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.
A contemporary of Giotto (1267–1337), Lorenzetti painted his frescoes just as the Renaissance kicked off. His paintings of almost 300 figures present allegorical figures of a higher realm watching over Siena, where the locals engage in their normal activities in the city and countryside.
Justice Over All
On 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 Rules
A 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 City
On 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.
Lorenzetti was able to show accurate representations of Siena’s city life, and this scene merges flawlessly with the majestic landscapes of rural Siena. There is a steady stream of farm produce entering through the gates of the city. The artist fills Siena’s rolling hills with all kinds of crops in the fields and orchards.
Statesmen 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.”
Centuries later, statesman and third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson mirrored the words of Socrates, as well as the images in Siena’s Council Room when he said, “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”
Even today, people look to Lorenzetti’s frescoes for answers. The website Organic Cities draws these conclusions: “Genuine prosperity, the artist tells us, is possible if agriculture, craftsmanship, and trade are intertwined and interdependent, if the city and the countryside are in dialogue. Only then will the explosion of grandeur in the buildings shape and embellish the urban design. Only then will the well-finished houses, the stores, the schools, and the streets be populated by people of all social strata engaged in work, exchange, and leisure. It is only by respecting the tranquil rhythm of the seasons that the countryside, shaped by man to nourish an increasing number of people, will guarantee to all the serenity of their living or working contexts and in their peaceful and continuous movements.”
The Lorenzetti Governance Foundation, founded in 2020, seeks to brings us back to good government. It intends to do this by “[b]ringing the ideas of Lorenzetti’s unique frescoes to our time and thereby solving administrative problems of large cities. Today, these three frescoes are still a source for testing the quality of governance and are an inspiration for administrative renewal. Good Governance does not serve the administrators, the state or the city, but is subservient to the citizens and their own state or city.”
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.