Il “Buon Comune”

The Allegory of Good and

Bad Government

An exploration of common good in the Italian city states during the Middle Ages

By: Nicole Kraemer

Watch this video to gain an allegorical understanding of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” located in Siena, Italy.

In the Middle Ages, Northern Italian city states thrived due to the idea of the common good. This promotes everyone working together towards a peaceful and prosperous existence. The idea of common good is depicted in Lorenzetti’s fresco, “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” painted in the years 1337 to 1339. When peace and prosperity are maintained in society, people are happy and support the state therefore buying into a community or local identity. “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government”, which resides in Siena, illustrates what role the leaders and common people play in contributing to a well-functioning society. In doing so, it promotes good government and citizenship and helps future generations understand why Italian city states in the Middle Ages were successful in their governance for quite a long time. The fresco remains relevant and important today as “The memory preserved within this fresco warrants attention from everyone as a reminder that politics holds society together.” (Shirqille)

            This blog entry explores Lorenzetti’s fresco specifically through its allegory and integration into public thought in Siena. The video above explains the allegory in detail. The pictures throughout this page serve to expand on the idea of common good beyond the fresco. This paper will dive deeper into the allegorical meaning behind “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government”, followed by an explanation of the city states government and how it came about, ending on how the idea of common good contributes to a community or local identity.

            Pictured below, is “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government”. It takes up three walls in the Salon of Nine or Council Room in the city of Siena. The fourth wall is made of windows and as such, the fresco encloses the room. “The Allegory of Good Government takes up the whole wall at one end opposite the windows. The Effects of Good Government fill one of the long walls of the room to the right of Good Government. Bad Government and its effects take up the opposite left wall, which is always (significantly) in shadow.” (Sorene) The shadow on bad government and its effects reminds the council of the looming doom surrounding bad government. Fresco is a style of painting where pigments are mixed with freshly applied plaster directly on the wall fully integrating these images into the room. The location of this fresco is paramount as this room is where the council met to make decisions. Looking at this fresco served as a reminder of the scale of the impact that these decisions had on their city.  

            Another important aspect in understanding this painting is that “The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government has a secular rather than a religious theme – a rare characteristic at a time when the bulk of all Proto-Renaissance art consisted of religious paintings.” (Allegory of Good) This secularity reveals that political motives were only loosely tied to the church, as it was more important to govern well for the common good than to let religious affiliations guide decisions. Although a secular painting, there are strong Christian elements in the way that common good is expressed in this fresco. As mentioned in depth later, shared religion in the city states contributed to a shared local identity. Particular Christian values of being a good citizen and devotion to a common liberty directly relate to the fresco as this painting would remind council members of their duty to not only their city but also to their faith further pushing them to make just decisions.

            It’s interesting to explore this allegory through the eyes of the council members that would walk in and see it. Afterall, this painting was created for the council members to make them cognizant of their decisions. As they note in the video above, the council members enter the room under the figure of “justice” almost as if she blesses them as they enter. She is the first reminder of their role as council member- to maintain justice in Siena. Justice looks up to wisdom as these two tenants are imperative to good governance. When they work together, there is peace. To their right, the council members can see the embodiment of peace. She is relaxed because everyone else is working together to maintain peace. Here, her job is easy. Below them are the concord of city councilors all holding a rope. These are common people, working to maintain order. The rope represents that all of the people are connected. It’s the same idea as the cliché that “you’re only as good as your weakest link”. This applies to the city. If one person acts out, that person can make life harder for everyone else. The fact that common people are included in this painting emphasizes that common good only works if everyone is on board. If there is good governance but it’s not backed by the people, it’s harder to maintain peace. Similarly, if the people are obedient but the government takes advantage, peace is difficult to keep as well. People are given responsibility and take responsibility for their actions towards a greater good which is quite a modern vision of politics and why these frescos are still important today.

            To the right of good government, the council members see the effects of good government. The painting is colorful and bright representing prosperity in the city. Both the city and countryside are bustling with activity further portraying the abundant impact of good governance. People are dancing in the streets, crops are being harvested, items are being brought into the city to be sold, and scholars can be seen lecturing students. Overall, this depicts Siena as a utopia. As Steven Zucker says in the video above, this is the “earliest example where paradise existed in an urban context” instead of paradise seen in nature which was the norm. This is interesting because when paradise is depicted in nature, it’s usually allegorical but here, Lorenzetti beautifully depicts a city and countryside of Siena as a potential allowing the council people to see their very own city while making decisions.

