Good Government, Bad Government
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Suffering Madonna overload in museums and churches? Are paintings of Annunciations starting to look the same? Now for something completely different – large secular frescoes in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Am-BRO-jo Lor-en-ZET-ti) painted an extraordinary Allegory of Good and Bad Governments in a room aptly called Sala della Pace (Peace Room). His frescoes are as timely 600 years later as they were when he painted them about 1338-1340.
Themes of peace, conflict, virtue, justice, the common good, hardship and prosperity dominate the frescoes. The journey to understand the context of Lorenzetti’s work begins with arriving at the outskirts of Siena, at the Porta Romana – also, by the way, a good car park with a modern ramp.
The Porta Romana was a main gate for travelers and the Sienese, and was just completed when Ambrogio started the frescoes. Follow the signs as you walk along the Via Roma and before long you will see the Torre Mangia, the big tower. After ten to fifteen minutes you emerge suddenly and spectacularly at the famous Campo, the main square of Siena. The Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall) is immediately to your right.
Torre del Mangia,Siena from the Porta Roma walking towards the Campo and Palazzo Pubblico.
Tuscan town halls were major public building campaigns. Town Halls needed to look strong, defensive, and imposing. The Palazzo Pubblico does not disappoint. The outstretched brick paved Campo (literally “field”) shell shaped and angled towards the Palazzo is the location of the wild Palio horse races held twice a year and is a must see for tourists. Still used as Siena’s town hall and full of art work, the second floor contains the Sala della Pace, also known as Sala dei Nove, the Room of the Nine, with Ambrogio’s frescoes. The room refers to the Sienese ruling body of the Council of Nine Governors and Defenders of the Commune.
Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.
Ambrogio and his brother Pietro were trained by the famous Sienese painter Duccio, or his circle. There remains little documentation about their lives, but both brothers were well known and respected painters. Ambrogio worked in Assisi and Florence with his first dated work in 1319. We think Ambrogio was born about 1295; only a few years separate the brothers.
Fourteenth century Siena was fairly compact and small, only a fifteen-minute walk from north to south and five minutes east to west. The city was a stopping point on the way to Rome and situated on the Via Francigena, a major pilgrimage route. Landlocked, without a river, it lacked major wool and cloth industries that Florence had. Banking, transport and pilgrimage were its main economies. With a literacy rate of about fifty percent, and a small middle class, much economic power and land ownership resided with about twenty magnate families. However, most of the rich families had conflicts with each other so power was not centralized. Not surprisingly, lawyers, bankers and judges were some of the highest paid professions.
Siena, view of Campo and Palazzo Pubblico, Pixabay public domain photo.
Siena in the fourteenth century was not Florence’s poor cousin. Although one third the size of Florence, it was the center of artistic innovation with painters probably lesser known to tourists: Ambrogio and his brother Pietro Lorenzetti, Simone Martini and Duccio.
Siena was a leader in city management with a number of firsts:
First city to pave its streets in 1298,
First city to regulate streets and roads in and outside of the city in 1268,
First to have a constitution written in Italian (not Latin) in 1309,
First to have a publicly funded university in 1321,
And last but not least, banning traffic from its center in 1965.
Civic spirit was fostered by a unique government organization. Any concept of individual freedom or rights were foreign notions, as everything was for the common good of the commune. Each Italian city had its own distinctive government. Venice was completely different from Florence or Pisa and those cities were completely different from Siena.
Siena’s Council of Nine was active 1285-1355 and served similar to an executive board overseeing committees and commissions. Nine citizens served on the Council for two months, elected by lot, but excluding lawyers and the most powerful families who were ineligible. The Nine lived together at the Palazzo, in seclusion from the outside world. Each of the Nine served as chair for one week.
This system was known as Il Buon Governo, the good government. Twenty months would go by before an individual could serve again on the Council of Nine. The rotation prevented any one individual or family from exerting too much power, unlike the Medici in Florence. It seems improbable that such a system would allow for much work to get done, however, it functioned remarkably well and Siena enjoyed stability during the years of the Nine.
Sala della Pace, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
The Sala della Pace is the room where the Nine ruled, deliberated, and made decisions, under the presence of Ambrogio’s frescoes. The frescoes are on three walls forming a U shape with two long walls of over forty feet and one short wall: “The City State Under Tyranny” on the south wall, “The Virtues of Good Government” on the short north wall and “The Good City Republic” on the east wall. The Nine would enter the room facing the Tyranny fresco filled with bedlam and disaster.
The City State Under Tyranny
The City State Under Tyranny, also known as Bad Government, is deteriorated and damaged. The left side shows us the countryside under Tyranny and the right side the rulers and life in the city. The fiendish horned cross-eyed figure of Tyranny sits enthroned with his court of Pride, Vainglory, Avarice, Cruelty, Treason, Fraud, Furor, Division, and War. Justice is depicted bound, unable to move, partially reclining below Tyranny.
