The Allegory of Good and Bad Government  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government is a series of frescoes painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti from 1337 to 1339. The frescoes are painted in the Gothic Style. The paintings are located in the Sala dei Nove (Salon of Nine or Council Room) in the Palazzo Pubblico (or Town Hall) of the city of Siena, Italy. The series consists of six different scenes: Allegory of Good Government, Allegory of Bad Government, Effects of Bad Government in the City, Effects of Good Government in the City and Effects of Good Government in the Country.


Historical context

The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government series was commissioned entirely by a civic group, the Council of Nine (the city council). The subject matter in this work is not religious like most artworks of the time, but civic. The Republic of Siena was of the most powerful of the 14th century Italian city-states. It was an urban hub filled with bankers and merchants, with many international contacts. The 14th century was a turbulent time for politics in the Italian cities. There were constant violent party struggles; governments were overthrown, and governments were reinstated. The frescoes painted by Lorenzetti promoted the morality of government and provided a constant reminder for the council to remain just leaders by showing comprehensive cause-and-effect situations of corrupt, tyrannical governing in comparison to those of virtuous governing.

Allegory of Good Government

In The Allegory of Good Government, the composition is built up from three horizontal bands. In the foreground the figures of contemporary Siena are represented. The citizens act as symbolic representations of the various civic officers and magistrates. They are linked by two woven cords or concords which Concord gathers from under the scales of Justice. Behind them, on a stage, there are allegoric figures in two groups, representing the Good Government. The two groups are connected by the procession of the councilors. The upper band indicates the heavenly sphere with the floating bodiless ghosts of the virtues. Wisdom sits above the head of the personification of the Commune of Siena. He sits upon a throne and holds an orb and scepter, symbolizing temporal power. He is dressed in the colors of the Balzana, the black and white Sienese coat-of-arms. Around his head are the four letters C S C V, which stands for Commune Saenorum Civitatis Virginis, which explains his identity as the embodiment of the Siena Council. That character is guided by Faith, Hope, and Charity. He confers with the proper Virtues necessary for a proper and just ruler. The virtues of Good Government are represented by six crowned, stately female figures: Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right. On the far left of the fresco the figure of Justice is repeated as she is balancing the scales held by Wisdom. The figures are naturalistic, and supposedly the female figures represented the ideal of female beauty in Siena. At the feet of the ruler are two playing children. They could be the sons of Remus: Ascius and Senius, who, according to Roman legend, are the founders of Siena. It is also believed that the two children are Romulus and Remus themselves, who founded Rome. The text within the lower border of the image reads: “This holy virtue [Justice], where she rules, induces to unity the many souls [of citizens], and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good [ben comune] their Lord; and he, in order to govern his state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the Virtues who sit around him. Therefore to him in triumph are offered taxes, tributes, and lordship of towns; therefore, without war, every civic result duly follows --useful necessary, and pleasurable.” Below the fresco is the Lorenzetti’s signature: AMBROSIUS LAURENTII DE SENIS HIC PINXIT UTRINQUE.

Peaceful City

On the longer wall of the room in the Salla is the fresco The Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country. Part of that fresco is Peaceful City. This panoramic fresco represents several scenes indicating the life of Siena and its environment in the 14th century. This painting provides the first accurate panoramic view of city and country (landscape) since antiquity; viewers can identify the city of Siena, as opposed to ambiguous settings found in other works of the time. The city is filled with clustered palaces, markets, towers, churches, streets and walls. All of these aspects are reminiscent of town scenes found on ancient Roman murals. There are many shops, indicating good commerce and economic conditions. The traffic moves peacefully, guild members work at their trades, a wedding procession takes place, and maidens can be seen dancing gracefully. Dancers were common for springtime rituals; they also act as a metaphor for peaceful commonwealth in this painting. The young women could also represent the Nine Muses of the arts and sciences from Greek mythology. This fresco shows that if government is virtuous and rules justly, then the city thrives and prospers. There is text along the lower edge of the wall that reads: “Turn your eyes to behold her, you who are governing, who is portrayed here [Justice], crowned on account of her excellence, who always renders to everyone his due. Look how many goods derive from her and how sweet and peaceful is that life of the city where is preserved this virtue who outshines any other. She guards and defends those who honor her, and nourishes and feeds them. From her light is both requiting those who do good and giving due punishment to the wicked.”

Peaceful Country

The fresco then blends effortlessly into Peaceful Country. The transition is made by an entourage passing through the city gate and out to the countryside beyond city walls. The new scene shows a bird’s-eye view of the Tuscan countryside, with villas, castles, plowed farmlands, and peasants and farmers leisurely going about their bucolic responsibilities. The landscape is particularized, and with characteristics that indicate a specific place and environment. The winged allegorical figure of Security hovers above the landscape, holding an unfurled scroll promising safety to all who live under the rule of law. Written on the scroll is the text: “Without fear every many may travel freely and each may till and sow, so long as this commune shall maintain this lady [Justice] sovereign, for she has stripped the wicked of all power.”

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