The twelve Tapestries of the Months made by Bramantino, a real rarity in the history of tapestry.
In each tapestry, the sun is shown in the top-left corner.
While it is deep red for the months of March and April, its appearance varies over the following months, characterised by halos of differing colours to indicate the varying intensity of the heat emanating from it.
The zodiac sign of the month in question appears in the top right of each tapestry. All the depictions derive from the woodcuts in the 1482 edition of "Poeticon Astronomicon" printed in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt. This text, one of the oldest known works on astronomy and astrology, was written by Hyginus, a Roman author who lived during the first century AD. The only exception is the Aries of March, which is based on another model.
At the base of the image, in the centre, four faces with puffed out cheeks peep out from the ground, blowing hard; they represent the four winds. March is indeed considered the windiest month of the year.
The central foreground at the bottom of the picture is populated by a vast variety of wild flowers, including primroses, bellflowers and violets. Just below the inscription dedicated to the month, a young man offers up a basin overflowing with roses.
Small creatures including wild hares and bunnies emerge from their lairs to frolic here and there. This overabundance of flowers and animals alludes to the fertility of a month when Venus dominates.
In the background, on both the left and the right, trees with anthropomorphic forms can be seen: hedges (probably box) pruned in the shape of people.
These are evidence of Ars Topiaria, the practice of pruning trees and shrubs into ornamental forms, which was very popular in the gardens of Renaissance villas in the late 15th century.
The personification of May is represented here as a young king seated on a throne, wearing the armour of a warrior and with a golden crown atop his head. According to a widespread French tradition, May was believed to be the king of months.
He holds a sceptre topped by a ferrule in his right hand, while his right foot rests on a globe.
Two young men wearing socks in inverted colours are sitting on the ground in front of the throne platform: they hold branches laden with cherries in their hands, while a container full of this fruit lies between them. The extensive presence of cherries, peaches and fruit trees laden with leaves and fruit can be traced back to the tradition of the feast of Calendimaggio, linked to Spring and love.
IIn the foreground, a variety of agricultural tools including rakes, spades, shovels and pitchforks can be seen arranged in a neat perspective grid, alluding to the first sowing of seeds and cutting of lawns.
The summer months are mainly dedicated to the harvest.
In the bottom left, in addition to a ladle whose shadow falls on the stone of the pedestal on which it rests, there are also two metal buckets full of milk, a bundle, a stack of five bowls and nine wooden spoons for the workers' breakfast.
Those who cut the hay did in fact receive remuneration, which included food.
In the foreground on the right, a man in red robes is busy cutting the grass: he has a goitre, a swelling that develops due to dietary deficiencies and was once widespread among the poorer classes, who followed an almost exclusively cereal-based diet.
The July tapestry shows the men lined up on the threshing floor, busy threshing the grain to separate it from the husks.
Great care was taken to depict the tools used in an accurate manner.
The scene takes place in the courtyard of a farmhouse that is monumental in size, reminsicent of a fortification. Two dovecote towers loom on the left and right; three birds have taken up residence in the right-hand tower.
The foreground is taken up, from left to right, by an enormous quantity and variety of typical summer fruits, including melons, courgettes, grapes, figs and plums.
On the right of the scene, a young man sits, building a wine barrel with a plane and crooks.
His feet are resting on a keg, surrounded by several barrel circles of various sizes with long, arrow-headed tongues.
The left side of the image is given over to a scene taking place around a table. On the tablecloth lie the messy remains of a frugal meal of bread, wine and melons (the latter were considered a useful remedy against the heat).
A half-naked young man stands, drinking from a clay pot.
Just behind him, a bearded figure, also standing, holds a broken flask in his left hand; wine pours from it, soaking the back of a man asleep at the table. Rarely has such an effective depiction of the devastating effects of heat been seen in Italian art: drowsiness, irascibility and indolence.
In the background, on the right side of the square, pairs of oxen accompanied by their herders are arranged around a rectangular well.
What appears to be freshly threshed millet is piled at the back and trampled under their hooves. Following the depiction of barley in June and wheat in July, the presence of this cereal indicates a specific focus on real-world activities and provides us with valuable information on the crops used in Lombardy at the beginning of the 16th century.
