Roving thoughts and provocations

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When Heaven Was More Interesting Than Hell

Ambrogio Lorenzetti: The Effects of Good Government on the City Life, 1338–1339

As a political analyst, the Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti is hard to rival, even if he painted rather than wrote, and did so towards the middle of the fourteenth century. The frescoes he executed for the city council of Siena in 1338–1339, showing The Effects of Good and Bad Government on the City and Countryside, mark what may be a unique achievement in the history of art: making Heaven, (or at least Heaven on earth), look infinitely more interesting than Hell.

One key to Lorenzetti’s success is surely the fact that the landscape he portrays is still recognizable—visible, in fact, from every window in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, the City Hall that has been in continuous use since Lorenzetti’s day. The places that go to rack and ruin under Bad Government are no figment of our fantasy, no stylized vortex from Dante’s Inferno; they belong to the world around us, and the sight of burning fields—those fields—dead orchards, brutal soldiers, rape and pillage is as ugly as the scenes we have witnessed in our time in Beirut, or Grozny, or Baghdad.

Tyranny surrounded by three vices; detail from Bad Government

Good Government, on the other hand, is embodied in the stately figure of the Common Good (the city government that commissioned the paintings was a merchant oligarchy). Good Government brings on commerce, schools, construction, velvet-clad dancing girls, prosciutto (a farmer is bringing a fat Sienese black-and-white banded pig to market), an acrobatic house cat—delights we can almost taste, touch, hear, and smell as well as see. Peace and Security are statuesque blondes in diaphanous gowns—for Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the virtuous life is sexy; it is vice that is dour and prim. And perhaps only a Sienese painter, in this delicious cradle of Italian capitalism, could put his finger with such precision on where that system can go so badly wrong.

Lorenzetti’s insight (and that of the citizens who employed him) shows all its hardheadedness in the portrayal of Bad Government. Here Tyranny sits on a throne, with three vices at his service: Avarice, and not one but two kinds of pride: Vana Gloria (Vainglory), and Superbia (Arrogance). Capitalism falters, in the eyes of these fourteenth-century capitalists, on selfishness and greed, never mind the other five deadly sins, although Furor (Fury), hovers by Tyranny’s side, half lap-dog, half lackey. Indeed, lust, envy, and gluttony are clearly their own varieties of avarice, and the other two deadlies, sloth and rage, come from poor self-discipline, which is surely a sort of pride.

Leave it to an Italian capitalist to parse pride into two profoundly different varieties, each in its own way dangerous, and both locked in a mystic embrace with greed. Vainglory is the pride that feeds on externals, the puffed-up pride born of insecurity, the force that drives a certain Italian Prime Minister to elevator shoes and tinted hair (at a time when one of the country’s most popular actors, Luca Zingaretti, is manifestly, irresistibly bald).

Security flying over the well-governed countryside; detail from The Effects of Good Government in the Countryside

Superbia, the other face of pride, is the one tyrannical vice that arises from fullness rather than a yawning emptiness. Its positive aspect appears in the entourage of the Common Good, as Magnanimity; pride in good work that becomes pride in good works. But the Superbia enlisted in the court of Bad Government comes from a sense of privilege that deadens perception, and then compassion. Coupled with greed and insecurity, Ambrogio Lorenzetti warns us at six hundred years’ remove that arrogance breeds monsters, and just such monsters range the countryside under Bad Government, shepherded by Mistress Timor (Fear). Now, of course, Superbia drives fast cars with tinted windows.

Lorenzetti has no doubts about the reality of monsters, or about the way to handle them; Security flies over the well-governed countryside bearing a tiny hanged man in her hand—she takes no prisoners. When the City of Siena decided to use her as a logo this past year, they changed the gallows into an oak tree, but some Sienese objected, realists to the core about past, present, and the eternities of human nature.

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