by Bonnie James
The following article was originally published on June 28, 1999 in The New Federalist. It is reproduced here with minor editing by the author. The occasion for its republication is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death on September 14, 1321, which will be marked throughout the year with many commemorations honoring Italy’s national poet and world historical/cultural treasure.
Four hundred and fifty years before the adoption of the United States Constitution and its Preamble, the concept of the “general welfare” was presented in a magnificent fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, Italy. This painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti demonstrates the dramatic changes that began to take place in Tuscany a century before Italy’s “Golden Renaissance.” Coherent with, and directly influenced by the thinking and writing of Dante Alighieri, the Lorenzetti frescoes reflect the emergence of the concept of the nation-state, and of the statecraft required to create it.
Set in the Palazzo Pubblico, or Town Hall, of the important medieval city-state of Siena—Florence’s leading rival in Tuscany—these murals depict the consequences, in terms of the physical economy, of good and bad rule. The paintings occupy three entire walls of a huge room in the Palace, measuring 14 meters by 7.7 meters (about 47×25 feet). Painted 660 years ago, they employ the traditional fresco technique in which tempera paint is applied to wet plaster, and dries with the wall making, it is relatively permanent.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, who was active 1319-1347, and his older brother Pietro, were among a handful of sculptors and painters who formed an artistic bridge between the Medieval art which predominated in Siena, and the revolutionary New Style (Dolce Stile Nuovo) which began to emerge in Florence around that time, exemplified by the work by the celebrated painter and architect, Giotto di Bondone (1276-1337). Giotto forged a pathway in painting and architecture, which led—after the calamitous disruption caused by the Black Death, which plunged Europe into a Dark Age for nearly 100 years—into the Florentine Golden Renaissance of the 15th Century.
It is well established that Ambrogio was in Florence several times during his brief lifetime (he died at 28 of the plague); he returned in 1331-1332, where he is thought to have come into contact with Giotto and his followers, who had broken definitively with the Byzantine school of painting, up until then predominant throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. Giotto, at the time, was overseeing the project to decorate the facade of the Campanile (the bell tower next to the Cathedral) with relief sculptures, at the same time that Lorenzetti was working in the Town Hall in Siena. On one of his trips to Florence in 1327, Ambrogio joined the Guild of the Medici e Speziali (Doctors and Apothecaries)–the same guild to which Dante had belonged. (Painters were included in this guild because the source of their pigments was the same minerals and other organic matter as those used for medicines.)
The Christian-Humanist Revolution
To appreciate the revolution in the arts which exploded around the year 1300, it helps to know something about the Byzantine style of painting, which had predominated in Italy for several centuries. Byzantine art, as it was intended primarily for religious devotion, rejected a naturalistic portrayal of man and his world in favor of stylized, iconographic hierarchies, which placed holy figures, saints, and man in their respective status. Giotto and his followers—Iincluding the Lorenzetti brothers–sparked a humanist revolution in the arts, wherein men and women, for the first time since Antiquity, emerged as fully human, portrayes with ideas and emotions, and modelled in three dimensions, i.e., presented in realistic, non-hierarchical, space. While still profoundly religious in character and subject matter, these efforts to achieve a lifelike spatial perspective represented a complete break with the past, and can be viewed as the beginning of Renaissance painting. For the first time, the idea of “man in the image of God,” was given expression in art.
By the second decade of the Trecento, the citizens of Florence would have been discussing the writings of their greatest poet and statesman: Dante Alighieri. Dante’s Commedia, or Divine Commedy, an epic trilogy in poetic form, takes the reader on a voyage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso), wherein are depicted many of the leading figures, both secular and religious, of the day. Dante, however, was no armchair poet: He was deeply involved in the political struggles of his time, and was, in fact, a leader in the government of Florence, until his political party fell out of favor with the Pope, Boniface VIII, and Dante was exiled in 1302, never to return to his beloved Florence. Most of the Commedia was written from exile, as Dante travelled extensively throughout Tuscany, and was immediately widely circulated.
