Buonconsiglio Castle: the Cycle of the Months in Eagle Tower
Buonconsiglio Castle in Trento has immense charm and fascination, rising just beyond the city walls that date back to the 1200s. The complex was the residence of the Prince-Bishops of Trento for nearly six centuries. One of its towers, known as Aquila, or Eagle, holds one of the most important fresco cycles from the International Gothic art movement in Europe: the Cycle of the Months.
Even as you approach it, through a narrow passageway straight out of a fairy tale, the tower seems to want to separate the visitor from the rest of the castle and the world, to prepare him or her for a site that evokes ages past, that recounts tales of courtly and rural life in the years spanning the 14th and 15th century.
The castle was commissioned by the Prince-Bishop George of Liechtenstein who entrusted it to an artist (mounting evidence points to Maestro Venceslao from Bohemia), proving himself to be an educated humanist and a refined expert on courtly life at the beginning of the 1400s.
George hailed from an extremely rich family with holdings in Austria and Moravia. He rose to the office of bishop in 1391 and brought with him decorations, furnishings, illuminated books and tapestries that demonstrated his appreciation of the most refined tastes of the period in the areas of art, libraries and collecting.
In medieval times, it was traditional to link the work of men to the seasons and planets. Some church portals and facades were decorated with bas-reliefs and statues depicting the months. This developed into richly decorated iconography which drew liberally from religious, agricultural and folklore themes. On the one hand, the art developed for narrative purposes, on the other, with allegorical or religious intentions, given that the months could indicate the progression of work in the fields and the periods of rest due to seasons, similar to the calendar of liturgical celebrations or as a metaphor for the preaching and struggles of a good Christian.
In the case of the Trento cycle, it is most likely that the metaphor intended by the person who commissioned the work, and skillfully interpreted by the artist, was that of “good government”.
The narrative organization, the distinction between social classes, evident but not overt, the description of production processes linked to the land and its transformation, the obvious harmony, including through the use of color, between the city and the countryside, between aristocratic and common contexts, all seem to suggest a certain ideal of ordered society that the feudal aristocracy wants to celebrate, a model in which the two worlds can live peacefully, an organized microcosm where the seasons march on without any apparent difficulties.
The main room of the Tower was designed to suggest a sort of space-time continuum, perhaps to give the idea that, even in the passing of the months, the seasons and time flow in an uninterrupted sequence. The scenes are separated by slender columns that give the impression of resting on a pedestal and make up an open gallery from which you can take in the view of the surrounding scenery. The walls depict three months each and proceed in a clockwise direction. Of the original twelve months, only March has been lost, as it was painted on a wooden wall that covered a staircase, which was later destroyed.
The narrative begins with January on the eastern wall, and continues almost like a film, mainly due to the constant presence of the landscape, which, through its colors and forms – mountains, hills, rivers that follow their course from one month to the next, winds along in an eternal and inevitable cycle, like the passage of time and the seasons.
For the first time in the history of western art, snow was depicted. In January you can see men and women throwing snowballs. What is truly incredible is all of the events, of daily and working life, in both a rural and urban context, that the cycle is able to portray in a chronicle that both seduces and enthralls.
Scenes of fishing, hunting, livestock breeding and farming processes like harvesting, the grape vintage, ploughing, and sowing the fields are presented with an extraordinary flair for detail. Along with panels dedicated to work are ones celebrating courtly life: tournaments with knights competing against each other, hunting with falcons, bear hunts and romantic assignations.
But what stands out the most is the pictorial quality. The precise style, the fine brush strokes and the incredible attention to detail derive in part from the tradition of miniatures and in part from certain descriptive schemes typical in tapestries. The architecture and urban specifics seem to come directly from famous illuminated bibles. The care in portraying plants, fruit trees, farm equipment, mills and anvils, as well as the detail in the clothing are extraordinary, rendering it a striking and unique interpretation of medieval life in all of its manifestations.
The apologia of an idyllic and consistent court, so desired by George of Liechtenstein for Eagle Tower, was in stark contrast with reality, given the aggressive government imposed on the residents of the nearby valleys. In rebellion, the residents destroyed the castles from which power was exercised. The authority of the prince ended with the revolt of 1407. As evidence of the fact that the local population was not enamored of the prince, someone disfigured the frescoes in Eagle Tower, which had just been completed a few years earlier, etching a depiction of the prince-bishop being driven out.