Inside the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena you’ll find one of the greatest secular fresco cycles of the Middle Ages: the exquisite and fascinating “Allegory of Good and Bad government”, painted in 1338-39 by Sienese master Pietro Lorenzetti.
This is a much-admired fresco cycle, not just for its impressive scale and beauty but for the message it conveys. These complex frescos are in fact a piece of political propaganda and a visual explanation of the moral and social values of 14th century Siena.
The Palazzo Pubbico is Siena’s town hall, and has been seat of government since Medieval times.
The location of the fresco cycle is not random: Lorenzetti was commissioned by the Republic of Siena to fresco the Sala della Pace (also called Sala del Consiglio dei Nove), the hall where the government’s members would meet.
Siena’s nine politicians would sit in this hall (to discuss political affairs) surrounded by these frescoes, eternal reminders of the effects that Good and Bad government would have on their city state. Siena was a florid Republic, where a growing bourgeois was getting rich thanks to commerce and banking. Work, prosperity and social order go hand in hand, and the government had the duty to keep order and safety.
On the northern wall, there’s the “Allegory of Good Government”, a complex symbolic representation of just political rule, based on the principles of justice and the common good. Two figures stand out (they are bigger than the rest): Justice, guided by Divine Wisdom, and Good Government, personification of the Sienese Comune.
A beautiful woman sits just below Justice: she represents Concord, and she’s holding a rope, a symbol of agreement that runs through the hands of the 24 people standing in line. In this way, every part of society is linked to this ideal of harmony and just treatment.
Here a world of Virtues is envisioned: Christian virtues float in the sky (Faith, Hope, Charity), right above the parade of human virtues that flourish in a prosperous and just society: Peace is clad in white, relaxing next to Fortitude and Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance Justice. They all surround and counsel the Good Government, represented by the bearded mans dressed in white and black, the colours of Siena’s coat of arms.
On the Eastern wall we see Siena, with its Cathedral, crenellated buildings and terraces. It’s a rich and safe city where people can trade (weavers, a notary, a shop that sells meat), learn (a University class full of students), build, work and play.
In the countryside the effects of the good government are evident too. The landscape of Siena is clearly recognisable, with its vineyards, castles and the hills of the Crete Senesi. It’s an orderly scene where people work, hunt and travel safely along the Via Francigena, bringing products and animals (notice the cinta senese pig, with its black and white colouring) to sell in the city. Above it all is Security, holding a gallows, watching over the proper order of things.
On the opposite facing wall, the other side of safety and prosperity is shown in the “Allegory of Bad Government”. Its sombre imagery and dark colours convey a sense of danger and disgust for a government that acts in the name of personal gain. Tyranny sits in the midst of this mess, gloating over social disaster. He appears as a devil, with horns and fangs, surrounded by a gang of vices: cruelty, greed, vanity, lies.
Floating in the polluted sky are Greed, Pride and Vanity. Their presence alludes to the way bad government betrays its people with lies, steals public money, and searches for glory and honour instead of working in the service of the common good.
Justice lies bound at its feet, and the effects of the bad government are painfully clear: buildings crumble, robbery and rape are order of the day, and the countryside is a wasteland.
Lorenzetti has given his town and the world an extraordinary example of politically charged art, which is at once Medieval and very modern, because it speaks of the human and spiritual values of our society. With his ability to capture the details, the land and the people, and to blend realistic details with allegorical imagery he confirms his role as a great storyteller and skilled artist.
Did you know? In these frescoes the landscape makes an appearance not just as a background, but as a protagonist, it becomes a physical representation of an idea. It’s also the very first example of a secular subject in Italian art, and has been studied extensively from a historical, political, philosophical point of view.