Monday, 5 April 2010

Ambrogio Lorenzetti - the first panorama

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government
Siena in 1340: 

Good Government: (top) the town (bottom) the countryside (1338-40)
Ambrogio Lorenzetti
about 6 foot 6 inches high

In the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena is one of the most amazing paintings ever created. It's actually a fresco on three walls.

It's a painting of the town of Sienna and the countryside round about in the fourteenth century - under good government and bad. It's not in the best of conditions but that's partly because it was painted in 1340.

However the real significance of The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti is that these frescos are probably the first landscape and the first townscape paintings ever completed. They are certainly the oldest paintings which have survived

I've seen them, very fortunately in the company of a painter who used to teach art history, and these frescos are sensensational. I could have spent a very long time in in the Hall of the Nine (also known as Sala della Pace). I came away with a very long scroll which shows the frescos in their entirety.

It's just worth bearing in mind that this fresco is 6 foot 6 inches tall and each of the long walls are about 45 feet long. You can get a sense of its size in this photograph which shows most of the good government side.

The paintings were created as a symbolic way of the government of Siena impressing on local people what was needed. This at a time when famine and pestilence were not uncommon features of everyday life in the dark ages.

The idea was that the business of government should be left top the nine merchants who were responsible for commissioning it - and who met in the room in which it is now situated. In essence under good government Siena prosperred and under bad government it disintegrates.

The principles which were symbolised in the frescos were those which meant Siena had enjoyed some 70 years of good government.

