Good and Bad Governments: An Allegory by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338-39)

A few years ago I encountered the first edition of Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (1991) – published through Wiley-Blackwell – by British theologian John Milbank. Milbank is a founding figure of Radical Orthodoxy – a movement of British Anglo-Catholic scholars who are critical of many aspects of modern secular Western thought, which they insist are rooted in “an ontology of violence” (see a Canadian paper that attempts to explain what that means). I read just the introduction of this tome, which seemed energetically opposed to several Nietzsche-inspired philosophies of our time.

Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason by John Milbank (1991, Wiley-Blackwell)

Anyway, I’m not going to discuss the central thesis of the book here but simply draw attention to its cover. It is part of a fascinating and masterful series of frescoes painted in 1338-39 by Sienese artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c. 1290–1348). The murals are located in the Sala dei Nove (Salon of Nine or Council Room) in the Palazzo Pubblico (or Town Hall) of Siena. Grounded in AristotelianThomistic philosophy, the six different scenes are:

  • Allegory of Good Government,
  • Effects of Bad Government in the City,
  • Effects of Bad Government in the Countryside,
  • Allegory of Bad Government,
  • Effects of Good Government in the City and
  • Effects of Good Government in the Countryside

(Last two aren’t in a good condition.)

The series is a “civic” work but makes references to both Christian theology and Classical philosophy and mythology. It makes sense that this piece of visual ethics was created in the 14th century, a turbulent time for warring Italian city-states that were also marked by internecine rivalries.

The Frescoes by User “Joanbanjo”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

A brief description of the scenes:

What do we see in Good Government? – On the right, the personification of Wisdom as a man, flanked by six females: Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left and Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right. (Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance and Justice being cardinal virtues). Above are Faith, Hope and Charity (theological virtues). On the left of the mural, Justice balances the scales of Wisdom.

In the foreground are citizens with cords offered to them by “Concord”.

The text below reads:

This holy virtue [Justice], where she rules, induces to unity the many souls [of citizens], and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good [ben comune] their Lord; and he, in order to govern his state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the Virtues who sit around him. Therefore to him in triumph are offered taxes, tributes, and lordship of towns; therefore, without war, every civic result duly follows –useful necessary, and pleasurable.

The Allegory of Good Government, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

In the City under the Good Government, we see palaces, markets, towers, churches, streets and walls. Various trades, a wedding procession. The Nine Muses dancing. The Country is a bucolic landscape with the hovering figure of Security.

The Effects of Good Government in the City, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The Effects of Good Government in the Countryside, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

What do we see in Bad Government? – On the right, a Tyrant with horns and fangs, a goat under his feet (symbolising luxury). Justice is bound before him. Tyrant is flanked by Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division and War. On top are the vices of Avarice, Pride and Vainglory.

Sadly, we can’t see the City and Countryside clearly in this case.

The Allegory and Effects of Bad Government, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The Tyrant, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Philosophy and Public Administration: An Introduction by Edoardo Ongaro (2017, Edward Elgar Publishing)

In his book Philosophy and Public Administration: An Introduction (2017), Edoardo Ongaro of Northumbria University unpacks the meaning of the Good Government very well. This is not a text on art history but makes use of art to shed light on political theory and practice. Professor Ongaro writes:

Logical connections may be drawn amongst the virtues. It is primarily from Wisdom and Justice that stem the conditions leading to the common good and a thriving political community. However, once this status is provisionally achieved, in order to maintain and protect it over time Fortitude is required, to maintain incorrupt behaviours and ultimately protect the common good from enemies arising both from the outside and and from within the community. In fact, unity in the community is highly valued and upheld, also by physically placing it centre stage in the painting: this is indication of the significance attributed to the virtue of Concord.

Also, he notes the “centrality” of the theological virtue of Charity in Good Government (she is immediately above Wisdom, between Faith and Hope). He continues on virtue-inspired civics:

…it may be claimed that virtue-inspired government and governance has only the sky as its limit: it is literally about striving to achieve ‘perfection’. The thrust towards perfection is inherent in the virtue discourse and present since Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophical speculation on the just society. The masterpieces all around in Siena and elsewhere across Italy, in public spaces and churches, acted as powerful reminders – to Ambrogio Lorenzetti and also to his fellow citizens – of a common, diffuse effort to strive towards perfection and the divine that was driving the minds and hearts of the peoples of Italy during a period in which signories [the governing body of a medieval Italian republic] and city-states were flourishing across the peninsula (paving the way to the Italian Renaissance).



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