The Commedia created the modern Italian language, building upon the Tuscan dialect to create a literate vernacular tongue. Up until that time, all literary or official documents were written in Latin, and only a tiny percentage of the population—the upper clergy and nobility—could read and write Latin. With the widespread circulation of Dante’s poem, a literate vernacular language—the first prerequisite for the creation of a modern nation-state—was born. Furthermore, written as it was in rhymed verses, it was intended to be easily committed to memory, and reproduced by word of mouth; it would be more than a century before Gutenberg’s press, which fostered widespread reproduction of written works, would be invented, circa 1440.
The esteem in which Dante was held, which led to the wide dissemination of his ideas during his lifetime and following his death in 1321 in Ravenna, is reflected in the outburst of poetic elegies written on the occasion of his death. One such was by the Venetian Giovanni Quirini, with whom Dante had exchanged sonnets.
Alas! the Muses now are sunken low,
The poet’s art hath fallen on evil days,
Which erst was held in worship and renown.
The whole world weeps the glorious Dante dead–
Him thou, Ravenna, heldest dear in life,
And holdest now, and hence are held more dear.
The poet and writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), best known for his Decameron, a collection of 100 witty, bawdy tales set in the time of the Black Death, wrote a Life of Dante, based on the recollection of those who knew him in Ravenna. By 1346-1350, Boccaccio was able to say that “the fame of his writings had by that time been spread everywhere, and especially that part of his Commedia to which he gave the title of Inferno….”
Dante’s Influence in Siena
Boccaccio also notes that Dante frequently visited Siena, and was well known there. He describes Dante as “of the most lofty genius and of subtle invention,” and observes that “he loved poetry more than any other pursuit….”
In his letter to his patron Can Grande della Scala, to whom he dedicates the Paradiso, Dante discusses his poem:
“The subject of this work must be understood as taken according to the letter, and then as interpreted according to the allegorical meaning. The subject, then, of the whole work, taken according to the letter alone, is simply a consideration of the state of souls after death; for from and around this the action of the whole work turns. But if the work is considered according to its allegorical meaning, the subject is man, liable to the reward or punishment of justice, according as through the freedom of the will he is deserving or undeserving…. The aim of the work is to remove those living in this life from a state of misery and to guide them to a state of happiness….” (emphasis added)
Is this not similar to the Leibnizian notion expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, that man is “endowed by the Creator to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? This concept of the inalienable right of the citizen to happiness, through the exercise of freedom—the freedom to improve himself—is found in Dante, in his determination to make knowledge available to all, through a literate form of common language.
Dante tell us himself, when he explains why he chose to write in the vernacular: “…[I]f we consider the style of language, the style is lowly and humble, because it is the vulgar tongue [vernacular—ed.], in which even housewives hold converse.” (emphasis added)
Boccaccio tells us in his Vita di Dante, that Dante wrote in the vernacular because he wished “give delight” to the common man:
“…[T]wo chief reasons, amongst many others, come to mind. The first of which is, to be of more general use to his fellow citizens and other Italians; for he knew that if he had written metrically in Latin as the other poets of past times had done, he would only have done service to men of letters, whereas, writing in the vernacular, he did a deed ne’er done before}; … and by showing the beauty of our idiom and his own excelling art therein, he gave delight and understanding of himself to the unlearned who had hitherto been abandoned of every one.” (emphasis added)
In De Monarchia, Dante says that justice is best secured by a supreme ruler, who, because his power is perfectly sovereign, is untempted by ambition. Yet, Dante insists, man is happiest when he is free, and can act for himself. Only the monarch can ensure this noble end. Other forms of government, Dante says, are perverted, because they exist for the benefit of one class (i.e., not for the common good).
Dante deplores the temporal power of the Papacy, which he says, was not established by natural law, nor by universal consent, as Christ, himself said: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Indeed, Dante places his nemesis, Pope Boniface VIII, in Hell (although he was still living!) in Canto XXVII, where Boniface is condemned as the “Prince of the new Pharisees” (the Jewish sect viewed by the early Church as the enemy of Christ).
