In an arched room, its checkerboard floor strewn with parsnips, gourds, and onions, a vast cauldron bubbles over a wood fire. On a pedestal behind it, a stately old man in a broad-brimmed hat presides over a busy scene. The sickle in his hand reveals that he is the god Saturn. Men and women bring him a live pig and other offerings. To the viewer’s left, a young man blows up a pig’s bladder, making a balloon for a boy, who reaches up for it. To the right, two handsome pigs tuck into a last meal of acorns. In the center, a young blond woman in a hot red dress dreamily stirs the huge pot, strings of sausages draped across her large wooden spoon, while a young man strokes her arm and hip. Through the arches at the back, we see a fortress and bleak, leafless trees. A caption in Latin explains that these are the labors proper to the month of December, when one enjoys one’s home and newborn animals, salts one’s pigs, and even the lazy learn to work (when, as Shakespeare put it in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “roasted crabs hiss in the bowl” and “greasy Jane doth keel the pot”). It all makes a complicated and lively scene: a mixture of mythology and everyday life, a celebration of sex, rebirth, and salted meat, almost fifteen feet high and more than sixteen feet across.
In its original setting—the Milanese palace occupied by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, who captured the duchy for the French in 1499 and ruled it for several years thereafter—December was only one of twelve similar scenes: the months, portrayed in order, each of them with the appropriate ancient gods and modern activities. Like Botticelli’s Primavera and the frescoes of Francesco Cossa in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, this series was more than a calendar, though it began as that. It offered a panoramic visual encyclopedia of rural activities through the year. December‘s designer, Bramantino (Bartolomeo Suardi), laid his drama out in the same up-to-date way as the Ferrarese and Florentine painters, though he did so in the style of his Lombard homeland. He fixed the architectural frame in which he set his actors within a coherent perspectival construction, studied antiquities, and did his best to follow and reproduce the play of light and shadow over pillars, vaults, and folds of cloth. If the scene of December is unfamiliar, the world it comes from is not: it is that of high Italian art around 1500, the world of—among other canonical works—Leonardo’s Last Supper and Raphael’s School of Athens.
And yet, in another sense, December is surprising. For what the onlooker confronts here is not a fresco or a massive panel painting, but a tapestry—and one produced not in Flanders, the center of the art in the Middle Ages and after, but in the Lombard town of Vigevano. Its maker—the head of the workshop that executed Bramantino’s design—signed another panel in the same series, February, with a wonderful mock inscription in Latin capitals. Bad grammar reveals that this artisan, whose work, while remarkable and partly executed by Flemish weavers, did not reach the highest Flemish standards, wanted to claim the higher status of a painter or a sculptor: EGO BENEDITVS DE MEDIOLANI HOC OPVS FECIT CON SOCIIS SVIS IN VIGLEVANI (literally: I, Benedict of Milan, he made this work with his associates in Vigevano). In this case, in other words, the designer of a tapestry tried to endow his work with the qualities of a substantial painting, and the master weaver who carried out the plan asserted that in doing so, he was creating a unique and memorable work of art—the sort of heroic feat that ancient sculptors had commemorated by signing their statues.
All of this is unexpected. Tapestry defines our sense—as it did William Morris’s—of what the Middle Ages looked and felt like, and the world it calls up for us is one of anonymous craftsmen, not ambitious artists. The Unicorn Tapestries, with their carefully coiffed heroine and alert, intelligent-looking animals, their floral fields and heraldic images, transport us comfortably backward into an age of chivalry, when tapestries provided brilliant, decorative backgrounds for aristocratic life but did not tell powerful stories about their own creators. By contrast, December—like more than forty other Renaissance tapestries now on display with it at the Metropolitan Museum—attempts, and largely achieves, a completely different range of effects. Like a fresco or a portrait of the same period, it expresses one artist’s vision of the world, dramatically unified by subject matter and formal organization alike, and exhibits another artist’s skills and ambitions. By doing so it sets us into a completely different world of artis-tic practice—even if it shares its central goal, the glorification of a patron and the gratification of his or her tastes, with its medieval predecessors. Tapestry in the Renaissance traces the story of how Renaissance artists tried to hijack—and transform—the art of tapestry in the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Raphael and Giulio Romano joined Bramantino in making what had been sumptuous, ornate, decorative wall coverings tell coherent stories, create convincing replicas in two dimensions of the three-dimensional world, and express—and provoke—emotion. By the middle of the sixteenth century, tapestries ranked with the most ambitious artistic projects of the age that saw Michelangelo paint the Sistine ceiling and the Last Judgment.
