Between 1338 and 1340 at the request of the leaders of the Republic of Siena the great Sienese artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted frescoes in the Sala dei Nove (Salon of the Nine) of the Palazzo Pubblico. The “Nine” was the oligarchical assembly of guild and monetary interests that governed the republic under the leadership of the Podestà or chief-magistrate. Though the Palazzo chapel was adorned with frescoes of a religious nature the other rooms were unique in that the “Nine” commissioned frescoes of a secular nature – reflecting the commune of Siena – its successes and its aspirations.
The Sala dei Nove or Sala della Pace holds the most famous of these works: Allegoria ed Effetti del Buono e Cattivo Governo (The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government). Given what is happening today in Canada it was with a certain sense of irony that I found myself taking in these great pieces of Medieval works of art over the weekend. Today is Election Day in Canada, a fact that has been understandable overshadowed by larger events in the world; today Canadians go to the polls for the third time in five years. And for the past few weeks they have been listening to politicians mouth promises, threats and policies of government – perhaps good perhaps bad.
Voter turnout in the past two elections has shown a marked disinterest in the process of election in Canada – in fact sadly there is more interest shown in the United States elections than our own and events of the past few years have shown that as a people we are largely ignorant of our own process. Perhaps it would be fitting for a modern artist to take a cue from Lorenzetti and give us a work of art showing the effects of good and bad government on our country.
In the central fresco Lorenzetti portrays the Allegory of Good Government: Justice in government dominates both as an allegorical and a civic figure. On the right the allegorical Justice – unusually for the period shown as a woman – is guided by Wisdom and meats out punishment and rewards. At her feet sits Virtue passing on to recognizable Sianese citizens of the period (1338-40) the attributes of her calling. And these good worthies look towards a Judge who has surrounded himself with Peace, Faith, Charity, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. Though secular in nature the figures have an almost ecclesiastical appearance and in other contexts could be mistaken for Mary, Queen of Heaven and Christ as Judge at the Final Judgment reminding us that the link between the government and the church was a symbiotic one in many ways.
On the right hand wall the Effects of Good Government are pictured. First its effects in the city itself. It is a cityscape that is definitely Siena with the Duomo in the background. It is a well ordered place with buildings tastefully adorned with mullioned windows, ornamented gables, terraces alive with plants and paved streets. The citizens pursue their crafts and trades – cobblers, stone masons and teachers; the arts are not forgotten as a group dances to the sounds of instruments. And farmers come into the city to share the produce of their labours within the stout and well-fortified walls. It is the Utopia that only the wisdom and justice of good government could bring.
And the effects of good government are seen to spread beyond the city walls into the countryside. Lorenzetti was more concerned with showing the prosperity and security of the country than in accuracy so plowing, sowing, harvesting and reaping are all pictured simultaneously. The landscape is orderly and fertile and people are pursuing their activities in an atmosphere of peace and well being. Farmers take their produce into town – hogs, wheat, eggs as local burghers make their way into the countryside. On the edge of the carriageway there is a beggar, an indication of the social stratification that still existed under the “Government of the Nine”: Good Government did not mean that social inequalities were levelled but that each layer of society would have its place and live and work in peace and safety.
Sadly the fresco on the left wall, the dire warning to the Effects of Bad Government, has been significantly damaged and much of the painter’s intent can only be guessed at. Bad Government is pictured as Tyranny – a squinty-eyed monster with fangs, horns, demonic hair and clawed feet with a black goat grovelling before him. Hovering over this monster are Greed, Pride and Vanity in direct contrast to the Virtues of Good Government. Arranged on either side of this tyrannical ruler we see other Vices – Cruelty, Betrayal, Fraud, Falsehood, Anger, Discord and War – the antithesis of everything the other frescoes assure us are the marks of Good Government. Much of the Effects of Bad Government has disappeared but there is no doubt that the citizens are suffering with Justice now a bound and humiliated figure. Corpses lie in the streets and violence erupts in a city that has decayed and declined from its once glorious state.
These 700 year old frescoes can simply be thought of as political propaganda of their age – an effort by the “Nine” to assure the Sienese that what they were being offered by their governors was the way to prosperity and a good life; a bit like the campaign promises that have been peppered on the Canadian voters from all sides in the past few weeks.
Or it could be seen as a timeless warning to politicians everywhere – or perhaps given what I’ve seen in the past few years in Canada a timely message to my country’s elected parliament? Sadly it would appear that it is a lesson too many politicians, regardless of party or ideology, have yet to learn. Perhaps they should have been forced to look at and come to terms with Lorenzetti’s powerful statement of what we expect, but so seldom, get from our elected parliament.
02 maggio – Sant’Atanasio di Alessandria