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The Age of the Idols

It may not be easy to determine when man left prehistory behind. For the sake of argument, this house will posit that man began to distance himself from the other animals when he began to make idols in his own image and likeness. We do not know for sure what our oldest ancestors’ ideas on the divine were. But these primitive idols (from classical Greek εἴδωλον, “image”) attest to a belief in the supernatural.

An exhibition at Ca’ Loredan, in Venice, traces them to their origins in the Mediterranean belt of civilization —from the Iberian Peninsula to Sardinia and the Cyclades— as well as Mesopotamia and the Far East by way of Arabia and the Indus Valley. The assembled collection, curated by Annie Caubet, from the Louvre, will leave the visitor with a sense of awe.

The 100 artifacts tell the story of how idols, and ideas, evolved from the “Neolithic revolution” to the Bronze age. And we see how goddesses and supreme priestesses are displaced by male deities and holy men. Sounds familiar? It should. For it coincides with the heavenly rage of Zeus and the other Greek gods against their female counterparts, and the instances of revenge by mothers, lovers and daughters against their bearded lords. Why so much fury? Around that time, men had just discovered that women were not endowed with divine powers to create life, but that it was insemination which made them pregnant. Their former goddesses had turned out to be mere humans, angry men had found out.

To modern man, the exhibit is humbling too. As Ian Tattersall, a British-American paleoanthropologist and curator emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has said, man in antiquity already had the sensibility we have today. There can be little doubt about it contemplating the statuettes at Ca’ Loredan, in their exquisite detail, harmony and refinement. And we may wonder if there has been an even more acute regression since the time the Greek deities declared war on their women. “Idols” today —like those seen on TV— are mere humans, in flesh and blood.

Idols: The Power of the Image runs through 20 January 2019. For more information: https://www.fondazioneligabue.it/it/mostre/idoli_7.html