For centuries, splendid hangings had warmed and decorated the bleak, austere walls of castles and churches. Medieval manuscript illuminations show the royals of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries receiving visitors in bedrooms swathed with deep ultramarine curtains, hangings, and bedclothes. Their evidence—which complements that of surviving tapestries, their colors often faded to a tasteful dullness that exudes a deceptive flavor of Merchant Ivory or Laura Ashley—reveals that brilliant fabrics played a central part in court life. They set the scenes against which the ceremonial life of the good and the great was staged. Kings prayed, ate, and surrendered to their enemies before walls across which hordes of knights attacked one another, their brilliant pennants flapping, while flowering trees and bushes burst forth in every imaginable color. Bright heraldic signs, colorful leaves, and bouncy rabbits kept out the cold and concealed gray stone walls—as they still do in palaces from Hampton Court to Wawel in Kraków.
By the fifteenth century, as the immense and erudite catalog for Tapestry in the Renaissance by Thomas Campbell and others explains, Flemish towns like Arras and Tournai evolved, one after another, into centers of production. Their weavers turned out huge and splendid hangings, brilliant with thread made of silk and sometimes wrapped with gilt metal, by the yard. Tapestry production—like other forms of cloth manufacture—never turned into an industry in the modern sense. It remained the province of individual weavers, women as well as men, who patiently pushed weft threads through the fabric stretched out on a low-warp frame, following the detailed cartoons provided them by designers. When doing work of the highest quality, one weaver could turn out no more than 50 to 70 square centimeters in a month. A tapestry as large as December could take several of them a year to make—clear evidence, as Guido Bentivoglio observed in 1610, that tapestry really was the appropriate art for a phlegmatic race like the Flemings.
Despite the practical difficulties and high costs, tapestry production expanded explosively in the later Middle Ages. The princes of Burgundy, whose court provided the model for rulers throughout Western Europe, the Valois kings of France, the kings of England, and others ordered their tapestries in series: a castle’s worth of monumental figurative works at a time, depicting, for example, the heroes of the Trojan War, or the Nine Worthies, three pagan, three Jewish, and three Christian, or scenes from the Old or New Testament, or the lives of saints. Tapestries became the vast and vivid embodiments of the virtues that rulers claimed to practice, and hoped their subjects would detect in them—propaganda in supple, sumptuous cloth. Any northern prince or aristocrat expected to find his fellow grandees in rooms not just large in scale but swathed in fabrics rich with ultramarine dye and golden thread—hence the dismay expressed by Archbishop Stephen Gardiner when he saw Pope Clement VII, exiled to Orvieto after the Sack of Rome in 1527, receiving visitors in “chambers all naked and unhanged.”
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Italian families, using the brutal techniques that Machiavelli described in The Prince, made themselves lords of cities and took high positions in the church. The Este of Ferrara, the Gonzaga of Mantua, the Sforza of Milan, and the Malatesta of Rimini built or rebuilt grim, lowering palaces to maintain themselves in power against the envy of their subjects and the cannon of their political rivals. Though not princes in the formal sense, the Medici, Rucellai, and Pazzi reared equally vast city palaces for themselves in Florence, and developed as great a need as any king for hangings to soften the walls of their immense family apartments. Popes and great cardinals built new palaces with immense walls to decorate on the same scale in Rome.
Like the older established nobility of the North, Italian grandees turned to tapestry for warmth, real and virtual. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the Este, the Medici, and others had agents in Flanders buying fine tapestries, literally, by the dozen. They had also begun to invite Flemish tapestry makers—as they invited Flemish musicians and German gun founders, printers, and clockmakers—to settle in Italy and create workshops there. By 1462, when the marquis of Mantua and his son visited Ferrara, their secretary, Giorgio della Strada, described what they all saw in revealing terms:
The bedchamber and wardrobe of my illustrious Lord is hung with the most beautiful tapestries. In the bedchamber there is a set that the marquis Leonello purchased that is made with certain stories of Hercules, all in tapestry, and those who understand this art say that these are most worthy. The tapestries in the wardrobe were made in Ferrara with his [Este] device held up by angels. In truth, they could not be more beautiful or more sumptuous.
Della Strada’s letter evokes a world in which self-proclaimed experts—“those who understand this art”—enjoyed passing judgment on the connoisseurship, the informed consumerism, of their masters in the realm of wall hangings—just as other experts similarly enjoyed passing judgment on sculptures and paintings. Evidently, tapestry mattered, and the true patron of the arts had to know where to buy it ready-made and how to encourage its manufacture in his own domains. Leonello clearly passed muster, both when he shopped retail and when he had tapestries made to measure.
Yet the marriage between the established art and craft of tapestry and the new aesthetics of the Renaissance princes could not be consummated without effort—both intellectual and artistic. When Leonello d’Este collected books, he invested in the most up-to-date products of humanistic learning and Florentine book production. For preference, he bought and read the handsome three-volume manuscripts of Livy’s histories of Rome, decorated on their opening pages with interlaced vine leaves and tiny miniatures, that the Florentine book dealer Vespasiano da Bisticci had made fashionable.