Manuscripts of the Commedia numbering between 500-600 circulated widely in the 150 years betweeen Dante’s death in 1321 and the first printed edition in 1472. None are dated earlier than about 1335—just before Lorenzetti painted his frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico.
Dante’s republican ideas are developed to greater perfection by Cardinal Nicolaus of Cusa, the leading mind behind the 1438-1439 Council of Florence, whose brilliant statecraft ended, if only briefly, the ancient division in the Church between East and West, and then later, by the Cameralists, whose core concept was that the prosperity of the state was a direct consequence of the adoption of policies which fostered the material and spiritual improvement of the citizenry. At its best, cameralism—exemplified in Italy by Antonio Serra, who was active in the early 17th Century—developed a statecraft based on the notion of imago viva Dei (man in the living image of God), wherein the individual’s development of his full creative potential, especially through universal public education, was the best foundation for sound economic and social policy.
Lorenzetti’s Frescoes in the Siena Town Hall
Some forty miles south of Florence is the Tuscan hill-town of Siena, once a thriving city-state and important way-station for pilgrims on their way to Rome. There, in the Palazzo Pubblico, or Town Hall, are the magnificent frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, occupying three large walls of the Sala dei Nove (Chamber of the Nine), where the nine members of the City Council held their meetings. It was in this room, where, from February 1338 to May 1339, that Ambrogio Lorenzetti was at work on his monumental frescoes.
Ambrogio’s frescoes cover three walls: The largest work is that of “The Effects of Good Government in the Town and the Country,” which occupies the entire west wall, some 47 feet in length. The shorter north wall (ca. 25 feet long) presents what is usually referred to as “The Allegory of Good Government.” Sharing the east wall, opposite the “Effects of Good Government,” is “The Allegory of Bad Government,” or “Tyranny,” and next to it, “The Effects of Bad Government.” The fourth, or south wall is taken up by large windows, from which an impressive view of Siena is visible, looking very much the same as that portrayed in Ambrogio’s frescoes. One can readily imagine the townspeople, the farmers, artisans, and tradesmen, coming into the town hall to conduct business, pay taxes, file complaints, and carry out their economic affairs.
The light from the windows falls on the west and north walls, while the east wall—“Bad Government”—is left in the darkest part of the room. No doubt, the lighting was a major consideration in the location of each fresco (which may explain why it has also suffered significant damage, since moisture in the walls tends to be the greatest enemy of fresco painting.)
In the “Allegory of Good Government,” we find the Ruler of the Common Good (general welfare) portrayed as Charity, flanked by Hope and Faith who hover above his head; to his left are the Virtues—Peace, Fortitude and Prudence—and on his right, Magnanimity, Temperance, and Justice. The Allegories tell us that Ambrogio was familiar with Greek and Roman Classical art, especially the Greek use of lifelike forms. For example, the figure of Peace wears a white robe reminiscent of figures in Roman reliefs, while the garland of olive leaves in her hair and the olive branch she holds are features which adorn Greek Classical representations of this allegorical figure.
The throne of Tyranny, on the other hand, is presided over by diabolical figure, adorned with horns, and surrounded by the Vices, where Cruelty keeps company with War, Treason, and Division. Tyranny, Ambrogio shows us, spreads only darkness and despair.
It is, however, upon the “Effects of Good Government” that Ambrogio’s fame is justly founded. Here, he gives us a vision of an ideal city, and the first panoramic landscape since Antiquity. Here, in highly articulated detail, are the economic and social benefits enjoyed by the citizens of a wise and beneficent ruler—the city, of course, recognizable as Siena itself—both a recognition of the “good government” it enjoyed at the time, and a spur to future rulers to live up to the high standard depicted in their council chambers.
