Saturday, February 18, 2012

TIMELESS WISDOM AND A WARNING TO ALL POLITICIANS FROM THE MEDIEVAL SIENESE

Security, holding a proclamation and overseeing the countryside on the outskirts of  Siena, with peasants working the fields and noblemen riding ( c.1337) detail from Good Government fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Siena is, historically, the closest great rival to the Republic of Florence. The families of the two wealthy banking republics vied for the role of papal bankers during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as well as fighting it out on the battle field, before Florence rose supreme. After a brutal siege which began in 1554 and lasted nine months, the Sienese surrendered to Duke Cosimo de Medici and the Spanish Imperial troops who were camped around the city and who had been starving the Sienese to death. Shortly afterwards, Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Florence, became Duke of Florence and Siena.

Cosimo de Medici's triumphal entry into the newly conquered city of Siena, pedestal bronze bas-relief on the equestrian sculpture in the piazza della Signoria by Giambologna, 1590s.
From the thirteenth century Siena had been a wealthy republic with a developed government body. She made her wealth from the trade generated from the via Francigena (the ‘French road’, as called by the Italians because it lead them to France, called by the French the via Romea, as it lead them to Rome - it was the highway from northern Europe to Rome) which ran straight through the city. 

Map of the via Francigena as documented in his diary by the Archbishop of Cantebury, Sigeric, in 990.
The Sienese became money lenders and merchants to an international community. The high road of Siena is indeed called banchi di sopra which translates into 'the banks of the high road'.  By the thirteenth century, Siena was a wealthy city-state and of course began to invest in the urban landscape. The remodelling of their cathedral had already begun the century before as well as the building of their government building – the two most important centres of the city. They are both splendid displays of the sophistication of the city during this period.

The cathedral of Siena
The town hall of Siena
Inside the town hall of Siena is one of my most favourite fresco cycles. The Good and Bad Government cycle was commissioned by the Republic of Siena to one of their leading painters, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, for the walls of the room where the Council of Nine, the highest and most important government elected body at the time in the Republic, met to discuss matters of state in private.
Lorenzetti finished the cycle of freschi parlanti (called speaking frescoes due to their highly communicative nature) in 1339, as can be read in the border below of one of the three major scenes.

The room isn’t overly large and the exquisite allegorical cycle covers three of the four walls.  Each wall depicts a complex scene: an allegory of Good Government virtues and characteristics represented by personifications, The Good City urban landscape, and thirdly, The Bad Government and City. The remaining fourth wall, with the only window, looks down onto the town hall square below, and provides a reminder to the Council of Nine of the civic responsibility entrusted to them.

On the opposite wall to the window is the allegory of Good Government, a series of personifications of the virtues and objectives which represent, allegorically, what the priorities and moral ethic should be of all those involved in governing.

Allegory of Good Government fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Sala dei Nove
The inscription of the personification is written in Latin above. Sapentia (wisdom), with her book in hand, holds the scales of Justice which are regulated by Justice herself, seated below. There are two equally important parts, distributive and communitive justice. Two ropes descend below the scales which are entwined by Concordia (harmony), who in turn passes the unified rope to a series of twenty four men, of equal standing, who represent the general assembly of Siena. They pass the rope up to the personification of the Common Good (or, Good Government), who is dressed in the Sienese national colours, black and white, with the initials CS and CV on either side of his head, Commune of Siena, city of virtue. Above are the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) and on either side are the four cardinal virtues (temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude) along with two additions seemingly considered of equal standing by the Sienese, peace and magnanimity.

The Good City

The Good Countryside
The next wall, ‘The Good City', shows the effects on a city if governed according to the principles of the Good Government. The shops are full, business is booming, the school is full of attentive students, the city is expanding with extra levels being added onto the existing buildings. There are nine women dancing in the street in time to the beat of one tamborine, who symbolically represent the rhythm and harmony which resonate in the city when the Council of the Nine have the common good as their priority. This allegorical ideal city becomes all the more local when the religious centre is noticed in the top left hand corner with black and white striped campanile and duomo. Outside the city’s walls is Security, flying high and overseeing the countryside which is booming with bountiful harvests and plump wildlife.

On the opposite wall, however, doom and gloom reign, the only possible outcome when Tyranny takes place of Good Government.

Bad Government
This wall has both the allegorical representations of Bad Government as well as the fall-out in the effects on the city and countryside in one continuous scene, rather than separated over two walls.

Allegorical representation of Bad Government
 On the left of Tyranny is Cruelty (tormenting a baby with a snake), then comes Treason (a man holding a lamb with a scorpion’s tail) and Fraud (a woman with bats wings and claws as feet). On the right hand side is, from the far right, War (holding a shield), Division (cutting herself in half) and Fury (a wolf). Above Tyranny, where the theological vitues were above Good Government, are from the left, Greed, Pride and Vainglory. At the feet of Tyranny is Justice, bound and with her regulating scales broken at her feet.

The effects of Bad Government on the city are disastrous.  Where there had been renovation and expansion there is now only disrepair and abandonment. The shops and schools are empty, the only craft flourishing is the blacksmith making weapons. People are being knocked down in the street and arrested without Justice. Outside the walls is Fear, and the countryside is burnt and ransacked. Ironically, the frescoes on this wall are quite damaged, due to the salt storage that was kept in line with the wall in the lower storeys.

Detail of effects of Bad Government on the city
This is one of the earliest surviving civic frescoes in Europe and is something not to be missed when visiting Siena. It provides some timeless food for thought for what the political objectives should be for all elected to governments in any period, anywhere.

Afterwards, Siena also provides sustenance for the appetite you will have worked up with all this cultural beauty!  Tucking in to some wonderful Cavallucci and Ricciarelli biscuits, and panforte cakes, with a coffee is the perfect balance for the perfect daytrip from Florence.

Panforte - perfect with coffee
The Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) is open every day from 10am-7pm from mid-March to the end of October, and in the winter months 10am-6pm.  Admission is 8€.

From Florence it is possible to catch the train from the main train station Santa Maria Novella, however catching the bus is faster and more direct. The Sita bus company depot is opposite the train station and buses leave twice hourly to Siena.  The journey takes approx 1.15 hours.

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