The motif of the “Camunian Rose”

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Camunian rose

TRACCE no. 10 – by Paola Farina

The motif of the “Camunian Rose” in the rock art of Valcamonica (Italy) part **.
In the past the scholars proposed some hypotheses about the meaning of the “Camunian rose”, engraved on several rocks in Valcamonica…

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Villanovan razor, coming from the central Italy (the first half of the 9th century BC), decorated with swastikas and other solar motifs

Fig.1, Villanovan razor, coming from the central Italy (the first half of the 9th century BC), decorated with swastikas and other solar motifs

Interpretative hypotheses

In the past the scholars proposed some hypotheses about the meaning of the “Camunian rose”, engraved on several rocks in Valcamonica; someone thought it was a “Celtic whirligig” (1), somebody identified it with the sistrum, an ancient Celtic instrument (2), and someone else related it to the swastika figure and therefore interpreted the “rose” as a solar symbol (3).


The Camunian rock art provides us information which support the interpretation of this motif, in particular we can study the engraving which is more frequent related to the “Camunian rose”. This figure is the warrior and usually we find it engraved in the identical scene: the human been is beside the “Camunian rose”, one arm stretched towards the “rose” with a shield in the hand and the other arm is behind the head gripping a sword or a stick (fig.2). There are also some variations, in one case two warriors, armed with light devices, seem to perform a ritual dance around the “rose”. The “Camunian rose”-warrior link is documented both with the swastika and the quadrilobate type, during many centuries till the last phase of the Camunian rock art cycle (style IV 5) and this points out its great importance in the motif interpretation and confirms the theory that the two types of “roses” have the same meaning. This link cannot be interpreted as a scene of attack towards the “rose”, but rather as a scene of defence or “adoration” of the motif.

It was certainly very important for the warlike aristocracy in the Iron Age and it had probably a strong symbolic value, which is nowadays difficult to understand in its primary meaning because we have not the interpretation code of such ancient symbol any longer.

We must not forget that the oldest “Camunian rose” is the swastika type and therefore we have to find its original meaning just in this type. It and the swastika are very similar – there is also a variation of the swastika with light rounded arms -, for this reason I think that the hypothesis, already formulated in the past, that the two motifs are related to each other, can be true.

Two examples of the Camunian rose-warrior link. Giadighe, Capo di Ponte; Bedolina R.16, Capo di Ponte

Fig.2, two examples of the “Camunian rose”-warrior link. Giadighe, Capo di Ponte; Bedolina R.16, Capo di Ponte.

In order to understand if it is possible, from a chronological point of view, that the “Camunian rose” has developed from the swastika, we have studied the first evidences of this ancient symbol in the Italian peninsula. The swastika is documented since the Early Bronze Age in Anatolia, at Cyprus and in the Aegean area, where it appears more and more during the Iron Age; thanks to the numerous exchanges with the Mediterranean cultures the motif spreads in Europe and Italy. Before the Final Bronze Age we cannot find any documentation of this motif in the Italian peninsula; the first evidences date back to the protovillanovan culture (Benacci-type pins with a swastika inside a circle on their head, which were widespread between the Final Bronze Age and the 7th century BC) and to the palaeovenetic culture (fragments of pottery coming from Frattesina di Fratta Polesine, in the province of Rovigo, datable between the middle of the 12th century and the beginning of the 9th century BC) (fig.3).

The first evidences of the swastika in the Italian peninsula

Fig.3, the first evidences of the swastika in the Italian peninsula: Benacci-type pins, coming from the central Italy (Final Bronge Age – 8th century BC); fragment of pottery, coming from Frattesina di Fratta Polesine (the second half of the 12th – 9th century BC)

The swastika becomes very common in the villanovan culture (9th-8th century BC) and from here spreads over the whole peninsula, reaching the north-western areas between the 7th and 6th century BC. It is documented in Liguria, where we find it painted on a urn, coming from the Cappelletto tomb near Rapallo (7th-6th century BC) and in the Golasecca culture, engraved on a cup coming from Castelletto Ticino (Gol. IIA, beginning of the 6th century BC).
On these basis we can suppose that the swastika arrived in the same time in Valcamonica too; this appearance coincides with the development of the “Camunian rose” in the rock art, whose first evidences date back to the second half of the 7th century and the 6th century BC. In conclusion, from the chronological point of view, the “Camunian rose” may be a local graphic variation of the swastika.

But we must now analyse if the two motifs can be associated also for their symbolic interpretation. The swastika has usually been interpreted as a symbol of the sun moving in the sky and in the course of the centuries it got a wider symbolic value of prosperity, life and good luck (4). This interpretation has been confirmed by the evidences of the swastika and other motifs related to it (e.g. triskele and whirligig patterns), found in Europe and Italy and datable to the Bronze and Iron Age. All these motifs seem to have had, at least at the beginning, a solar or astral meaning with a holy-religious symbolic value, as a matter of fact they often take the place of the sun on many objects. Moreover, these solar symbols are often related with the world of warriors, for instance the swastika is usually represented on razors (fig. 1) and arms of the villanovan culture and other European prehistoric cultures(5).

In conclusion I think that even the meaning of the “Camunian rose” can be related to the swastika as well as the design, because the symbolic values of this motif are not in contrast with the rock art documentation and especially with the “rose”-warrior link.

Therefore I suppose that the "Camunian rose" could have originally a solar meaning, which then developed into a wider meaning of a positive power, which brings life and good luck.

A popular tradition corroborates this theory: as a matter of fact some people believes still today that the “Camunian rose” brings good luck. Staying in Valcamonica and talking with some inhabitants I have discovered that the old shepherds touched with a stick a “rose”, engraved on a rock placed on the track “Coren of Sellero”, just for this reason. That is very interesting because popular beliefs and legends often are handed down from generation to generation during the centuries, sometimes during millennia, lasting even from prehistoric time until today.

Unfortunately on the basis of today studies we cannot explain better the symbolic meaning of the “Camunian rose”, which certainly had to be much more complex; the particular meaning of the nine cup-marks is, for example, still obscure. The next studies will be able to make clearer this interpretative hypothesis.

Paola Farina
Centro Studi Archeologia Africana Venezia 55 – 20121 MILANO (ITALY)


  1. P. JACOBSTHAL, Celtic rock-carvings in northern Italy and Yorkshire, in The Journal of Roman Studies, XXVIII, 1938, pp. 65-69.
  2. E. SÜSS, Le incisioni rupestri della Valcamonica, Milano, 1958 (second edition 1985), pp. XXI-XXII.
  3. V. FUSCO, Su alcuni nuovi aspetti di incisioni rupestri camune scoperte ad alta quota, in Sibrium, XI, 1972, pp. 31-51; U. SANSONI, L’arte rupestre di Sellero, Capo di Ponte, 1987, p. 50; A. PRIULI, Appunti intorno al simbolismo della swastika e della rosa camuna, in Quaderni Camuni, 39, 1987, pp. 237-252.
  4. GOBLET D’ALVIELLA, Cross, in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. IV, Edinburgh, 1911 (ristampa 1959), p. 324-329; S.A. FREED – R.S. FREED, Origin of the Swastika, in Natural History, N° 1, 1980, pp. 68-75; T. WILSON, The swastika, the earliest known symbol, and its migrations; with observations on the migration of certain industries in prehistoric times, from the Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1894, Washington, 1896, pp. 757-1011.
  5. DÉCHELETTE, Manuel d’archéologie préhistorique celtique et gallo-romaine, II, Paris, 1924, pp. 453-464.

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