Left: Lorenzetti’s “Allegory and Effects of Bad Government”
Right: Lorenzetti’s “Effects of Good Government on the City”

            On the left wall, the council members see bad government and its effects and it’s a drastic warning. Note that good government gets its own wall and the effects of good government get its own wall. There’s little to see in a city and countryside that is ridden with tyranny. Instead of justice in charge, tyranny is in charge and he’s surrounded by vices like betrayal, fraud, and war. He has horns like the devil relating a bad government and its effects to hell and yet another Christian symbol. Justice lays at his feet, clearly defeated and bound showing that there can be no justice in a bad government. People are seen fleeing the city as it’s no longer a good place to live, crops are barren, and there are fires. In this depiction of the effects of bad government, the city and countryside are quite literally crashing and burning. City officials aren’t seen in the depiction of good government because society is working so well that they’re not needed to maintain order. However, in the depiction of bad government, police are seen taking action. As Drezner puts it, “When the capricious actions of the state signal an absence of justice, trust between a government and its citizens withers. The outcome is an omnipresent, militarized state and an impoverished civil society.” (Drezner) This image reminds the council that force will not be needed if peace is maintained which is preferable for everyone involved.

Map of Italy during the Middle Ages.

            To understand the importance of this fresco, it’s imperative to understand the structure of the city states and how they came about. Each city state was free to govern themselves but, being that they were similar in structure as they each began to urbanize, they fell into similar governing styles. There was a deep impression of Roman colonization that led to the formation of the city states. Out of an abundance of precaution, the Siena republic was structured so that leaders would not have enough power to become tyrannical. They accomplished this by having the council change every two months. As such, the fresco was an important reminder for the rulers to internalize their positions and the power they truly had as council people. The city state of Siena was very wealthy due to manufacturing and banking and therefore did not want to risk this wealth through tyrannical leadership.

            More broadly in Italian city states, instead of having nobles, they had diocese and clergy that served as the ‘ruling’ parties (Maiellaro). Because of this, the cities grew more and more independent and autonomy became the base for the civic tradition of the medieval northern cities. Civic values tied the cities together. So, although ruled by large amounts of diocese and clergy split in each city state, overall, there was a sense of commonality in the religious values of the Northern people. This directly resulted in a sense of common good instilled in the people. The idea of being a good Christian ties into being a good society member and therefore contributing to a greater good and taking responsibility for one’s actions.  

            The idea of common good is inherently related to the creation of a local identity. When a group of people works together unselfishly so that everyone may prosper, they unify their ideas and form a shared identity. It’s more difficult to maintain a shared identity when there is chaos, therefore good government and its effects results in a happy society- one that buys into their shared identity. Exploring the allegorical depictions in Lorenzetti’s “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” reflects the idea of common good in the Italian city states during the Middle Ages, especially in Siena. With a shared religion and shared civic responsibility in Siena, the idea of common was established allowing the republic to prosper.

Other Examples of Common Good

The Southern Italian culture of the Middle Ages also reflected a shared idea of common good. There was a shared culture of acceptance and an assimilation overtime of architecture, language, and food. The main cultures that contributed to the Southern Italian culture were Greek, Arabic, Jewish, and Roman which was largely due to the way the Norman people governed the South. The Normans allowed Greeks, Muslims, and Jews to retain their own laws and be judged by their own judges. The Normans also brought Romanesque architecture which blended with middle eastern architectural elements. (Maiellaro)

To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity.

Pope Benedict XVI

Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo
This cathedral has a Catholic inside, Romanesque outside, Muslim columns, and the paintings acknowledge all four cultures. (Maiellaro)

Tombstone of a Norman Sicilian noblewoman
This tombstone is inscribed in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. The inscriptions talk about the religious backgrounds of the respective languages and the years are all based on different calendars. (Maiellaro)

Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo
This Christian church features Arab architectures. The combination of Romanesque architecture with cupolas might allow the church to equally pass as a mosque or Greek or Norman basilica. (Maiellaro)

Dante’s Hell from his The Divine Comedy

Dante’s Hell– The concept of “common good” is largely related to Dante’s classifications of sins in Hell. At first glance, the breakdown of Hell seems peculiar with murderers not in the ‘worst’ category. But, Dante separates hell in this way because of the concept of “common good”. As you impact more people, your sin is classified as worse. The first layer of Hell is made up of sinners that commit acts that impact virtually only themselves. However, moving further down into the depths of Hell, the sins impact more than the sinner. In the fraud category, thieves are here because they damage the common good by taking from others. Deeper down, traitors are not only taking from the common good but also taking from people they are personally tied to making the sin more extreme. Dante’s interpretation of Hell encourages people to not commit sins at all but especially against others for those who do will be punished more severely.

Nicole Kraemer

Nicole Kraemer is a student at Northeastern University studying Communications and Media and Screen Studies. She hopes to work in the film and television industry upon graduation. She’s an Army ROTC Cadet and member of Chi Omega sorority. She’s planning on studying abroad in Italy to continue to expand her knowledge of the Italian language and culture.

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