The City State Under Tyranny
In the city we see stabbing, violence, assault, no commerce, only hostility. Hovering above the countryside a corpse like figure holds a banner titled “Timor” (Fear). She warns of what happens when we think only of ourselves and not of the greater good so that “nobody passes without fearing for his life.”
Tyranny's Court (above)
Tyranny and the war torn countryside (below)
The countryside is a place of horror and destruction. Houses and farms are on fire, buildings lie in ruins, and no one farms or is bringing goods to town. Although the fresco is damaged from humidity, the abraded figures add an ominous feel to the scenes. Tyranny rules in winter with medallions of Saturn, Autumn, Jupiter, Winter and Mars above the scene. The lower medallions (some lost) feature the despotic leader Nero.
Virtues of Good Government
Ambrogio makes his messages perfectly clear. You want a stable government? There must be peace. Peace takes a prominent role in the Court of the Common Good as she reclines in a relaxed pose near the center of the fresco surrounded by virtues of Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance, and a very active Justice holding a sword and severed head. The enthroned king-like figure represents Common Good as Faith, Hope, and Charity float above him.
Where chaos ruled in Tyranny, here the figures are orderly, especially the twenty-four citizens below Peace standing next to Concord in harmony. Below the scene of citizens, a Latin inscription proclaims “Ambrogio Lorenzetti of Siena Painted this on Both Sides.” The political virtues are a mediating force between bad and good, demonstrating the means to attain the good. For each bad vice of Tyranny there is a counter acting good virtue.
Virtues of Good Government (above)
Peace and Sienese Citizens (below)
The Good City Republic
Along the other long wall Ambrogio paints a stark contrast to Tyranny with a lively city scene on the left and a peaceful countryside on the right under the Good City Republic. Security flies above the middle of fresco proclaiming Justice reigns. Not an idealistic justice, but one that administers harsh and swift judgement, demonstrated by the gallows Security holds. The Good City Republic takes place in summer with medallions above the fresco representing Venus, Summer, Spring, Mercury and the Moon.
The Good City Republic, City scene (above) and Countryside (below)
Beneath her lies the Secure City to the left with its citizens carrying on with daily life. Reading left to right is a cathedral (not Siena’s but a generic church) with a wedding procession below. Dancers, painted as an allegory to harmony as dancing in the streets was illegal, are followed by merchants – a shoe maker, grain and cloth merchant. There’s even a lecture visible through an archway.
Detail of the Good City Republic (gallery of four details)
A shepherd drives his sheep towards the gate and countryside while construction on a new building takes place above. The country is rich with vineyards, harvest, planting, hunting, and access to water, which was especially important for Siena. A peaceful ebb and flow exist between city and country. Ambrogio’s brushstrokes are impressionistic and loose in the countryside, with figures sketched in rapidly.
Ambrogio’s fresco is remarkable. There really isn’t anything like it in subject and scope with a panoramic city and country view. Ambrogio gives us insight to medieval political thought as well as glimpsing life in the 1300s. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the fresco is the meandering way a viewer can enjoy the large pictorial space. There isn’t one dominating focal point, which allows the eye to take in each figure and scene.
Ambrogio wasn’t particularly concerned with correct depictions of scale or perspective (people are often much larger than the buildings) as he was with conveying broad concepts of morality and consequences. There is no specific mention of Siena per se in the fresco – no Campo or Duomo, built after the fresco, as this is an idealized city and countryside. Religion, priests, bishops or references to the church are minor (Faith, Hope Charity; a glimpse of a church building), reminding us that is truly a secular subject.
I would love to write that Siena continued to embody the principles of buon governo but that was not the case. Pandemics and uprisings brought the Sienese good government and political stability to a crashing halt in the late 1340s with the arrival of the plague. Ambrogio made out his will on June 9, 1348. He perished along with his brother, other artists, and with the plague Sienese artistic innovation was cut short. By autumn half of the Sienese population was dead. Chaos ensued. In the end, the Nine were overthrown in 1355, just fifteen years after the frescoes were complete. Siena became the bad government it worked so hard to avoid.
Randolph Starn concludes that in Ambrogio’s Good and Bad Government frescoes “art was political and politics were artful.” That made me wonder how art represents the political virtues in our modern era. The Statue of Liberty? Lincoln’s Memorial? How are the United States virtues represented or not represented in public art? I don’t have the answers but we must be aware and alert to the connection between politics and visual representation.
Bowsky, William M. A Medieval Italian Commune: Siena Under the Nine 1287-1355. University of California Press, 1981.
Cole, Bruce. Sienese Painting: From its Origins to the Fifteenth Century. Harper & Row, 1980.
Feldges-Henning, Uta. “The Pictorial Programme of the Sala Della Pace: A New Interpretation.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 35, 1972, pp. 145–162. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/750926.
Hyman, Timothy. Sienese Painting: The Art of a City Republic. Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Starn, Randolph. Ambrogio Lorenzetti: The Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. George Braziller, 1994.
Tylus, Jane. City of Secrets: Siena. The University of Chicago Press. 2015.
Waley, Daniel P. Siena and the Sienese in the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University Press, 1991.