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Current time:0:00Total duration:10:18

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

Video transcript

we're in the Palazzo publico or Town Hall in Siena 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 in Siena was one and it was a very proud republic 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 centers of power in the commune 'that was siena and 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 compo sits the Palazzo publico and in one of the main meeting rooms were the rulers of the city the nine met we have an extraordinary series of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and those are meant to remind the rulers of the city there are responsibilities to be good and just 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 oh and it's ugly very bad okay so let's start with the allegory of good government and now Agora 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 and justice is doing just that she's meeting out justice in her hands she's got scales with an angel on either side and on her left she meets out justice in the form of a reward and on the right as punishment and that is quite the punishment an angel in the right scale is actually cutting the head off somebody who clearly was guilty but it's important that she looks up to his demoted there's 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 chords from the Angels in the scales come together and are handed to the figure in a blue robe that chord then lines its way through all of the figures who are standing at the bottom figures that are meant to represent the people of Siena and they are all held in line held in check by these chords that come from justice herself if we move to the head of that line we can see the chord rises and it's held by the largest figure and that is the personification of the good commune this figure is surrounded by various virtues on the left you can see peace and in fact the Hall in which we stand is called the Hall of peace named after her she's reclining she's relaxed it's almost as if if everything else is 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 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 and originally it would have been silver but it's oxidized over time so she's taken off her armor and she can now relax so as you said if all of these allegorical figures are doing their job then the city is at peace and prosperity can reign and there is a very clear image of that in the fresco on the right and this is the effects of good government in the city and country and we see the walls of the city of Siena now we should caution that probably the first few feet on the left are our restoration and are not by ambrosio 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 well and it's subject to secular it's not a biblical scene and that's important at this time when the vast majority of art be may would have been biblical 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 in 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 existed in the 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 you did and it's really packed with people and feels bustling and like a city where the citizens are engaged in commerce and are well-to-do we see something that looks like a hosiery shop with people selling boots and socks in the foreground probably the largest group of figures are a group of women dancing in wonderfully elaborate costume this is clearly symbolic so this is likely some allegory about the peace and prosperity that comes from good government 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 lectern and students listening actively and a place where you can buy ham and meat next door tick there are people going about their daily activities and if we look up we can see faces in some of the windows and my favorite passage you can actually see construction workers who were actively building the city 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 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 exchanged for another member of the aristocracy so let's look at the effect of good government in the countryside this looks we 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 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 field 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 in the city but opposite that is bad government and that's on the Left wall and so you have this notion of right of Justice of the good you have this notion of the left of evil of having gone astray the main figure that is in opposition to justice if you look carefully he 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 and 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 queen elated wall that speaks of Venson attack beyond the allegorical figures we can see a city but this is not a city that's 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 in fact I see below a woman being carried off by two men in a very menacing scene and below them fallen wounded figure 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 cleared 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 and what's really interesting to me is that when we walk to the center of this room and look through a doorway mici Simoni Martini's maya of the Virgin based on duccio's Maya which is in the cathedral so the Virgin Mary reigning queen of Siena taking her place aside the allegorical symbol of justice both seated both enthroned 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 you