Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

My Daily Art Display today will, I hope, tempt you to travel and by so doing actually see today’s work of art.  Your journey will be well worth it and for those of you who live close to my proposed destination, I have to say I am indeed very jealous.   I have been there and the whole area is so beautiful and full of many places and things to see.  As an added bonus  for my female readers, I will also offer you an alternative way to lighten your hair à la Sienna !!


Sala della Pace

You need to go to Italy.  You need to go Tuscany.  You need to visit the beautiful city of Siena and to find today’s offering you need to visit the Plazzo Pubblico. The erstwhile palace is now the town hall.    Inside this beautiful building is the Sala dei Nove, also known as the Sala della Pace, where the nine chief magistrates held their meetings. 

On three walls of this high-ceilinged room is the fresco series painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and this work of his is looked upon as one of the most revolutionary and remarkable endeavours of the Renaissance.  Over the next three days I will show the three frescos, which are collectively known as Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government.  The aim of the frescos was to acclaim the political doctrine of the government of the Nove, who retained power in Siena until 1355.  The commissioning of the frescoes was uncommon for that time period as they were not commissioned by the church, as was the norm, but by the governing body of the city.  The scenes in some of the frescoes had nothing to do with religion and were definitely of a secular nature which in 14th century Italy was very unusual.  The group of frescoes elaborate on two themes.  Firstly that of justice and secondly the importance that private interests must always be secondary to the interests of the majority and  therefore for the common good of the majority.

Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c.1338-40)

The painted frescoes essentially work on two levels, one allegorical and symbolic and the other concerned with description and exemplification, while the whole cycle covers three walls of the great hall.   On the wall opposite the window, which is 7.7 metres long, is Allegory of Good Government, which is My Daily Art Display for today.    

The Allegory of the Good Government is situated on the smaller wall of the room and faces the windows. The fresco is built up from three horizontal bands. In the foreground the figures of contemporary Siena are represented. Behind them, on a stage, there are allegoric figures in two groups, representing the Good Government. The two groups are connected by the procession of the councillors. The upper band indicates the heavenly sphere with the floating body-less ghosts of the virtues.

The enthroned man on the right side of the middle band represents the city of Siena and embodies the Good Government.   Around his head the four letters C S C V (Commune Saenorum Civitatis Virginis) explain his identity. At his feet sit two children who are the sons of Remus, Ascius and Senius, the founders of Siena according to the Roman legends. On both sides of Siena the virtues of Good Government are represented by six crowned, stately female figures: Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right. On the far left of the fresco the figure of a woman, the personification of Justice, can be seen as she balances the scales held by Wisdom who is floating over her throne.  On the viewer’s left, a convicted criminal is beheaded; on the right, figures receive the rewards of justice. At Justice’s feet, the personification of Virtue, also, unusually for the time, portrayed as a female figure, passes virtue among twenty four recognizable images of prominent male citizens of Siena. The men face towards the largest figure in the image, a judge located in the centre-right.   The figure of Justice bears a resemblance to the figure of Mary, Queen of Heaven, the patron saint of Siena, on a throne. The Judge reflects the tradition in the Christian Last Judgment to have God or Christ judging the saved on the left; the damned on the right. While classified as medieval or proto (pre)-renaissance art, this fresco shows a transition in thought and an evolution in theme from earlier religious art.

The judge is surrounded by additional personifications including Peace, who is represented as a fashionable, white-clad contemporary female figure with elaborate blonde hair.  Although blonde hair was fashionable it was not the dominant hair colour of Italian women from this region but it was not unusual in those days for women to lighten their hair by streaking it with urine and letting it dry in the sun!

Below the fresco there is the signature of the painter:


Tomorrow and the day after I will look at the other two frescoes which appear on the walls of the Sala della Pace.