One of Italy’s most picturesque islands, sleepy yet stunning Levanzo has just one tourist attraction: a fascinating collection of prehistoric graffiti.
From glamorous Mykonos to star-studded Capri, the Mediterranean is home to some of the most famously party-loving islands in the world.
Which may be why, for a long time, I had little to no interest in them.
Perhaps I’m just a pretentious travel snob (or a boring nerd?), but any island best known for Instagrammable all-inclusive resorts, wild party scenes, and poolside tropical cocktails is just not my idea of an interesting destination. I’m not really one for nightlife of the pumping/‘off the hook’/*insert term used by the cool kids these days, God I’m so anti-social* variety.
Yeah, recent reports indicate that this might make me a slightly unusual twenty-something Westerner. This is why I had to scrap my initial introduction to this article: ‘Levanzo has everything you’d hope for in a Mediterranean island,’ I’d breathlessly written.
Uh… Nope. Plenty would disagree.
On Levanzo there are no Ibiza-worthy ‘jumping’ clubs (again, struggling with the normal-people slang here), no Insta-famous panoramas a la Santorini… Not even a souvenir shop. With a population of about 200 and just 5.82 km2 to its name, Levanzo is small, quiet, and only has one real tourist attraction. Many wouldn’t see the point of coming to a place like this.
Eh. Their loss.
As for that one drawcard? That would be a collection of fascinating, mildly bizarre prehistoric graffiti. It tells a real story: an epic, large-scale story of the cultural evolution of homo sapiens.
If, like me, you’re not quite the Ibiza type, let me take you to a very different kind of island.
Beneath a rocky outcrop, whitewashed square homes with accents of royal blue overlook the sea. Which, now that you mention it, has such clear waters — in turquoise, teal and indigo — you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the Caribbean. A few dozen local fishing boats hover lackadaisically around the port.
Flashes of fuschia, white and magenta, in the form of fragrant petunias, line the seaside walkway. Yeah, you get it: the aesthetics are on point. So much so you’ll be looking out for the art director for the photo shoot you must have, surely, stumbled upon.
The occasional vespa and bike, propped up wherever they please, perfect the prototypically coastal Italian mise-en-scène. And while you won’t see many cars around, you may well come across a jeep or two, and even some mules.
That’s because, beyond the one and only village of Cala Dogana you’ve just more or less taken in, this tiny island has more than its fair share of wide, open spaces. Scenic hiking trails and secluded rocky coves ripe for swimming seem to beckon you by name.
What you won’t find on sleepy Levanzo is the influx of tourists that flock to the more popular islands of Greece and southern Italy. After all, for the time being, it has only a few basic shops, four restaurants, zero banks, and so few lodgings you could count them on your own two hands.
A long-overlooked Mediterranean island?
So just where is this Mediterranean island so mystically nailing the beauty-to-tourism-numbers ratio? Levanzo is the smallest and rockiest of the Aegadian Islands, which are positioned like little stepping stones off Sicily’s northwest coast.
Though for now at least this archipelago remains largely off the Anglophone tourist’s radar (by Italy’s standards, at least), it saw some pretty epic action in centuries gone by. This was no doubt a consequence of these isles’ strategically valuable setting nearby the repeatedly-and-I-mean-repeatedly-invaded island of Sicily. That and their bountiful local tuna reserves.
Everyone had a go at the Aegadian Islands — it’s a bit like a rollcall, really. There were the Saracens, Vandals, Normans, Goths, Spaniards (for more than 400 years), some Genovese bankers, and a wealthy family of tuna magnates. (I wasn’t kidding about the tuna.)
Earlier still, the main island of the chain, Favignana, is believed to have made an appearance in Homer’s Odyssey as ‘Goat’s Island’.
And it was around these parts that, in 241 BC, the ancient Romans defeated the Carthaginian fleet and wrapped up the colossal 23-year clash that was the First Punic War. This then kicked off Rome’s annexation of Sicily as its first permanent province (read: imperial conquest). Ancient history in the making.
