This magnificent tapestry forms part of the celebrated Medallion Months, of which three partial and slightly varying sets are known. The most famous and historically only traceable set is that which can be identified as having been owned by the Imperial Admiral Andrea Doria. Many of the individual tapestries of the set are believed to remain in the hands of various descendants of the Doria family. All pieces of another set, possibly that which in 1531 was owned by Cardinal Erard de la Marck, are in various museums, including two in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, two in The Art Institute of Chicago, and one each in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, Washington and The Minneapolis Institute of Art. The iconography of that set is more complex; The oval surrounding the main scene represents the 24 hours of the day with shadings of the background indicating the daylight and night hours of the day for each month, while all twelve Zodiac signs divided by maidens holding hourglasses are included. From the third set only one panel depicting April, which is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is known.
Each of the twelve tapestries of The Medallion Months represents a month with its occupation. Until recently only eight subjects were traceable, December being one of which scholars knew no surviving example.
The Medallion Months set was probably only the second series of tapestries that devoted a full tapestry to each month, the first one being the Italian Trivulzio Months in the Museo d'Arte Applicate in Milan (N. Forti Grazzini, Museo d'Arte Applicate, Milan, 1984, cats. 31 - 42, pp. 50 - 67). This latter set was designed by Bramantino and woven by Benedetto da Milano for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio between 1504 - 1512.
The Medallion Months series, on the other hand, was designed in Brussels in the mid-1520s, while the omission of a weaver's and town mark in the outer slip of all the surviving examples indicate that they were almost certainly finished before 1528 when these marks were required by the guild.
Initially it was believed that the Doria set was the editio princeps because it was woven more finely and because of its owner's fame. More recently, however, the set of which six panels are divided between various museums, is believed to be the original commission because of the more complex iconography of the oval medallion band and more specific symbolism. This may well be the case since Doria would have had his set made to fit specific areas of his palace. The Doria set is 60 cm. lower in height, which made it necessary to make the medallion band circular rather than oval. This reduction further required that the smaller cherubs' heads replace the Hours and zodiac. The more expensive quality of the weave for the Doria tapestry was almost certainly a specific request by the patron.
Although it has not been possible to trace the designer of the set, it is probable that he is from the same workshop as the designer of The Twelve Ages of Man (E. Standen, European Post-Medieval Tapestries and Related Hangings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985, vol. I, cat. 2, pp. 24 - 44). The set is further related to The Months and The Seasons of Lucas (Standen, op. cit., cats. 50 and 49, pp. 331 - 360 and 322 - 330, respectively). Interesting comparisons can also be drawn to the series The Triumph of the Seven Virtues, and in particular to The Triumph of Hope of which one example survives at the Musée de Cluny, Paris, one in the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, and another in the Moscow Fine Arts Museum (Acts of the Tapestry Symposium, G. Souchal, The Triumph of the Seven Virtues: Reconstruction of a Brussels Series (ca. 1520 - 1535), San Francisco, 1979, pp. 114 and 110, respectively). The most obvious comparison is the use of the personifications of the winds such as in the December tapestry, but also the open placement of the figures and the drawing of the individuals. That series, consisting of seven panels was woven both shortly before and after 16 May 1528, when the Brussels town mark was decreed obligatory by the city. Souchal believes that the set was conceived between 1520 and 1525, approximately at the same time as December. She notes the use of a largely Gothic style with a tentative inclusion of Renaissance imagery for the Virtues, while the Medallion Months display a more 'modern' style, possibly accounting for the few years difference in conception. Raphael's Acts of the Apostles, which were woven in Brussels for Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel between 1516 and 1519, initiated the gradual change to the Italianate High Renaissance style in the weaving centres of the north.
The wealth of esoteric, astrological and mythological detail indicates the involvement of a learned scholar in dictating the elements of the design. It is further probable that the patron was not from Brussels since some of the names are spelt incorrectly, making it probable that the names were transcribed with mistakes.
Bernard van Orley, the leader in design trends in Brussels at the time, is frequently mentioned in conjunction with the sophisticated designs of this set. Like other works of his, these tapestries combine the Italian Renaissance influence with the northern Gothic tradition. The style, however, varies slightly indicating that the cartoons were almost certainly drawn by an artist from van Orley's circle or someone who had access to the same sources. It is interesting to note that the intricate borders, which are the same on all three sets of this series, bear close resemblance with tapestries that are acknowledged to be after his designs.
