According to the Gregorian calendar, October is the tenth month of the year, while in the calendar of ancient Romans, October, from the Latin octo, is the eighth month of the year, with March being the first. In the northern hemisphere, October is the month of autumn, the month of the grape harvest, the month in which colours change. The city streets are covered in coppery leaves that have fallen from the trees, and the sky is no longer brightly coloured, but constantly cloudy.
The colours and traditions of October inspire artists of all kinds and periods, and Dante Alighieri himself wrote about its magic in the Divine Comedy: As in the autumn-time the leaves fall off, | First one and then another, till the branch | Unto the earth surrenders all its spoils (Inf. III, 112-120). In painting, the themes are varied: landscapes, the grape harvest, or the simplest traditions and customs of the people.
Between 1412 and 1416, the Limbourg brothers, well-known Dutch miniature painters, produced an extraordinary work, a book of hours: the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Commissioned by Duke Jean de Berry and now kept in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, it contains a series of extraordinary full-page miniatures illustrating the months of the year, the signs of the zodiac, and their seasonal activities. The miniature dedicated to October describes field sowing. In the background, beyond the Seine, is the Louvre, the original 12th-century castle built by King Philip II of France, whose ancient walls now house the famous museum.
A man on horseback prepares the ground by making furrows, another one spreads seeds while some birds try to peck at them, and in the background, a scarecrow keeps the birds away. The scene is meticulously detailed and perfect, and even the high walls of the castle give a sense of depth and space.
Even today, October is known for the grape harvest, a subject that Joachim von Sandrart addressed. In 1642, the well-known German painter and art historian decided to tackle a theme dear to Pieter Paul Rubens (of whom he was a great admirer): Bacchus.
In the artwork October, the German artist depicts two male figures dressed as Bacchus, wrapped in warm, loose drapery, playing with bunches of juicy grapes, while behind them other figures can be spotted dancing and celebrating the month of wine.
October is also a month in which the weather changes, the days become shorter and the sky starts to hide behind greyish veils, as Maurits Cornelis Escher sees it in his 1936 painting of Venice. Everything is extremely geometric, a distinctive feature of the work of the Dutch engraver and graphic artist. Venice is seen through its typical architecture, windows looking for space and light and giving a glimpse of the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore. The pretext is practicing the engraving technique, but the result is a Venice during a month that serves as an intro to the harsh lagoon winter. Thin veiled layers hide the sparkle of the water and the multicoloured palaces.
October means autumn, as in the works of James Tissot, where his women play and walk among auburn leaves. October is also the month of demonstrations, as Ilya Repin recounts in his works, a political and social moment, where people pour into the streets ready to demonstrate and make their voices heard. October is a complex month, a month in which everything seems to fade away. October is an unfair month, it can remind us of summer in the hottest hours of the day, but in the evening everything changes: it is quickly night and winter seems closer than ever.
Opening image: Venice (October 1936), M.C. Escher. Woodcut, 1936.