But ancient Rome seems almost modern by the standards of Levanzo’s prime, albeit hidden, attraction: an artistic record of a time so unfathomably far gone that it predates Levanzo even being an island.
A rocky ride and a zigzag path
Quick heads-up, though: so precious are these prehistoric remnants that the cave in which they’re housed, the Grotta del Genovese, is only accessible on pre-booked tours. (And do warn them in advance that you’ll want a tour in English unlike d*ckhead over here [yours truly] — l’inglese isn’t a given.)
If you choose to go by land, buckle up. You’ll be whisked away into a rickety jeep for a bumpy ride across dirt mule tracks. En route northeast, you’ll pass dusty copper hills, dry stone walls, and old farmhouses. There are pine forests and greenery to be found further afield, but much of the heartland looks arid from your car window.
Eventually the driver pulls up at a seemingly random stretch of rocky track. The only hint of what lies beyond is a no-frills red sign bearing the words Grotta del Genovese, with an arrow pointing towards the sea.
Following the path on its steep zigzag descent towards the ocean, you pass rugged coastal heath and hear the caws of seagulls.
After a good few hundred metres you come to a large protrusion of limestone, all gnarled and weathered with age, overlooking the sea. This is the entrance — the pre-cave, if you will. You’re nearly there. Beyond lies the Grotta or, as one local lyrically put it (originally in Italian): ‘an open door to the depths of time’.
When it’s your turn to creep through, duck. Next comes a narrow tunnel; you’ll have to crouch-walk your way in to avoid an overhanging chunk of cave wall to the right. Go on, closer, and mind your head…
Levanzo’s prehistoric treasure
Entering the dim, shadowy central chamber of the cave, you pause and take in the quiet, your eyes scanning the rocky surfaces for the reason you came.
And there they are: crude black markings scattered on the ancient cave walls around you. These are the workings of a prehistoric human hand or two (or more…). (And no, before you ask, photos aren’t permitted.)
Naturally, your eyes are first drawn to the paintings. Dating from the late Neolithic, 5–6,000 years ago, these 100 or so primitive artworks depict various animal, fish and humanoid figures.
‘Art’ seems, well, maybe a little strong a word. Some are just random blotches; others recognisably human but with limbs protruding in weirdly stiff right angles. All in all many sort of look like the bumbling scribblings of a preschooler — the kind they’d proudly show off, only for you to feign admiration at their budding artistic talent (or, just quietly, lack thereof). Good thing then that you came for the staggering historical and geological record these pictures represent rather than the aesthetics.
The drawings of men are straightforward: most have thin, elongated torsos, with crappily drawn arms and legs. The ‘female’ figures, however, are depicted largely without limbs, and in an intensely exaggerated hourglass shape. Experts reckon they may in fact be fertility symbols or representations of a mother cult divinity rather than depictions of actual women.
But perhaps more interesting are the animals. Twenty-nine in total were painted in a mixture of ochre, charcoal and animal fats.
Fauna, fish and fertility: What the rock art reveals
The marine creatures are the most easily recognisable of the lot. They include what seem to be a dolphin and, fittingly given the Aegadian Islands’ major export millennia later, tuna. These are among the earliest known depictions of fish in Europe.
As for the land animals, it’s harder to say. It’s like they form a Rorschach test stretching across the millennia, up for interpretation by any onlooker.
Take the biggest of the lot: a huge bovine-looking creature attached to one of the hourglass ‘women’ shapes. Is it a massive pig, boar, bison, cow or, more creatively (yet anachronistically), an elephant?!
Others have been tentatively identified as wild pigs, deer, horses and a donkey. You might notice one that kind of looks like a little dog staring up at his owner — but then, looking at such ancient sketches with 21st-century eyes, you may well be projecting.
