XXIII pp. + 2126 col. [edizione a stampa su due colonne di Gioffredo P. (post 1661, ante 1692), Dell’historia dell’Alpi Maritime, ms., ASTo, sez. Corte, biblioteca antica, mazzo 1 H.III.6, mazzo 2 H.III.7, mazzo 3 H.III.8 e di Gioffredo P. (grafia di primo ’800), Corografia dell’Alpi Maritime, opera di Pietro Gioffredo, ms. (apocrifo), ASTo, sez. Corte, biblioteca antica, mazzo 4 H.IV.26].

Hirigoyen R., 1978. La pierre et la pensée: la Vallée des Merveilles, les gravures rupestres du Mont Bégo. Paris, 147 pp.

Sereno P., 1984. Per una storia della “Corografia delle Alpi Marittime” di Pietro Gioffredo. In Comba R., Cordero M., Sereno P. (eds.), La scoperta delle Marittime. Momenti di Storia e alpinismo. Cuneo: 37-55.

Toulmin Smith L. (ed.), 1906. The Itinerary in Wales of John Leland, in or about the years 1536-1539, extracted from his Mss., arranged and edited by Lucy Toulmin Smith. London.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

four + twelve =