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The Allegory of Good and Bad Government

In Tuscany during the first part of the 14th century, the small, self-governing city of Siena commissioned Ambrogio Lorenzetti to create three monumental frescoes for the town hall. These paintings, uniquely secular in an age of religious art, describe the values and challenges of republican rule. The fresco as a whole is an allegory about the virtues necessary for good government and the vices that bring about tyranny. It depicts different forms of labor, recreation, and ceremony, and it warns against failings that can turn a prospering city and its fertile countryside into a barren wasteland haunted by famished victims of greed, fear, and exploitation. The panel on the eastern wall, entitled “The Good City- Republic,” shows all classes of Italian society—church, aristocracy, merchant and peasant – mingling in the city’s prosperous streets and on the fertile fields.

In the center panel, a court of justice sits watch. Tranquil, allegorical female figures—Justice, Magnanimity, and Peace, all of which loom much larger than the human citizens of Siena—preside over this portrayal of the good life and the tendencies that threaten it.

On the west wall, the artist depicts the consequences of bad government. Here a civic nightmare is imagined: “The City State Under Tyranny.” No matter where we look, there is trouble. Every scene is a story of self-serving schemers set loose in a chaotic landscape, hell-bent on doing their worst. In this city where Tyranny holds court and Justice lies bound and tethered, her scales thrown down. Winged fear presides.

A voluntary collective of prosperous merchants known as “The Nine” met regularly beneath the fresco, which covers three of the four walls in the Sala Dei Nove. They looked to the painting for guidance in steering the community always in the direction of “good government”. This fresco expresses concerns about the fragility of society in Tuscany at the very threshold of the Italian Renaissance. It displays the good and bad aspects of its own times and tries to demonstrate that good government will create better citizens. Today, its message seems surprisingly prophetic.

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