So what could they mean? Noting the frequent associations of caves like this with burial and death, archaeologist Robert Leighton pondered the possible ritual significance of these drawings:
Darkness and secrecy are pervasive in this context. Despite the odd animal figure, there is no implication of a real scene or place being shown. The anthropomorphic figures seem to be evolving out of a human identity, perhaps towards reincarnation as animals, giving the impression of a transition to ‘another’ world, or a rite of passage. They may represent spirits or ancestors.
Whatever the meaning — we may never know for sure — look out for the red ones, such as one reddish-brown guy hovering above a fold in the cave wall, seemingly on his lonesome. He’s actually a fair bit older than his black counterparts. He’s probably Paleolithic.
That’s what’s so fascinating about Levanzo’s rock art: it comprises etchings by prehistoric humans from not one but two different eras, archaeologically speaking.
So, once you’ve taken your fill of Neolithic remnants, thank you very much, lean in a little closer and look out for some even more ancient artworks.
The next lot — roughly 30 engravings carved into the cave walls — will take you back to the Late Palaeolithic. We’re talking some 11–12,000 years ago. These ones are more intricate and harder to make out; you’ll be grateful for the tour guide on hand.
Like the later Neolithic paintings, these Paleolithic artworks also depict animals, but there are key differences. These earlier works are far more naturalistic than the stylistic (if crude) Neolithic ones, for one thing. But the wildlife is also depicted in a different context: there is a running bull, a deer, a horse and a mystery creature, arranged in a scene that some have interpreted as a hunt.
After all, being from the Late Palaeolithic era, these artists would have been hunter-gatherers. It was a time of intense climate change, of shrinking glaciers and transforming ecosystems; it’s believed that by this time locals here on the Aegadian Islands had only recently begun to gather shellfish. By the time the later black Neolithic paintings were splotched on these same cave walls millennia later, humans in this part of the world had learned how to domesticate animals and cultivate plants; agriculture had become all the rage in southern Europe. Those later artworks were the work of farmers — evidence of massive social and cultural evolution between the two epochs. (Read a breakdown of the contrasts and developments between the two eras here.)
What’s more, the island itself also saw great change during this time. For one thing, when the Palaeolithic artists were at work carving their etchings on the walls here, Levanzo was not an island at all; it was still linked to the Sicilian ‘mainland’. In the thousands of years between the two lots of rock art, the sea came to swallow the land bridge that connected Levanzo to Sicily (shrinking glaciers mean rising sea levels, after all). And so it became an island.
Amid such massive geological and cultural changes spanning thousands of years and several archaeological eras, this seemingly unlikely dark, little cave chamber remained a place of art and ritual.
Rock art re-discovered
And so, for millennia, the artworks were hidden away in this cavern. Local fishermen and peasants (and even rabbits) had in fact used the pre-cave as a place of refuge during storms, but this inner chamber of the cave had remained unexplored.
It was an artist from Florence, Francesca Minellono, who re-discovered the pictures on the walls in 1949. Hearing of a small cave popular among rabbits while on holiday in Levanzo, she convinced some local fishermen to show her and crawled into the cave headfirst to explore. Imagine the awe she must have felt at finding these prehistoric graffiti tucked away among the rabbits’ cave.
The secret was out: one of Italy’s richest collections of prehistoric artworks was on the map. The rest, as they say, is history.
And so your time here comes to an end. Back out you go — out of the cave, in the jeep and across Levanzo to pretty Cala Dogana and its surrounding pristine swimming spots. Back to the twenty-first century.
But as you wander along the hilly paths and swim in the deliciously blue waters, cast your mind back to the island’s deepest, darkest corner. And to the people of millennia ago who left their mark here for posterity — some before this was even an island proper. What would it have looked like to these people of 6,000 years ago, 12,000 years ago? And what might it be like in the millennia to come?
Yeah, Levanzo might not be everyone’s ideal Mediterranean island. But I kind of hope it stays that way. It definitely ticks all my boxes.