Seven Centuries of Lessons Learned and Forgotten

Earlier this week, I spent a useful chunk of time in the “Sala dei Nove” in Siena. The Italian words mean room of the nine but it is also called the “Sala della Pace,” meaning room of peace. Located in the Palazzo Publico, the center of Siena’s city-state government, it was the room in which the nine elected officials who governed what was, in the 1300s, essentially a country met to conduct their executive and judicial business.

The room is not large though the ceiling is high. It would not differ from many other rooms on the tourist trail but for a fresco painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti over 15 months in 1338 and 1339. The fresco is called the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and it is intended to inspire the elected officials themselves rather than the citizens of Siena, whom they govern.

There are six scenes in the fresco that extends over three of the room’s four walls. The fourth wall includes the only window. Two of the scenes are allegories: good government and bad. The other four scenes show the effects of both good and bad government on the city itself and the surrounding countryside. This video and the link to Wikipedia above provide interesting descriptions and interpretations of the works.

To put the frescos and, more importantly, the thinking behind them into context, Italy itself was still five and a half centuries in the future when the frescoes were painted, and the Bubonic Plague that would ravage Europe and claim the life of the artist was still ten years away.

If you spend 15 months on a painting that is about 25 feet high and 46 feet long, there is clearly quite a bit going on, and all of it is worth understanding. I will share a couple of my highlights along with another suggestion that you try at least one of the two links above. I put them there for a reason.

The term of office for a member of the nine executive magistrates was two months. They would still have been admiring the frescoes when their terms came to an end. No time to learn the subtleties of ripping off the citizenry.

Justice is depicted as flowing down from wisdom and it is passed along via two ropes held by citizens of Siena to a symbol for the “Commune di Siena” (the government, or perhaps the community), which is surrounded by depictions of virtue: faith, hope, charity, peace, fortitude, prudence, magnanimity, temperance and justice. All are female. Curious that it has taken the United States 680 years to get to the so-called “year of the woman.”

The two sidewalls show the different outcomes depending on the prevalence of “ben commune” (common good) or self-interest.  On the “ben commune” side, the city prospers and is alive with commerce, recreation and construction. Likewise the countryside is shown enjoying a bountiful harvest. The “ben commune” side is shown in spring and summer.

The self-interest side (sadly in dreadful disrepair as it is a moisture laden outside wall of the building) is just the opposite.

The city is falling apart, the fields are barren, the scene is shown in fall and winter and this figure is in charge.

As the nine rotating elected officials sat in their appointed places, they would look straight ahead to see the source of their power and the inspiration to serve their citizens well. They would look to their right to see the consequences of doing their jobs faithfully and they would look to their left to see the consequences of doing their work badly.

Fast forward to today.

Italy is governed (if that is even the correct word) by a coalition of two parties that are more or less the equivalent of our Tea Party and the hardest core of the Resist movement. Left- and right-wing populists.

The two parties in U.K. are in a race to the bottom with neither Labor nor the Tories seeming to have the slightest idea what to do about Brexit, one of the most momentous decisions facing that country in more than 950 years.

In the United States,

  • 27% of voters identify as Democrats and hate everyone who does not.
  • 28% of voters identify as Republicans and also hate everyone who does not.
  • 40% of voters appear to have it right as they hate both parties and refuse to identify with either one.
  • That leaves 5% who are either not smart enough to have an opinion or so smart they have decided not to care.
  • A steady 80% or more of the country hates the Congress and disapproves of what it is doing.
  • Only about four in ten approve of the President.
  • In the election that will mercifully come to an end in less than six weeks, we will spend $2.9 billion choosing less than 500 Congressmen and Senators from among a largely undistinguished group. This is by far the largest midterm spending ever and rivals the $3 billion spent in 2016, a presidential year.
  • What will the election decide? Not much other than which team gets to steal from the country until the next election comes along two years from now.
  • Politics is the business and governance nothing but a pesky distraction.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s masterpiece is intended to inspire and guide the elected officials not the citizens. Seven centuries ago in a tiny but prosperous Tuscan city-state, they seemed to have a pretty clear idea where the problems might lie.

What might our nine Sienese magistrates have seen if they had been seated in the hearing room of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week? Here is the view from their perspective.

Television cameras. Pointed at them.

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Haven Pell

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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