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…
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