The Visual Representation of the Common Good

By: Gaelen Coleman

The Emergence of City States and the Common Good

Palazzo Publico in Siena, Italy

In the Middle Ages, northern Italy consisted of different villages and towns that surrounded various city-states. These cities states or Comuni emerged because of the impression of Roman colonization, urbanization and movement to cities, and the emergence of an entrepreneurial commercial class through an economy based on commerce and trade. The historical figure Otto of Freising explained “The inhabitants of Italy imitate the perspicacity of the ancient Romans in the ordering of towns and public matters. Indeed, they so much love liberty that to escape the arrogance of rulers they put themselves under the rule of consuls rather than of sovereigns.” These city-states were mostly independent; therefore, they were ruled by central officials, consuls, who acquired executive power, along with the podestà, the judicial, administrative, and military powers. Property-owning citizens of these city-states often participated in political life, including voting. Because these city-states were ruled by the people, the republics were everything to them and they had a collective social identity tied to the city (Maiellaro). Furthermore, the Catholic values that were embedded into the Italian government and people, gave way to a reverence towards the city. The people believed that God or patron saints ruled over, guided, and protected the city and the government officials in power. Therefore, these citizens strived and understood the importance of a common good for all inhabitants. A common good urges citizens to work together to promote a prosperous, knowledgeable, and peaceful society. This theme of a common good is prevalent throughout many pieces of art and literature made during the Middle Ages. One of the most significant depictions of the common good is Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco, “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” that resides in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena. The fresco informed those in power how to rule, which creates a utopian society, and how not to rule, which creates a dystopian society. This blog hopes to explore the theme of a common good illustrated throughout Lorenzetti’s fresco.  

The Allegory of the Good and the Bad Government

La Sala dei Nove (The Room of the Nine)

During the Middle Ages, the Council of the Nine of Siena would meet in the Palazzo Pubblico to perform executive functions. Within the room in which they met, La Sala dei Nove, Lorenzetti’s fresco resides on three of the four walls. The fourth wall is made of windows that shine light on the opposing wall on which the “Allegory of the Good Government” is located. On the walls next to the fresco of the good government, there is the “Effects of the Good Government” and opposing it is the “Allegory of the Bad Government.” The fresco depicting the bad government purposely sits in the shadows while the fresco depicting the good government sits in the light, signifying their difference and importance (Sorene). These frescoes were painted in this room to act as a reminder of the significance of and the impact the council’s decisions had on the people of their city.

The frescoes, pictured below, held the secular and political theme of a common good. Most art during the Middle Ages was of a religious nature. However, “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” is “one of the first examples of secular political art.” (Allegory of Good and Bad Government). Although this piece has a secular theme, it still illustrates it using religious imagery. In the modern age, the thought of religion being intertwined with the government is ludicrous. However, the Catholic ideals within the fresco and the government promoted the idea of the common good and social identity.

The Good Government

Justice and Wisdom in “The Allegory of the Good Government”

Within “The Allegory of the Good Government,” many virtues are personified, illustrating the virtues that should guide the council in the proceedings. In the fresco, Justice (pictured on the left) sits above the door of the room as a reminder to maintain justice as the government officials enter the room. It is important to note that Justice looks up to wisdom as she acts. Wisdom is an angelic figure that rules over the virtues depicted. This depiction emphasizes the interconnectedness of the two ideals and their significance in making a good government. Furthermore, the scales of Justice are connected by a rope that runs down to a figure representing Concordia (harmony). This figure holds this rope to a group of common citizens, who collectively hold it together. This cord, that comes from Justice, holds the people of Siena together, connecting them and holding them accountable (Zucker and Harris). This connectivity further represents the common good. All of these common people of Siena are connected illustrating that if one person acts selfishly, then the rope will break and cause issues. Furthermore, the rope is not only connecting the people but it is also connecting them back to the justice of the government. Therefore, if the government takes too much of the rope (abuses their power) then they will lose the connection to the people.

