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Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Palazzo Pubblico frescos: Allegory and effect of good and bad government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government, Effects of Good Government in the City and the Country, and Allegory and Effects of Bad Government in the City and the Country, Siena c. 1337-40, fresco, Sala della Pace (Hall of Peace) also know as the Sala dei Nove (the Hall of the Nine), 7.7 x 14.4 meters (room), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker For more information visit: http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/the-allegories-and-effects-of-good-and-bad-government.html. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Steven: We're in the Palazzo Pubblico or "town hall" in Siena. Beth: Remember that Siena was a city state. It was its own country. It had its own government. We think about Italy as a unified country, but back in the 14th century, Italy was divided into city states and Siena was one. It was a very proud republic. Steven: And it was very wealthy through manufacturing and banking. Primarily in fact, well into the 14th century, the city was known as the "Bankers to the Papacy." And in addition, the city gained a tremendous amount of wealth because it was on the road between France and Rome, and so anybody who was going on a pilgrimage, would stop here and, of course, the city would enjoy the benefits of that tourist trade. There were two main censors of power in the commune that was Siena. That was the church and that's exemplified by the Duomo at the top of the hill, and then down here, just at the bottom of the field or what is known as the "Combo", sits the Palazza Pubblico. In one of the main meeting rooms where the rulers of the city, The Nine met, we have an extraordinary series of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Beth: And those are meant to remind the rulers of the city their responsibilities to be good and just. Steven: And the dangers of not doing so, let's describe for a moment the room itself. On one wall, there is a set of windows, but on the other three, major frescoes by Lorenzetti. Opposite the windows is the Allegory of Good Government. To the right of that, are the Effects of Good Government in the City and the Country, and then opposite that, is what happens when tyrants take over. Beth: Oh, and it's ugly. Steven: Very bad. Beth: (laughs) Steven: So let's start with the Allegory of Good Government. Beth: And Allegory means "figures that stand in for ideas." We might want to note first that the door where The Nine would enter is right beneath the Personification of Justice who sits looking up to another figure who personifies Wisdom. Justice is doing just that; She's meting out Justice. In her hands, she's got scales with an angel on either side. On her left, she metes out justice in the form of a reward. On the right, as punishment. Steven: And that is quite the punishment, an angel in the right scale is actually cutting the head off somebody who clearly was guilty. Beth: But it's important that she looks up to Wisdom. Steven: Now you'll notice that there is a small cord that goes from each of those scales down to a seated figure who has in her lap a plane ... That is the kind of tool that a carpenter would use to smooth rough spots. Or in this case, to create a certain degree of equality among the different levels of society. That plane has the words "Concordia" written on it and it's just at about that point that those two cords from the angels in the scales come together and are handed to the figure in a blue robe. That cord then winds its way through all of the figures who are standing at the bottom; figures that are meant to represent the people of Siena. They are all held in line, held in check by these cords that come from Justice herself. If we move to the head of that line, we can see the cord rises and it's held by the largest figure. That is the personification of the good commune. Beth: This figure is surrounded by various Virtues. Steven: On the left you can see Peace. In fact the hall in which we stand is called "The Hall of Peace" named after her. Beth: She's reclining. She's relaxed. It's almost as if everything else was working, if all of these other figures; Justice, Concord, Fortitude, Prudence, if they're all working, there's Peace and there's nothing much for her to do. Steven: She relaxes, by the way, on a cushion, but if you look under the cushion, you can see black forms. That is meant to be armor. Originally it would have been silver, but it's oxidized over time. So she's taken off her armor and she can now relax. As you said, if all of these allegorical figures are doing their job, then the city is at peace. Prosperity can wane and there is a very clear image of that in the fresco on the right. This is the effects of good government in the city and in the country. Beth: And we see the walls of the city of Siena. Steven: We should caution that probably the first few feet on the left are a restoration and are not by Ambrogio. This is one of the most ambitious, perhaps the largest landscape and cityscape certainly, that existed in the medieval, I can't even think of a Renaissance painting that is more ambitious than this. Beth: And it's subject to secular, it's