September is depicted as a naked young man wearing red sandals. His head is encircled by bunches of grapes, while a vine shoot with leaves, vine leaves and bunches is wrapped around his waist. His left hand points towards the sun, while his right holds another bunch of grapes.
The appearance and attributes of September here recall those of Bacchus, the ancient god of wine.
Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, who commissioned the tapestries, is depicted in the bottom-right corner. He is holding a falcon, a symbol of hunting.
Opposite him, on the left, sits his wife Beatrice d'Avalos.
In the top right at the back, we see a basin and a naked man washing must off himself; the freshly pressed must has partially stained his arms and legs.
October is represented as a farm steward and, in accordance with Renaissance tradition, we can see two illegible notes in the brim of his hat.
In the background, trees stripped of their leaves can be glimpsed through the recesses at either side of the complex, monumental architecture, indicating with extreme realism that October is the first month of autumn.
Four baskets full of fruit lie on the colourful chequered floor: in the detail, pears and quince can be seen on the right, with carrots and turnips on the left. The depiction of the basket handles, positioned in such a way as to give an idea of the depth of the perspective, is proof of the artist's skill.
The two zodiac signs of Libra and Scorpio are combined in the months of September and October; this is in line with the classical depiction that appears in the 15th-century edition of Hyginus' Astronomicon.
November is a man with an exaggerated expression and a coarse manner. He is wearing heavy clothes and is wrapped in a large cloak, with his feet resting on a bench in front of him.
His outstretched right leg reveals the sole of his shoe; even the white stitching can be glimpsed.
In the middle ground at the centre of the tapestry, the symmetrical figures of a woman and a man carry various kinds of fine shoes as groups of children gambol around them. Winter is coming, and as temperatures fall, heavier shoes need to be worn.
Some of the figures are still barefoot or wearing simple sandals here, but later, in December, all the characters have donned shoes.
In the foreground, just above the inscription dedicated to the month of November, a copper cauldron full of light polenta can be seen, harking back to the three cereals harvested in the previous months of June (barley), July (wheat) and August (millet).
On the left of the scene, a group of men is hard at work producing farming tools for the new season; in the background, pitchforks have just been stretched out on a wooden frame to bend them into the typical three-pronged shape.
December is a bearded old man with a wide-brimmed hat and a sickle in his left hand. He is wearing the typical garments of Saturn, and this connection is confirmed by his bound feet: an iconographic detail specific to the ancient god. The whole scene has a pronounced ritual and sacrificial feel, as if to evoke aspects of the ancient Saturnalia, the festival celebrated from 17th to 23rd December in honour of the god of sowing.
In northern Italy, December is the month when pigs are slaughtered, from which derive many products. In the detail, you can see the first freshly made sausages.
On the far right of the scene, seen from behind, a swineherd holds a club that he will use to stun the two pigs at his feet before killing them. In keeping with his inspiration, however, Bramantino omits any violent details.
On the left, a man can be seen blowing into a pig's bladder to inflate it like a balloon for the child whose arms are outstretched towards him.
Farming tools can be spotted lying on the floor in the foreground to the right of the scene, recalling how the fields rest over winter.
On the left of the scene, meanwhile, a carnivalesque celebration is taking place: a woman in a niqab dances with other figures, also dressed in an Oriental fashion, to the sound of the zampogna (an Italian bagpipe, probably playing Moorish melodies here).
On the right in the background, two young men are dancing on a sheet of ice.
The windswept hair of the youth on the left gives a sense of their movement.
The month of January has two faces: an old, bearded face that looks back and a young one that looks forward. This is a personification of the Roman god Janus, alluding to the old year making way for the new.
On the left in the foreground, we can see huge torches being made.
A seated man is busy chipping away at the trunk, making incisions into which wedges will be inserted to space out the wood so that it burns better.
On the right of the scene, there is a group of women all dressed very differently. One of them is wearing a mask dotted with holes: this rigid grid is slotted inside a veil, almost like a burka. The symbolism of this scene has never been explained.
On the pillar in the top right, a Latin inscription features the signature of the person responsible for weaving the cycle of the months, along with the place in which the work was done: "It was I, Benedetto da Milano, who did this work with my collaborators in Vigevano".