Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1285/90 – 1348) was one of Siena Italy’s preeminent artists in the early Renaissance. Lorenzetti received one of the first secular commissions during the period. The government of Siena built the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) between1297 and 1308, and then commissioned Sienese artists to cover the walls with frescoes on secular themes
Lorenzetti was commissioned to paint the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” on the three walls of the Sala dei Nove (Room of the Nine) (25 feet wide and 47 feet long), where the nine leaders of the Sienese government met. Lorenzetti composed the two interior walls to showcase the character of good government on the shorter wall, and stretching down the longer wall the effects of good government on the city and the surrounding country. The opposite 47-foot wall is covered with a fresco depicting the character of bad government. Lorenzetti employs familiar Catholic virtues and vices as the allegorical images in this secular setting.
The leader of “Good Government” is the tallest and only male figure, seated in the middle of a bench throne. He is Siena and wears a silver helmet and holds a sceptre and shield. His long grey hair and beard reveal his age, and his serious facial expression suggests his determination. His importance is revealed by his hieratically large size and his elaborate gold and jeweled collar worn over a white ermine cape. The bench throne is draped with richly brocaded cloths of honor used to designate the significance of the sitter. The cloth of honor is traditional in images of kings, queens, and the Virgin. Siena and his government advisers are seated on the bench covered with the cloth of honor, giving great prominence to these secular figures.
On the bench from left to right are six figures, all female, representing Siena’s councilors. PAX (peace) is dressed in a white gown of Roman style. She wears a crown of palm leaves and holds a palm branch. She reclines casually against a pillow. FORTITUDE, ready to defend Siena, holds a blade and a long shield. At her feet, two mounted and armed soldiers, stand ready to support her. The figure of PRUDENCE, a mature woman who is decked in jewels, points to an inscription on an open scroll.
Circling Siena’s head are the three theological virtues. FEDES (Faith) holds a cross, CARITAS (Charity) holds a spear, and SPES (Hope) looks to a cloud in the sky where the face of Christ looks down upon her. At Siena’s feet are the Roman children Romulus and Remus who were said to be the founders of Siena. The she-wolf, who raised the abandoned twins, licks the back of one of the children. MAGNANIMITY holds a bowl in her lap. TEMPERANCE holds an hour glass, thought to be the first hour glass depicted in art. JUSTICE holds a sword, and in her lap are a crown and the head or a criminal. At the lower left of the raised bench throne are portraits of twenty-four prominent male citizens of Siena and a small group of soldiers. To the right of Romulus and Remus, a group of armed soldiers marshal a group of bound prisoners. Four additional mounted and armed soldiers stand between the prisoners and Siena’s advisors, the cardinal virtues.
At the far left of the composition, JUSTICE is depicted again as a young woman in a jeweled red gown. She sits on a separate draped throne, and has been discussed as resembling the enthroned Virgin. Mary was elected Queen of Siena by the citizens to avoid Papal authority. Above her is the winged figure of WISDOM, holding a book in her left hand and the scales of justice in her right hand. The scales of justice are in balance, as a red-robed angel beheads a guilty man in one, and a white-robed angel rewards two good citizen in the other. Seated at the feet of JUSTICE is VIRTUE. The twenty-four prominent citizens of Siena are united with VIRTUE and SIENA by a woven golden cord which they all hold.
Lorenzetti’s extensive cityscape and landscape frescoes were the first such landscapes since Roman times. The scene of city architecture contains several distinct buildings and towers in Lorenzetti’s Siena. The town is booming. At the left a queen, who wears a red gown and rides a white horse, and her entourage, are welcomed by two women. A group of men are engaged in discussion around a hexagonal table. Two small children stand nearby. At the center a group of nine women, thought to represented the Muses, dance in a circle to the beat of a tambourine. The exterior and interior of a shoe shop, with merchant, merchandise and customers are depicted in the next block. Just beyond, students are in a classroom. Another shop is depicted at the end of the block. Several roof tops above the school, a group of repairmen fix a roof. Back in the town square, a merchant delivers a load of wood. Behind him, a tailor applies his trade, and other workers can be seen working at their jobs. Several merchants bring goods into the city on pack horses. At the lower right, a shepherd herds his flock toward the city gate. Two women, one balancing a bundle on her head and the other holding a chicken in her arms, enter the city. The pink stone surrounding the city divides affluent city from the bountiful country.
The good life extends to the country as several horsemen and walkers exit the city, while others enter Siena. Siena is a hill-top town, and Lorenzetti has tried to show the location with an entrance hill. He depicts several fields under cultivation. A farmhouse and vineyard are shown at the center of the landscape. Hills, valleys, and rivers run through extensive cultivated field. The city of Siena and the surrounding country prosper as a result of good government. In the sky above, the figure of SECURITAS flourishes a large sign in her right hand to remind citizens and visitors that “…everyman can walk without fear…” She holds a gallows reminding all that justice resides here as well.
On the wall opposite “Good Government in the City and the Country,” Lorenzetti depicts the effects of “Bad Government in the City and the Country.” Ironically, this wall is an outer wall and has been subjected to hundreds of years of weather. Fresco is water-based paint and applied to plaster. This fresco has suffered severe damage. In this duplicate of the composition of ‘’Good Government,’’ TYRANNY, leads bad government, and is seated in the center of his councilors. The figure is androgynous, with crossed-eyes, horns and fangs, and a bloated body. Above him are AVARICE, SUPERBIA (Vice) holding a sword and yoke, and VAIN GLORY holding a mirror. At the feet of TYRANNY is a goat, a symbol of lust. Starting from the far left of the bench, WAR in helmet and armor brandishes a sword, DISCORD holds a loom and weaves a web of anxiety, confusion, and strife. A four-legged male monster holding a dagger stands next to TYRANNT. TYRANNY has three other advisors, FRAUD, TREASON and CRUELTY. At the feet of TYRANNY is the bound figure of JUSTICE, with the pans of the scale of justice broken.
“Bad Government in the City and Country” continues with scenes of crumbling buildings, a sick or dead person on the ground, and a woman in red being molested by two soldiers, one of whom holds a black shield. Although it is highly damaged, the figure of an artisan has been recognized as an armorer. The fresco of the countryside has suffered the most damage; however, the fields are barren, and it appears two armies are about to begin a battle.
Lorenzetti’s advance into secular art and allegory were part of a new direction in Italy in the 14th Century. His immediate predecessors, Duccio of Siena and Giotto of Florence, were inspirations toward a more natural approach to rendering images. Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308-11), was an important step in literature away from Latin toward the vernacular. Unfortunately for Ambrogio Lorenzetti and his older brother, Pietro, also an artist, the world of Europe was about to undergo a drastic upheaval. A crop failure left Siena in difficulty, but the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) (1346-1352) saw all of Europe suffer. The population of Florence was reduced by half and that of Siena by two-thirds. The plague took the lives of both Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, along with hundreds of thousands of others.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.