Sometimes what appears to be a rough line hides many more complications than the most refined of pictorial techniques. This is what happens with the creation of replicas of prehistoric caves so that the public can access these mysterious works of the past without putting their conservation at risk. The workshop on the outskirts of Toulouse where the cave paintings of the submerged cave of Cosquer are reproduced, whose replica will be inaugurated in Marseille next year, is an example of the great complexity that such a project implies, of which there are only a few precedents in the world, such as Lascaux, also in France, or Altamira in Spain. Raw materials used tens of thousands of years ago are mixed in these offices where a controlled chaos reigns with the latest technologies created by man. All this with a single purpose: to get the citizen of the XXI century to see, and above all feel, what his ancestor homo sapiens he saw and felt when, some 30,000 years ago, he was compelled to portray his world on the walls of dark, damp caves.
Photogallery | Paint like in the Paleolithic
Some on his team call him a “magician.” Smiling, Gilles Tosello says that he prefers to consider himself a “cave artist”. From the strong but delicate hands of this 64-year-old French graduate in graphic arts and prehistory doctor, facsimiles have come out such as the famous panel of the lions in the Chauvet cave, whose spectacular original paintings were made shortly after the arrival of the homo sapiens to the European continent, about 36,000 years ago. His new project is, if possible, even more challenging: to reproduce, together with a small team, the more than 500 paintings and engravings by Cosquer, where at least two periods have been established, 33,000 and 19,000 years ago.
Tosello has been breeding bison or horses for several months now, as he did in Chauvet. But now he also faces the challenge of acting as a “copyist” of much more unusual rock representations, such as the penguins, seals or even jellyfish that decorate the original partially submerged cave of Cosquer – the rise in water levels due to climate change threatens its future – and almost impossible to access, where handprints and even representations of sexual symbols have also been found.
For Tosello, the most magical moment of a sometimes “tiring” process It is when the ensemble begins to “tilt” and what is called the “credibility of the rock” is born, in which the representations made on a resin panel could be confused with the authentic ones.
And although he is only satisfied when, as happened in Chauvet, a visitor tells him that he has managed to convey the “soul” of cave painting, he assures that to get there it is important to “put aside emotion”. “You don’t have to try to get into the prehistoric painter’s skin, because if not, your imagination wins. You have to keep a certain distance to analyze everything with more reason than passion ”, warns this passionate of prehistory who was attracted by“ the mystery of the eternal ”of rock art since a teacher took him to Altamira.
If the challenge of reproducing a prehistoric cave is already enormous, in Cosquer’s case it is even more so for one reason: neither Tosello nor any of the many responsible for creating the replica – two other workshops are working on it, one in Paris and another in the Dordogne — have never set foot in Cosquer. The grotto, located in the calanque Triperie (cove), near Cassis, east of Marseille, was discovered by chance by professional diver Henri Cosquer in 1985, although it was not declared until six years later. Its access is almost impossible: the entrance is 37 meters deep in the sea and to get to the cave you have to go through a narrow underwater tunnel of 175 meters.
“The great difficulty in reproducing the cave is that we cannot go to see it, so we needed a model. That is why we have virtually rebuilt it ”, explains Laurent Delbos, head of the Cosquer mission of the Kléber Rossillon company, in charge of managing the Cosquer replica by mandate of the government of the South-Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, which co-finances the project. of 23 million euros. It is estimated that it will receive up to half a million visitors annually.
All the work rests on the 344 laser photographs taken by a team of specialists, the only ones who, since the project began 14 months ago, have entered the cave. From these 360-degree images, the cave has been digitally reconstructed.
They will also be key to recompose the final work. Because the difficulties continue. Unlike Altamira or Lascaux, the building that will house the new Cosquer, Villa Mediterranée, a modern building located at the entrance to the old port of Marseille and designed by the Italian architect Stefano Boeri, it has not been built around the replica, but already existed, so the grotto had to be adapted to the available space, and not the other way around. And this one is smaller than the original cave: this has made it necessary to reduce the scale of the reproduction slightly – to 0.96-1 instead of 1-1 – and remove about 200 original square meters. The “new” Cosquer will have 1,800 square meters, when the real one has 3,500.
In order for everything to fit together without losing an iota of authenticity, the original grotto had to be virtually divided and recomposed into five rooms arranged in such a way that they fit into the basement of the Villa Mediterranée, where the visitor will move on some innovative revolving platforms along a route that simulates the flooded parts of the cave. Delbos uses a graphic example to simplify a process of extreme complexity. “It is as if we had to reproduce a house with a room, a living room and a bathroom,” he explains. “We have kept the room, the living room and the bathroom, but instead of putting the room next to the living room, it will be next to the bathroom, because the configuration of the building did not allow us to do it any other way.” This fix will not affect, he emphasizes, the fidelity of the replica. “We have maintained the integrity of each room, we go from piece to piece as would be done in the original cave, only that the pieces are not positioned relative to each other in the same way,” he says.
Both Delbos and Tosello are confident that everything will fit together and the result will be as or more spectacular than in Chauvet. “The important thing is not that it is a perfect replica, but that when we are inside it, we have the impression of being in the authentic cave”, Delbos emphasizes. “And that they feel the same emotions” as if they were underwater in Cosquer, says Tosello. The acid test will come with the inauguration of Cosquer 2, in June 2022.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.