It was a strange thing to happen, but while watching the ConDems posing awkwardly in front of a backdrop with the Great Wall of China, on T.V. last week, I suddenly saw another backdrop superimposed over this one- a fresco in renaissance Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338-40). There is a slight Asian connection, since I do remember that the beautiful meadows in Lorenzetti's mural have been compared to Chinese book illustration; and I have thought myself that the large strip of forest behind the hawking party disappearing into the distance slightly echoes the Great Wall of China.
That's not the main reason I thought of Lorenzetti. He came to mind because his landscape appears in a fresco called An Allegory of Good and Bad Government.
As the title suggests, the three frescoes show what happens when good government, elected to protect the citizens, administer justice, and keep the peace, suddenly turns horribly bad. Around a personification of Good Government are allegorical figures representing Courage, Justice, Magnanimity, Peace, Prudence, and Temperance.
Under Good Government, everyone thrives, be they the most humble labourer or the most exalted prince; order is maintained and security established. So that we get the message, Lorenzetti paints a winged figure, Securitas, which hovers over the countryside.
Bad Government faces Good Government on the opposite wall as if to emphasize how one administration can just as easily turn into the other. The head of Bad Government is a demonic figure of Tyranny around which cluster a coalition of allegorical henchmen like Avarice, Cruelty and Pride.
Meanwhile poor old Justice is wrapped up in a shroud and tormented by menacing military types. Under the regime of Bad Government we have an occupying army, and countryside completely blasted and barren unlike the picturesque one of Good Government. Securitas is nowhere to be seen.
I came across a great blog by Dale S. Westervelt, Centering The Eagle: Concerning the Role of the Federal Government in the Life of Its Citizens which has a wonderful description of Lorenzetti's three-walled Allegory. You can read that here. Mr Westervelt quotes from a primer by David Millar on political philosophy that used Lorenzetti's painting.
"There is no better way to understand what political philosophy is and why we need it than by looking at Lorenzetti's magnificent mural."
I couldn't agree more. I don't need to read newspapers, watch TV, or look at books on politics to understand what's happening in the U.K. now. All I need is to contemplate Ambrogio's elegant and well composed allegory to comprehend what happens to the polity when the elected ones- or, in this case ones with no clear mandate- start to destroy the foundations upon which a well-governed society is built. I fear unless the tide turns we'll be living in something resembling Lorenzetti's occupied city, presided over by a bunch of ideologues blinded by their own dogma.
Mr Westervelt with the help of David Millar offers the following thoughts.
Good and Bad Government Profoundly Effect the Quality of Human Lives: Lorenzetti's frescos show how the rule of justice and other civic virtues allow "ordinary people to work, trade, hunt, dance, and generally do all of those things that enrich human existence…[and, alternatively] tyranny breeds poverty and death…[therefore] it really makes a difference in our lives whether we are governed well or badly." (ibid.)
Our Government's Form is Not Predetermined: The primer asks rhetorically why the mural was painted in the first place. The Sala dei Nove (Room of the Nine), in the Siena public square, was the meeting room of the rotating group of wealthy merchant governors. The mural served to remind these men—and many travelers and art historians over the centuries—of their civic responsibility to govern the people responsibly to preserve their lives, their liberty, and their happiness. The vivid portrayal of evil government was to be a sober reminder of the outcome of all manner of vice and the consequence of dereliction of their duties
We Can Know What Distinguishes Between Good Government and Bad: Unlike academic disciplines of math and science, which rely on methods and formulas to arrive at facts, we commonly think about politics as residing in the realm of opinions and preferences. Oxford's guide refers in this section to 'political knowledge.' "The frescos are meant to be instructive: they are meant to teach both rulers and their citizens how to achieve the kind of life they wanted."
Politics aside, I hope you enjoy Lorenzetti's beautiful murals. You can see the whole lot here.