This is an extended extract from an excellent lecture by Dr. Richard Ingersoll, Rice University which is the best explanation of the painting which I can find on the Internet.
In the meeting chamber of the Noveschi, the Sala della Pace, is one of the great documents of the political ideology of a medieval citystate, part inscription and part painting, known as the cycle of Good and Bad Government. The frescoes were painted in 1340 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, who was evidently a member of the group of the ruling class and known, aside from his skill as an artist, for his wide knowledge of political theory. It is an extraordinary painting, quite unlike anything that came before or after it: it combines realistic visions of the landscapes of the good city and of the bad city with allegorical formulas of the virtues needed to accomplish good government. Using pre- perspectival spatial recession, Lorenzetti creates a marvelously unified view of the city and the country. The painting is a manifesto, and like all propaganda was intended as a reinforcing vision to those who were already convinced-- a lesson for the members of the Nine, who rotate every two months, reminding them of their values and goals.
I want to spend some time analysing Lorenzetti's painting as a way of concluding about the Medieval city. You were meant to view it from left to right, from the Bad city to the good city. The wall devoted to the Bad city is a reminder of the "Landscape of Fear" mentioned earlier from which society had emerged. It is inhabited by monsters, commonly reported in the harder times before the year 1000. Flying above the city gate is a ragged harpy figure labeled "Timor", or Fear, who brandishes a sword and carries a sign reading "Because each seeks only his own good, in this city, Justice is subjected to Tyranny; wherefore along this road nobody passes without fearing for his life, since there are robberies outside and inside the city gates." Below her we see the countryside ablaze with burning buildings and looting, abandoned fields, bridges blocked by soldiers. The gate to the city is also blocked by soldiers and inside the city is a mess, buildings are being torn apart, people are fighting, women are being raped. This city is like Dante's description of hell as "una citta dolente," a suffering city, and lives up to the city of the old feudal order. Next to the scene of the Bad city are the allegories of bad government with the horned figure of Tyranny in the center and with Justice bond at his or her feet.
On the next wall is the allegorical chart of Good Government where the figure of Justice as a fulcrum for the scales, is balanced with the crowned figure of il Buon Comun (the common good); they are linked by a rope, which passes by a figure named Concord (a pun for "with the rope") and 24 well-fed figures holding on to the rope in solidarity. The figure of peace, lounging on armor occupies the center of the composition and has given her name to the room. The appeal to justice is everywhere: "This holy virtue (justice) wherever she rules, induces to unity the many souls of citizens and they gather together for such a purpose to make the Common Good their Lord. Quite literally common good has precedence over self-interest. The picture makes clear that this is not a regime based on amnesty: justice is seen beheading those who deserve it and opposite the burghers is the city's militia having captured the thieves and enemies of the state and put them in chains: one of the major construction projects of the age will be the prison added to the rear of the Palazzo Pubblico.
Finally there is the portrait of the Good city, an idealization of Siena that showed it not in realistic detail but in rhetorical detail. As an answer to the other wall's Timor is the inscription Securitas (safety) and a blithe victory figure semi-clad holding a gallows and flying over the city gate with the inscription: "Without fear every man may travel freely and each may till and sow, so long as this commune shall maintain this lady Justice as sovereign, for she has stripped the wicked of all power." The composition is divided into two equal parts as if to say that the good city is an isomorphic balance of the city with its territory.
Inside the walls of the city, which has only a few identifiable details that make it Siena, like the campanile of the Duomo and the figure of the she-wolf over the gate. It is quite interesting that unlike renaissance views of the ideal city, Lorenzetti's ideal city boisterously full of people, dense to the point of bursting with a heterogenious variety of buildings, and unfinished. The message is much more about letting things be than forcing them into a new geometric order. There are no spaces as coherent as the Piazza del Campo (which incidently was paved five years after the painting) in the picture, but rather the casual collection of buildings, open at their base for business and with a multitude of windows. The population is a mix of nobles shown on horseback, merchants and shopowners and the popolino or peasants. There are no clergy present, nor any soldiers, which is quite contrary to the demographic statistics which would show several thousand religious people and at least 3000 troops used as police for the Commune. The nobles all seem to be leaving the city--they are free to circulate but in one view are leaving a gate in a wedding party and in another are going out of the gate to the hunt. In the archways of the shops you will find a wine shop where people are playing chess, a goldsmiths, a tailor, a shoemaker, a teacher with his class. The peasants are bringing wood and produce. Merchants have mules loaded with sacks, there are mean and women working on looms in the background. It is a city of work and exchange that is not immune to play or children and seems wonderfully free from conflict. The most bizarre set of out of proportion figures, nine girls dancing while one beats a tamburine, is clearly an allegory perhaps of the harmony of the Noveschi. There were laws against public dancing or wearing suptuous outfits in public. The buildings in the cityscape mostly have biforium windows, with flowerpots in them; there is construction going on, a sign of a healthy economy then as now, since a significant part of the economy was linked to the building trades.
Outside the gate we find the falconer, whose realistic turning of the body indicates a modern conception of space. Near him is a beggar and farmers bringing pigs and produce to merket. The countryside is well tended with villas and farms. Merchants are coming to the city across a bridge, and everything looks well watered. The allegorical nature of the picture is made clear by the presence of farmers planting in one part of the landscape and harvesting in another. In the distance is the sea, indicating Siena's port town of Talamone. The message is clear that in order to maintain prosperity, the Noveschi must continue to sponsor the maintenance of the roads. As the city had suffered a famine the year before the painting was begun, the abundance of the countryside is clearly a myth, that a coherent water policy was trying to substanstiate. Both the vision of the country and that of the city was recognizable as Siena, yet clearly one in which social conflicts and scarcity had dissolved. The ideology that the regime can justify its monopolization of power only if it serves an accountable system of justice penetrates all levels of this vision
Today it is a painting which can be enjoyed because it shows what a medieval city and countryside looked like in Italy in the fourteenth century. Other painters showed us interiors or single buildings but Lorenzetti shows us the masons, shopkeepers, shoemakers, tailors, farmers and travellers located within their normal environment.

The paintings have no perspective as such that we would recognise today. However they do convey spatial recession especially in the countryside sections.

So far as anybody knows there wasn't another painting like this for at least a century - and what's more there aren't many that have ever been painted which have the impact or significance of this one.

Sad to say Lorenzetti died of the plague.

He left behind a painting which is now rated one of the top ten sights in Tuscany. However I'd personally rate it a bit higher than that in terms of its significance in all sorts of different ways.........

You can see more of the frescos on Wikimedia Commons. There are also a couple of other sites which provide good images of the frescos
Plus some visitors who have written about it:

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