Virtues in “The Allegory of the Good Government”

On the right of the fresco, there is a large figure with a crown that represents the city of Siena or those who rule over it. On either side of this figure are virtues that come with a good government, such as peace. Peace is illustrated as relaxed because she is what the other figures are striving for. With decisions that align with these virtues, comes peace.

The Bad Government

Tyranny in “The Allegory of the Bad Government”

“The Allegory Bad Government” contrasts the depiction of a good government on the wall next to it. Similarly, the fresco of the bad government personifies different attributes that those in power lead with. However, this fresco depicts vices, such as war, pride, avarice, and cruelty. These vices all surround a large figure representing Tyranny. Tyranny is depicted with horns and fangs like the devil. This illustration further emphasizes the Catholic ideals within the government by connecting negative governments with hell and the devil. Additionally, the piece illustrates the negative aspects of acting for yourself, rather than the common good. The Catholic imagery targets the fear of hell and the Catholic values of the community of those who see the image. Therefore, it promotes the idea of the common good within the council and its members.

Justice in “The Allegory of the Bad Government”

Furthermore, the fresco depicts Justice tied up at the feet of Tyranny. This image explains that there can be no Justice when Tyranny reigns. The common people are not depicted or connected in this fresco because the government has abused all of their power, leaving them disconnected. Overall, this fresco depicts the vices that rule a bad government and the negation of a common good.

The Effects of the Government

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

Opposing each other, Lorenzetti painted two depictions of the effects that the government had on the city. Pictured above on the right is the “Effects of Good Government on the City.” This image is colorful and full of life. People are dancing, learning, conversing, and partaking in trade. The architecture is open and continually being built by citizens. This city is a utopia that promotes knowledge, peace, happiness, growth, and prosperity due to the decisions of its government. Compared to all of the other depictions of paradise, which are of nature, this is one of the earliest examples of an urban paradise (Zucker and Harris). These effects illustrate the rewards of a common good: collective happiness. Therefore, the image guides the council to make decisions that promote the common good. Contrastingly, Lorenzetti depicts the effects of a bad government. This image (pictured above on the left) depicts a destroyed city full of fighting, anger, darkness, pain, and greed. A woman is being taken forcefully away, while people lay on the ground in pain. This city is a dystopian hell, illustrating the effects of acting selfishly. The images collectively urge the government to act in hope of achieving a common good for the city and its people.

Left: “The Effects of the Bad Government on the Countryside”
Right: “The Effects of the Good Government on the Countryside”

Furthermore, the frescoes also depict the effects the government has on the countryside. In “The Effects of the Good Government on the Countryside” the countryside is prosperous with growing crops and workers in the field. This furthers the idea that a virtuous government creates a utopian prosperity society. In contrast, “The Effects of the Bad Government on the Countryside” depicts a burned barren countryside with no workers or crops. Armies infiltrate the land with no sign of happiness or prosperity. These two opposite depictions illustrate the effects of the common good and the effects of a selfish government.

Conclusion

Overall, the idea of the common good was prevalent throughout visual arts in the Middle Ages. The government of city-states continually hoped to maintain the republic through their Catholic values and their social identity as a community. This collective common good is evident throughout Lorenzetti’s fresco, “The Allegory of the Good and the Bad Government.” Through their imagery and placements, the frescoes guided and continue to guide those in power. Today, it is especially important for government officials to keep these values and lead with them. In his article “The Effects of Bad Government” Daniel W. Drezner explains the ties the fresco has to today’s society. He explains “Lorenzetti’s frescoes remind us, however, that the causality primarily works in reverse. 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.” The frescoes continually remind us of the impact that the government has on the people it rules over and an idea we should all strive for: the common good.

A Conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris in the Palazzo Pubblico

Above is a video going into further depth exploring the meaning and history of the “Allegory of the Good and Bad Government”

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