By: Eliza Roth
Il Buon Comune, or “the common good,” is a crucial part of Italian identity. The importance of “the common good” means maintaining what is best for everyone; the government and the people must work together to preserve it. It precedes self-interest, meaning everyone should respect other people’s rights, and Justice is the goal rather than individual interest. With both the government and everyday people working towards the concept of the “common good,” everyone is working towards a better city-state and society as a whole. Within this piece, I will be discussing and analyzing the permeation of il Buon comune in Italian society through visual arts during the Renaissance, literature, and architecture.
Allegory of the Good Government, fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
Visual Arts and Il Buon Comune
Throughout the entirety of the renaissance, art was often used as a way for people to express their values. This was especially true for religious art, which was often used to depict religious scenes and stories in order to teach people about the beliefs of the Catholic church. However, art was also used to express other values, such as the importance of individualism, humanism, and the pursuit of knowledge. For example, many Renaissance artists were interested in depicting the human form in a realistic and individualized way, which reflected the value placed on the individual during this time period. Ultimately, the arts played an important role during this time period in expressing the values and beliefs of Renaissance society.
The concept of “common good” was reflected in the art of the period, which often depicted scenes from classical mythology or history that exemplified the virtues of civic duty and selfless service to the community. Lorenzetti produced A Good and Bad Government with the intention to both promise and threaten Siena as a whole. By using an allegoric representation, Lorenzetti wanted to give a more legitimate structure to the post-feudal government. After the controlling feudal rule, the people of Siena needed reassurance and to foster a check-and-balance system to keep the government just. The scale that Justice holds weighs the moral components that make something just. On each of the scales is a cord that goes to another figure who creates equality in society and is “smoothing” the uneven parts. At the podium that says “Concordia,” the cords are connected and handed to a person in a robe, then run through all the city counselors. These people represent the people of Siena and hold the cords that “belong” to Justice. They are being held accountable by Justice itself. The thread visually connects all of these elements; everyone is in the same boat, so they have to work for the common good. One additional part of the piece that is worth noting is the allegory of Peace. The woman who represents peace is relaxing on the couch because when all of the other aspects of the government are held in check, she can relax as well.
Renaissance art often celebrated the beauty and harmony of the natural world, which can also be seen as a reflection of the idea of the common good, as it suggests that people should work together to preserve and protect the natural world for the benefit of all.
Literature and Il Buon Comune
Literature was utilized during the Renaissance as a means of education and the dissemination of knowledge. The Renaissance was a time of great intellectual growth, and literature played a key role in spreading new ideas and theories about a wide range of subjects, including science, philosophy, and art. Additionally, literature was also used as a way for people to express their own personal beliefs and values. The Renaissance was a time of great cultural and artistic achievement, and many writers used their works to explore complex ideas and emotions.
Dante’s Inferno, which is part of the epic poem Divine Comedy, is a work of literature that explores the concept of the common good. In the poem, Dante travels through the nine circles of hell and encounters various figures who have committed various sins and crimes. As he journeys through hell, Dante sees that each person’s actions, whether good or bad, have an impact on the common good and that, ultimately, it is the responsibility of each individual to strive for the common good.
Specifically, in Dante’s Inferno, he references the concept of the “common good.” The Commedia claims to be the true account of a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, which Dante undertook by the will of God and through the intercession of his love Beatrice. Paradise is the representation of heaven, the state of those who live with Christ forever in the friendship and presence of God. Purgatory is a state in which the souls of those who have died in grace must expiate their sins. Hell is the state of definitive self–exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives.
In class, we spent time analyzing Cantos III, and X. Farinata degli Uberti was a part of the opposing political party to Dante and his family, so Dante and Farinata were enemies. In Canto X, there is a scene where Farinata and Dante fight with each other and are bickering, and the conversation is heated. The first question that Farinata asks Dante is,
“And who would your ancestors be?”(Alighieri 42).
This line reveals the relationship between family and politics in thirteenth-century Italy. Both Dante and Farinata had families who were involved in the politics of Florence.
“Bitter enemies of mine they were and of my ancestors and of my party”(Alighieri 46-48).
The bad blood between the two families went back to their ancestors. As a Florentine leader of the Ghibellines, Farinata was an enemy to the party of Dante’s ancestors. They conversed and used harsh language that created an argumentative mood during this scene. With Farinata and Cavalcante sharing a tomb, one would assume that they would share grief, as they are both in a tomb. Although that was the case, Farinata did not care that Cavacante’s son would have been dead. He did not care about his grief. This episode between them shows how caught up both families are, even in hell, with politics and family. Within this section, language is used as a source of incomprehension and incompatibility. It reflects what they do in real life. The City of Dis represents the city of Florence itself, as these Florentines act in a parallel way in hell and in life.