(C. Adelson, European Tapestry in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, 1994, cat. 7, pp. 78 - 91, and Standen, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 45 - 53).
Each tapestry of the series has a central medallion depicting the god associated with the month and typical occupations for that part of the year. Outside the medallion are other ancient deities and further scenes of domestic activity. The central scene of December depicts the crowned 'Folus'. It is probable that the name is incorrectly transcribed by the painter of the cartoons and should represent the god 'Aeolus' who controls the winds. He is enthroned above a group of peasants slaughtering a swine, which is the traditional labour for the Month of December, and a courtly couple with children before them. The left upper spandrel is occupied by 'Aquilon', the god of the North Winds, while the scenes to the lower spandrels depict an owl, symbol of solitude, wisdom and darkness, being used by hunters to attract other birds who fall into their traps. The snails to the top corners of the border may represent the slow passing of time.
Andrea Doria and the tapestries:
The Doria family, an old feudal family, was established in Genoa as early as the 13th Century and owned numerous houses in the surrounding areas, but no large holdings in Genoa itself. Andrea Doria (1466 - 1560) was orphaned at an early age and became a soldier of fortune. He first served Pope Innocent VIII, then Kings Ferdinand I and his son Alfonso II of Naples. He outfitted eight galleys and patrolled the Mediterranean against the Ottoman Turks and the Barbary pirates, increasing his fortune and fame. Doria bought houses and land in Fassolo (now part of Genoa) starting in 1521. Not even a year later Doria had to flee into exile when the Spanish under Charles V sacked the city. In 1525 he was entrusted with the command of the Papal fleet under Clement VII and the following year with that of the French fleet under François I. When in August 1527 the French re-conquered Genoa from the Spanish, Doria returned, now married to Peretta Usodimare Cibo, 10 years the widow of Alfonso I del Carretto and niece of Pope Innocent VIII. He commenced the renovations at his palace immediately with Perin del Vaga hired as 'direttore artistico'. When in September 1528 his pact with the French King expired and François I did not fulfill his promises to Doria nor to Genoa, Doria switched allegiance to the Spanish side and occupied the city for them. Charles V bestowed riches and honours upon him, naming him grand admiral of the Imperial fleet and Prince of Melfi. Genoa was granted status as an independent Republic and was repeatedly visited by Charles V and later his son Philip II who stayed at Doria's palace in Fassolo. Andrea Doria, the foremost naval leader of his time, became the new oligarchic ruler of Genoa and instituted a reformed constitution for the city, which lasted until 1797.
The inventory drawn up of Andrea Doria's possessions in July 1561 list among the 200 tapestries the twelve Medallion Months, which are recorded in Genoa until 1739. They are believed to have been transferred to Rome in circa 1741 when Giovanni Andrea III Doria Landi married Anna Pamphilj. They were hung in the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj and remained there until 1876, when they were divided between the Prince Giannetto, who retained the three tapestries that still hang in the palace, while the remaining ones passed to his sister Guendalina and then to her descendants.
The probable date of manufacture of the tapestries of the mid-1520s and no later than 1528 (the date from which the tapestry guild of Brussels required that all tapestries be marked with the town mark) pose an interesting problem for the series. Andrea Doria was in exile between May 1522 and 19 August 1527. Is it possible that the set was commissioned by the admiral upon his nomination to head the Papal fleet or the French fleet in 1525 and 1526, respectively, without knowing if he could return to Genoa, or were they commissioned as late as his re-entry into Genoa in 1527? Could they form part of a gift to Andrea Doria by either François I upon the re-taking of Genoa in 1527 or by Charles V when Doria switched his allegiance to the Spanish in August 1528? Both rulers are famed for their immense tapestry collections and patronism in this field. François I owned in excess of 200 important tapestries, most of which were of Flemish origin, while Charles V had formed one of the greatest collections of tapestries of his time, many of which are today still in the Spanish Royal Collection. Unfortunately there is no documentary evidence known to support any specific speculation about the circumstance of the commission of this tapestry at this point.
(P. Boccardo, Andrea Doria e le Arti, Rome, 1989).