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Ionarts in Siena: Good and Bad Government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Fresco of Good Government
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Fresco of Good Government, 1337-39
Sala dei Nove, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

We spent an afternoon in the Palazzo Pubblico (where Simone Martini's Maestà is found), mostly to look at the spectacular frescos depicting good and bad government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The Sienese master painted the three walls of the Sala dei Nove, where the nine members of the city's executive council met, from 1338 to 1340. The wall over the entrance of the Nine shows an allegory of good government, with the enthroned figure of Ben Comune (Good Government) reigning among the virtues and with justice and concord binding together the citizens. Then on opposing walls are views of Siena, one imagining the city suffering the results of bad government and the other showing Siena prospering and happy under the effects of good government. These frescos were made shortly after Dante had lived in Siena, where on a trip back from his fatal embassy to Rome, he learned that his rival party had exiled him from his beloved Florence. The concept of ben comune is very much present in the Commedia, in which the forces of intraurban factionalism are condemned.

My favorite details are the signs that Siena is prospering when the citizenry and government together keep Ben Comune on his seat. Crops are planted and harvested, products are brought into the city, workmen climb on scaffolding to repair a building, students in a classroom listen obediently to their teacher, and all vital needs are obviously met. What makes the difference is the little things that we take for granted when our home is prosperous and safe: pets and plants are seen in windows, women dance in a graceful circle in the street, men go out to the country to hunt, and life's pleasures are assured. On the street into the city, there is even an image of a poor man begging, with his hat in his hand. Only with prosperity is charity possible, after all.

The Bad Government side has been badly damaged, because the city government kept its salt stores (salt used to be a state monopoly) in the room underneath. Salt was piled up against the same wall, and mixed with moisture it seeped up through the wall by capillary action and destroyed large parts of the fresco. In a sense, Lorenzetti's Bad Government and Dante's Inferno have a lot in common as criticisms of the forces of party division that undermine Ben Comune.

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