The famous cycle of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena’s Civic Museum.
It’s one of the most iconic fresco cycles of the Middle Ages and is located in Palazzo Pubblico, in the Hall of Nine, the fulcrum of the city’s political power.
Created by Ambrogio Lorenzetti between 1337 and 1339, these frescoes were meant to inspire governors and citizens. The cycle consists of four scenes arranged along the upper register of three walls of the Hall of the Council of Nine, also known as the Hall of Peace.
The north wall depicts a female figure, a queen dressed in purple and gold: it’s Justice. Above her, Divine Wisdom holds the scale. On one side of the scale is Commutative Justice, which is based on the principle of fairness, and on the other Distributive Justice, which rewards the good and punishes the bad.
Two cords hang from the two plates and reach the hands of Concord who has a carpenter’s plane on her legs to smooth out friction. Concordia passes the cord to 24 Sienese citizens binding them together.
They decide who to give the other end of the cord to, held by a larger figure: a man, it would seem a king, representing the City of Siena. Various symbols suggest that the great man symbolises the City of Siena including the she-wolf with twins at his feet, the Palio robe, the Virgin and child on the shield.
Flanking the great man are the four cardinal virtues: Temperance, Justice, Prudence and Courage. To these, Lorenzetti adds Magnanimity and Peace. Peace is placed at the centre of the fresco and thus becomes its focus, also due to its beauty and grace.
Among the citizens, those who choose not to bind themselves to the cord choose evil, the cord becomes a prison, and this is their fate.
The eastern wall depicts the effects of good governance. Lorenzetti depicts a beautiful Siena where the community grows and develops by placing the common good at the centre. In every corner there are working people: the notary, the weavers, the merchants, the farmers, and the shepherd.
In the central part, a bride with a wedding procession can be seen while around them some men talk to each other, women dance and children play.
The effects of good governance also reach the surrounding countryside, which becomes a large garden. The city gate and busy street become the scene of commerce as the famous cinta senese pigs are paraded. In the background is the magnificent landscape of the Sienese countryside and cultivated fields.
An allegorical figure that really stands out is that of Security, representing the final seal of a well-governed city.
However, on the western wall, the exact opposite is depicted: the allegory of the effects of bad government.
Here the situation is completely reversed: Justice, stripped of her robes, is bound and weeping. The common good is replaced by a cross-eyed tyrant depicted in demonic guise, representing one who seeks only his own good in the community. Surrounding him are the six deadly vices in contrast to the six virtues. Instead of the white figure of Peace we have the black figure of War.
The effects on the community are completely opposite to the eastern scene. Siena appears dilapidated and in ruins, soldiers destroy what they find, and only those who make weapons are working. Destruction and desolation prevail in the countryside. In Security’s place is another demonic figure: Timor.
He holds a scroll that reads, ‘to want the good in this very land, justice is subdued to tyranny’.