The series of the twelve "Months" is the most illustrious cycle of tapestries in the Museum. Each tapestry, woven in wool and silk, is dedicated to a month of the year, for which it shows the human labours typical of the month, the fruits, the vegetation and the weather. In each representation there is a didactic text describing the characteristics of that month and of the relative zodiac sign, placed in the upper right corner of each tapestry.
This tapestry cycle was made at the beginning of the sixteenth century, commissioned by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio known as Il Magno (Milan, ca. 1440 - Chartres, 1518) - Marshal of France and Marquis of Vigevano - in a factory set up in Vigevano and directed by the tapestry maker Benedetto da Milano. The preparatory cartoons are attributed to Bartolomeo Suardi known as Bramantino and, from an iconographic point of view, refer to a late mediaeval conception of the illustrated calendar, updated with the inclusion of classical and Renaissance elements.
The tapestries remained the property of the Trivulzio family until they were purchased by the Civic Collections in 1935.
The coherence of the twelve scenes and the recurring iconographic elements (the decorated border, the coat-of-arms of Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, the Sun, the zodiacal signs) confirm the unitary origin of the series, which derives from the invention of a single artist. The Trivulzio series of Months was also designed to be displayed in a single room, as if to form a continuous frieze, in counter-clockwise order. The direction is indicated by the gesture with which the figures at the centre of each tapestry point to the Sun in the upper left corner.
Today the group of tapestries is exhibited in the Sala della Balla of the Museum, displayed in such a way that they can be read together and continuously.
The border consists of a continuous frieze of hexagons and in the corners and at the centre of each side is the shield of Gian Giacomo Trivulzio with its green and gold vertical bands. The representation of agricultural work was important to Trivulzio, both for his personal interest in agriculture, but also to affirm a celebratory symbolism inspired by the Latin classics. Exalting rural practices underlined his commitment to peace, as opposed to the abandonment of the fields, synonymous of war. The tapestries thus appear as a political celebration of Trivulzio, bearer and protector of peace in Lombardy so that country folk might devote themselves to the work of the fields, to feast days and ceremonies.
The tapestry for February bears the signature of the maker: «I, Benedetto da Milano. made this work with his colleagues, in Vigevano». The zodiac sign of Pisces is shown in the top right corner.
The scene is set in an architraved room that opens onto a bare winter landscape with a tree, a castle and some mountains. The figure of the month is an elderly bearded character who, from upon a pedestal, pours water from a pitcher and points to the Sun. In the scene we see some masked people, on the right, some naked characters and others half-covered by mantles. One of these holds a torch, as a sign of sacred offering. The caption of the month appears in the foreground: «January [sic!] spreads the manure on the fields, sets fire to the stubble, fertilises the kitchen gardens, leads the dances» («PER PRATA PINGVE DISTR [A] HIT / IGNI PABVLUM DAT. / HORTOS STERCORATVR./ CHOREAS DVCIT IANVARIVS »). The caption indicates this month as "January" and mentions the Carnival dances, depicted in the previous tapestry. This might arouse suspicions of overlap or inversion between the figures of "January" and "February", but the zodiac sign of Pisces attests that this is actually the illustration of "February". Therefore it is probable that one of the tapestry makers has made an error in the words of the cartouche and that Bramantino brought the Carnival scene forward to the previous month to describe instead, in this tapestry, the purifying rites that ancient sources associate with February. The figure in the centre is an allegorical personification of Humidity or Rain: it is likely that Bramantino was inspired by classical literary suggestions and reinterpreted the most traditional illustration of the month, which consists of a male figure warming himself by the fireplace. This would also justify the naked figures and torches and it is therefore almost certain that Bramantino referred to the purifying rites that the ancient Romans performed in these months, in honour of the goddess Februa. February is seen as a bridge between the spiritual death of winter and the purifying rebirth of springtime. The masked figures are some of the participants in Carnival illustrated in the previous tapestry (remember that the series was conceived to be hung in an anti-clockwise direction) - they have just arrived at the purifying rite and are about to free themselves of clothes to take part in the ritual. The water falling from the vase alludes to the “rebirth of baptism”. The harmonious poses of the naked men seen from behind are admirable, attesting to an evolution by Bramantino in the classical sense.