What does Ambrogio tell us about the “general welfare” of the people of Siena and its neighboring counryside? On the right-hand side of the fresco, outside the wall of the city, are the activities of the highly prosperous contado (countryside): fishing, tending of the grapevines and olive orchards, plowing the fields, harvesting, and hunting. Approaching the wall of the city, we see one farmer bringing his pig to market, others are bringing sacks of grain on the backs of mules. Young men from town ride their horses out into the fresh air of the country, perhaps to do some hunting. Within the walls we find a city teeming with activity, a highly urban, fully populated city: Tradesmen market their wares, a teacher instructs his pupils, workshops abound, visible through the large openings out onto the street, plants bloom on windowsills; there is even a birdcage hanging in an open window; in the street, young ladies are dancing, wearing the latest fashions of Lucchese silk; masons work on new construction on the rooftops high above our heads. Although the buildings seem jumbled (as they actually look in Siena today!), we sense they are organized into rational streets. In the upper left corner, there is a dome and campanile–that of Siena’s own cathedral.
The perspective throughout is emphatically Ambrogio’s own invention. (It would be nearly 100 years before the invention of mathematical perspective by Brunelleschi and Alberti.) The entire town curves backwards from the center; in both town and country the figures, like the houses, diminish from a single point in the town (where the ladies dance). The light also radiates from the heart of the city, independent of the natural light from the window. The metaphor is clear: The break with feudal economy is complete; it is the urban center, not the feudal manor and its serf system, from which all economic benefits arise.
The Black Death, and the Lessons for Today
One is struck when visiting Siena today, that it seems to have been frozen in time. It is a city which, in fact, looks much as it did in the 1330s, when Ambrogio was painting his masterpiece in the Palazzo Pubblico. Even today, Siena celebrates the Medieval Palio, a horserace through the narrow, twisting, steeply-angled streets of the city, in which the competition is among the seven contadi, each representing one of the seven hills surrounding Siena.
But there was a sudden and dramatic finish to the early Renaissance in Italy: The Black Death or bubonic plague, which struck in 1348. The two Lorenzetti brothers were among the thousands of Sienese who died of the plague, as did some one-half Italy’s population. The city never recovered.
What caused this disaster to happen?
In 1342, King Edward III of England, who had borrowed heavily from the Venetian-dominated Bardi and Peruzzi banking houses of Florence to finance England’s Hundred Years War with France, announced that he would not be able to repay his debts. Edward informed his bankers that he had had a sudden stroke of conscience, and had realized that he was committing the sin of usury by paying the exorbitant interest rates demanded by the Venetians. Thus, in an effort to save his mortal soul, as well as those of his bankers, he cancelled his debts. This, then, triggered a banking collapse, which in turn, ended the speculative bubble which the Venetians had created to sustain their financial empire, and led, by the mid-1340s, to a widespread economic breakdown. When the bubonic plague hit Europe, the population had already been sufficiently weakened by economic deprivation, that the plague ravaged the parishes of Italy and beyond, killing half the population.
How ironic, and tragic, that, at the very moment in history, when civilization was on the threshhold of a great cultural, political, and economic revolution – as evidenced by Ambrogio’s wonderful frescoes – that it was suddently brought to the brink of extinction. And yet, it was precisely the early flowering of the Renaissance in Florence and Siena, which sowed the seeds for the 15th-Century miracle 100 years later that we call today the Golden Renaissance.
The parallels, as we approach the new millenium are striking. If we learn the lessons of the 14th Century, we can hopefully avoid a New Dark Age today.
Afterword: Writing this today, as the United States transitions from one Presidential administration—that of Donald J. Trump, to one led by Joseph P. Biden, it is undeniable that the question of Good vs. Bad Government has never been more relevant. It is therefore, in some way, a beautiful irony and welcome circumstance, that the beloved Dante’s great work be celebrated throughout the world, on this, the 700th anniversary of his death.
In addition to the works cited in the body of the article:
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Commedy, Vols 1-3 , John D. Sinclair, trans., Oxford, N.Y., 1981
Hayden Maginnis, Painting in the Age of Giotto, a Historical Reevaluation, Penn State, 1997
Diana Norman, ed., Siena, Florence and Padua: Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400, Yale, 1995
Paget Toynbee, Dante Alighieri, His Life and Work, Peter Smith, 1965
John White, Art and Architecture in Italy 1250-1400, Penguin, 1966
John White, The Birth & Rebirth of Pictorial Space, Harper & Row, 1972