Within Canto X, Dante tells fellow citizens what makes a bad city and reminds them what should be the city because this city is their hell. The purpose of this interaction was to show that the Circle of Heretics shows how caught up both families are, even in hell, with politics and family. Within this section, language is used as a source of incomprehension and incompatibility. It reflects what they do in real life. The City of Dis represents the city of Florence itself, as these Florentines act in a parallel way in hell and in life. Dante tells fellow citizens what makes a bad city and reminds them what the city should be because this city is their hell.
We can interpret that Inferno was an expression of civic values prized during Dante’s time because it had a traditional framework focused on religiosity. This same concept of religiosity was also the framework for Lorenzetti’s fresco, The Good and Bad Government. Both of these pieces utilized the idea of the “common good.”
Architecture and Piazzas and Il Buon Comune
Piazzas reflect “il Buon comune” as a large public space used to benefit the good of the community, such as with civic duties, religious ceremonies, trade, and socializing. They allowed the government and community to interact together and form a communal, cultural identity with an emphasis on the surrounding community comes from. In this way, piazzas can help to promote a sense of community and social cohesion, which are essential for the common good. Additionally, piazzas can also provide a space for public events, such as concerts, festivals, and other gatherings, which can help to bring people together and foster a sense of belonging and shared purpose.
As time progressed and the people’s ideology shifted from being religion-based to human-based, city-states represented their political autonomy in the forms of their public buildings and spaces. These spaces responded to the political tension between civic and religious powers. This form of a new urban identity was dominated by defined public areas such as piazzas. This integration of religious elements into the civil order of the city helped establish civic authority through architectural and urban forms. Both the civic and political values expressed in these buildings and open spaces were created for the purpose of creating a community between citizens and the authority.
The photo above is of Piazza Dell’Annunziata a Firenze.
Piazza dell’Annunziata, also known as the Annunciation Square, is a public square located in the center of Florence, Italy. The square is named after the church of the Annunciation, which is located on the north side of the square. The church was built in the 14th century and is known for its Renaissance-style architecture and frescoes.
In the context of Piazza dell’Annunziata, the common good refers to the importance of maintaining and preserving the square as a public space for the enjoyment and benefit of all members of the community. It is an exemplary piazza because it utilizes harmonious proportions and rhythms of the design of space and depth. It also uses geometric forms such as arches and columns to express the ideal. Finally, the centrality of the piazza can be understood as a manifestation of overall harmony in Florence.
Overall, piazzas play a vital role in maintaining the common good by providing a space for people to come together and engage with one another in meaningful ways.
Longevity of Il Buon Comune
The idea of the common good was upheld during this period through political and social institutions. Italian city-states during the Renaissance were organized around the idea of the common good, with a strong emphasis on the importance of civic duty and public service.
Renaissance art often depicted scenes from classical mythology or history that exemplified the virtues of the common good, such as selflessness and dedication to the community. Additionally, the Renaissance saw a renewed interest in classical learning and values, in which the idea of the common good was maintained, as classical texts often emphasized the importance of working for the benefit of the community.
By utilizing forms of art, the concept of the common good will continue to be maintained. None of these art forms perish easily and are pushed onto future generations through education.
Renaissance art depicted the human form in a realistic and individualized way, expressing the values and beliefs of society. Since these are maintained in museums and taught and analyzed in schools, the concept of the “common good” lives on. Additionally, literature is still used as a way for people to express their own personal beliefs and values, and many writers used their works to explore complex ideas and emotions during this time period. Finally, piazzas reflect “il Buon comune” as a large public space used to benefit the good of the community, allowing the government and community to interact together and form a communal, cultural identity with an emphasis on the surrounding community.
Alighieri, Dante, and Gerald J Davis. The Divine Comedy: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis. Bridgeport, Connecticut, Insignia Publishing, 2021.
Drezner, Daniel W. “Perspective | the Effects of Bad Government.” Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/01/effects-bad-government/.
Mencaroni, Alessia. “RIFLESSO – L’armonia Rinascimentale Espressa Nella Piazza Della SS. Annunziata a Firenze.” Www.riflesso.info, http://www.riflesso.info/architettura-articoli-precedenti/item/1370-numerose-sono-le-curiosita-che-si-annidano-in-questa-piazza-tra-monumenti-storia-trovatelli-e-api-al-cospetto-della-regina. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.
Niccolò Machiavelli, et al. The Prince. London, Penguin, 2003.