not a biblical scene. That's important at this time when the vast majority of art made would have been biblical. Steven: So let's take a look at the cityscape. What we have is a place where commerce can flourish, where there is plenty, where there is no privation, where there is justice and art and culture. We have a kind of utopia and it's remarkable because if you think about the history of Paradise and the way that it's represented, Paradise is always seen in nature, and yet here we have the earliest example that I can think of where Paradise exists in an urban context. That is where man is in control of his society and can actually produce through careful governing an environment where humanity can flourish. I love architecture and it's pretty clear that Ambrogio loved architecture, too. Beth: He did and it's really packed with people and it feels bustling like a city where the citizens are engaged in commerce and are well-to-do. We see something that looks like a hoosiery shop with people selling boots and socks. Steven: In the foreground, probably the largest group of figures, are a group of women dancing in wonderfully elaborate costume. This is clearly symbolic. Beth: So this is likely some allegory about the peace and prosperity that comes from good government. Steven: What I love is the fact that the city is open to our gaze. You can look into all these shop windows. You can see a lecture, perhaps a school with somebody at a lecturn and students listening actively. Beth: And a place where you can buy ham and meat next door [unintelligible]. Steven: There are people going about their daily activities and if we look up, we can see faces in some of the windows. My favorite passage, you can actually see construction workers who are actively building the city. Beth: I love this idea that the leaders of Siena would be able to look at this and see, "If I do my job right, this is what my city will be." Steven: That was taken so seriously, you know. The Nine were only allowed to be in office for two months because there was such a fear of corruption. So every two months, each of the members of the city council would be exhanged for another member of the aristocracy. Beth: So let's look at the effect of good government in the countryside. This looks like the landscape around Siena. There's a real sense of the observation of the natural world which is so unusual and new for this time. Steven: And if you look carefully, you can see some figures on horseback that are just leaving the city. These are obviously wealthy aristocracy. In fact, one holds a falcon. They're going out hunting. As you go a little further, you can see a peasant who is walking into the city with a pig, clearly bringing that pig to market. There are donkeys that are bringing grain from the fields. In the distance, there is a kind of combination of both the season of spring and the season of summer. We see both the sowing of the fields and harvesting going on. So when you're looking at the allegory of good government, to your right is the Effects of Good Government in the country and the city. But opposite that is Bad Government. That's on the left wall, so you have this notion of right of justice of the good, and you have this notion of the left of evil of having gone astray. The mean figure that is in opposition to justice, if you look carefully, looks just like a devil with horns, fangs, but in back of that male figure, is the words "Tyranny" and so we have Justice and Tyranny who are in opposition. Tyranny is surrounded not by Virtues, but by Vices, and you can see for instance; Avarice, Vainglory ... Down below is a bound figure, and here we see sadly Justice, who is no longer ruling the city. This fresco is in very poor condition, but we can just make out a series of criminal acts. All of this is enclosed within an architecture that is the architecture of war. We can see a [unintelligible] wall that speaks of defense and attack. Beyond the allegorical figures, we can see a city, but this is not a city that is still being built. This is a city that's being destroyed. The walls have holes. The windows have been broken and there's a sense of fear among the citizenry. Beth: In fact, I see below, a woman being carried off by two men in a very menacing scene, and below them, a fallen wounded figure. Steven: To the left of the city, we see fields, but these fields have been burned. We can see the flames of houses on fire and it is a place of want, of neglect and of fear. In fact, the word "terror" rides over the landscape. So this room becomes a very clear message, both a promise and a threat, to the government of Siena. It is an extraordinary expression of the way in which morality can be portrayed in the most direct sense in the place that it's needed most. Beth: What's really interesting to me is that when we walk to the center of this room and look through a doorway, we see Simone Martini's Maesta of the Virgin based on Duccio's Maesta which is in the cathedral. Steven: So the Virgin Mary, reigning queen of Siena, taking her place beside the allegorical symbol of Justice, both seated, both enthroned. Beth: And this idea that the Virgin favors Siena, and in favoring Siena has given it a republic that the government of Siena must now protect. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)