The year is 1340, and the Republic of Siena is a happening place. Nine elected magistrates, known as the Council of Nine, enter the Palazzo Pubblico (or town hall) and proceed toward the Sala dei Nove (Salon of Nine or Council Room). They enter the council room and gaze upward at three wall-size frescoes, reminders of how to rule for the benefit of the people.
One of four powerful city-states in the region of Tuscany, Italy (including Florence, Pisa, and Lucca), Siena enjoyed prosperity for almost 400 years (1125–1555), boasting a coat of arms declaring “libertas” (freedom).
And its leaders wanted to keep it that way. Around 1285, they commissioned local artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290–1348) to paint frescoes in the council room as reminders of what is at stake in good governance.
Between 1338 and 1340, Lorenzetti painted the “Allegory of Good Governance” on the main wall and two more frescoes on each adjoining wall. On the left is shown the effects of good governance and to the right, the effects of bad governance.
Justice Over AllOn the central wall of the council, the main figures of Justice and Common Good dominate the scene and are proportionately larger than other figures in the fresco. Justice sits directly above the door of the hall. She looks up for guidance from Wisdom. On each side of her chair, Justice balances scales where angels mete out punishments or rewards.
On the left, an angel cuts off the head of a wrongdoer. The angel on the right rewards good people with gifts. Sitting at the feet of Justice is another seated figure Harmony (“Concordance”), in white, who hands two woven cords ("concordes") to representatives of the people, so they will govern amicably.
Common Good RulesA procession of magistrates connects the section presided over by Justice with the court of Common Good, who rules the city.
Above the king, the heavenly virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity guide the realm. Below them, Common Good holds court in a high, spiritual realm. In his court are the crowned and stately virtues of good government who advise the king: Peace, Fortitude, and Prudence on the left; Magnanimity, Temperance, and Justice on the right.
Peace, or Pax, to the left of the king, does not appear concerned with the management of the city. She leans back on a large, soft cushion, very relaxed. She has nothing to do because the city is being ruled very well with the help of the other virtues. Under her cushion is armor, which she no longer needs. The armor, originally silver, has tarnished to black because of lack of use.
A Well-Run CityOn the right side of Lorenzetti’s well-planned fresco series, we see what happens when good governance is carried out. Lorenzetti knew his city well for he lived there. The structures are good representations of the city, which was just coming out of the medieval era.
The excitement of the early Renaissance is just on the horizon as portrayed by the fresco titled “The Effects of Good Governance.” This is a happy scene. People dance in the streets, a wedding is happening—people are engaged in living the good life. Everywhere, there is abundance, activity, and happiness.
The artist separated this fresco into two parts: On the left of a city wall is the urban environment, and a fruitful countryside on the other. The city is bustling and beautiful. People are well-dressed, mules carry bundles of produce from the farmland, and men work diligently on building their city. Children listen attentively in a classroom.
On the city's side, many details symbolize that it's rich and prosperous. Goods fill the shops; people leisurely sit in café-like bars. A lady waters her window-ledge flowers, and a bird sings in an open window.
Good StewardshipStatesmen and philosophers have long realized the importance of good government. Lorenzetti and the magistrates of Siena may have taken the advice of a preeminent Greek philosopher. Socrates spoke of his experience in the ancient city-state of Athens. He said that “government worked best when ruled by individuals who had the greatest ability, knowledge and virtue, and possessed a complete understanding of themselves."
People today want their administrators to listen to the needs of the local population, and the local residents must be prepared to actively participate in their government. Amazingly, because the small republic was very concerned about corruption, the term of office for council members was only two months before they were switched out.
Lorenzetti shows in the left wall fresco that political opportunism and neglecting the common good are key causes of bad governance and the source of tyranny. Front and center in the scene is the figure of Tyranny, an armored, dark, horned creature that controls people.
At his feet is a bound and defeated figure of Peace. A figure holds Peace by a rope in contrast to the cord of Concordance, or Harmony, that comes from Justice, as shown in the central fresco. Society badly governed has come to a standstill. The scene is dark. There is no prosperity or happiness when a society is governed by a tyrant.
Then as now, sound stewardship is based on maintaining the well-being of all within its sphere.