The Allegory of Good Government

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The group met our guide Donatella in the courtyard of the Bank of Siena. A vibrant, stylish and witty woman, she’s an art historian who works as a freelance tour guide and lives in the middle of the city in a tiny apartment.

My first impression of Siena was of another living museum, not like the impossible and decomposing artifact of Venice, overwhelmed by tourism and outside investment, but a treasured relic framed and preserved by wealthy benefactors. This was confirmed by Donatella’s canny introduction to the aesthetics of the city in the setting of its economic underpinnings. The Bank of Siena’s corporate headquarters in Salimbeni square embody examples of the city’s three perfectly preserved styles of architecture: gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, thirteenth through seventeenth centuries. The bank was instrumental in the rise of the city in the early Renaissance, and then as now a substantial proportion of its yearly profits are invested in city infrastructure and social services. The Bank’s logo is the same black and white shield as Siena’s, with the added motif of three cylinders signifying the three steep ridges upon which the city is built.

Clear weather accentuated dramatic effects of light and shadow in the narrow, turning and sloping streets. As in Florence and Venice, I felt intoxicated by the first exposure to this walk-through masterpiece of architecture, city planning, and sculpture, drinking in the changing sights and sounds like the first sips of a glass of Brunello wine for which this region is known. The climax arrived as we descended through a high arched opening in the walled street into the huge enclosure of the Campo, the famed square we had read about in our travel guides and in the book Natural Light in the Italian Piazza, by Sandra Lakeman, a colleague at Cal Poly.

This ancient space creates a remarkable sense of both freedom and enclosure intensified by what Donatella told us of its setting in time and space. It was one of the first secular public spaces in Europe, both complementing and competing with the square in front of the cathedral. In a time when rulers fear that such plazas would expose them to riots by the crowds it attracted, the design of the Campo expressed confidence in the support of the populace of a republican city-state. This civic spirit was further elaborated in frescoes we viewed in one of the many splendid rooms inside the Palazzo Publico known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government. They portrayed abstract Aristotelian virtues and vices and concrete views of life inside and outside of the walls of well-governed and poorly governed city-states. Later in the day, we attended a lecture about the frescoes and the civic humanism they represent delivered by Rocky Ruggiero, a dynamic young Italian-American scholar. When Siena became a republic ruled by a council of nine rich merchants in the late thirteenth century, it billed itself as the model of the new secular state. The utopian and dystopian frescoes were meant to inspire the self-selected oligarchy of “the nine” who met in that chamber to do their jobs conscientiously. They reminded me of the contrasting images on the shield of Achilles in Book 22 of the Iliad.

The Palazzo Pubblico also contains a famous Maesta by Simone Martini, one of Siena’s notable artists. The Maesta subject–the virgin Mary sitting crowned as a royal ruler surrounded by saints and heroes of the church with the baby Jesus on her lap–is common on altarpieces in Italy. Jesus is usually represented as crucified rather than as ruling, and God the Father is often absent. The great cathedrals we saw were all dedicated to her: Santa Maria Novella and Santa Maria di Fiori in Venice, Salute in Florence and Santa Maria della Scala in Siena.

After the morning tour and Rocky’s afternoon lecture, the group went back to town by bus to visit an Enoteca–a wine bar–for an instructional tasting session. I’d been longing to get into the City Hall Tower, the Torre del Mangia, and the late afternoon light was getting more dramatic by the minute. The line to get in magically disappeared and I raced to the top and watched an indescribable pageant of changing light and shadow on a transcendant landscape.

Taking pictures helped me absorb and hang on to what seemed like a moment akin to Dante’s ascent to Paradise. The time I was spending in churches or looking at sacred monuments was getting to me. All this art and architecture–this talent and effort that had gone into creating and preserving these monuments could almost bring me religion.

But only if I ignored that Florence and Venice and Siena were often at war with one another and each praying to the Virgin for defeat of their enemies, and that gratitude for her mercy was offered by the survivors of the plague, who, as Jan pointed out, must have been left with huge amounts of money after one third of the population died.

When the sun set I came down from the tower and found her and the rest of the group of elders also jubilant after finishing up their third glasses of homework in the Enoteca. I caught up quickly and rode home in the bus doubly intoxicated.

Next morning Rocky lectured on the Duomo in preparation for our afternoon tour. His combination of erudition, insight and wit enhanced our experience of the art. Duomo, he informed us, has nothing to do with Dome, but comes from Domus, the throne or seat of an archbishop. The churches’ political and economic roles complemented their religious functions. Siena was a way station for most pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem and experienced a constant influx of medieval tourists. The Cathedral they stopped at was on the highest point of the city. The rivalry between Florence and Siena dominated the period of Siena’s prosperity from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, though Florence won most military battles. After an upset victory in 1280 the Sienese decided to expand their cathedral to make it the largest in the world–larger than the immense Duomo being built in Florence–but the Black Plague of 1348 as well as construction problems forced them to abandon that ambition. They reverted to completing the Cathedral’s original design, and the partial façade of their Tower of Babel comemorates their hybris.

The existing building, not as large as either the Florence Duomo or St. Peters in Rome is still gargantuan. Constructed in the popular Tuscan style of alternating green and white stripes of marble, the Cathedral houses an amazing collection of art treasures accessible to long lines of tourists for the entrance fee of 5 Euros–about 6 dollars. Rocky pointed out that Catholic religious art and architecture is rarely about restraint and balance, the formula being the more the holier. In the afternoon Donatella led us through it. The floor of the vast transept is covered with marble inlay scenes by every artist that counted over a period of 250 years, including Michaelangelo and Donatello, a chapel designed by Bernini containing two of his plastic and twisted marble figures, a stone pulpit with a frieze by Giovanni Pisano that reminded me of the Ara Pacis celebrating Augustus’ reign in Rome, and the Piccolomini Library, a late fifteenth century chapel covered wall to ceiling with immense, colorful and detailed frescoes by Pinturicchio and his assistant Raphael celebrating the life of one of Siena’s own, a humanist scholar, poet and diplomat, who became Pope Pius II.

Not an inch of this vast and complex space was left undecorated over the period of eight centuries it has collected tribute, including one wall bedecked with motorcycle helmets of those who escaped death in accidents. But an hour and a half of overstimulation and dense crowding was all Jan and I could take. As a chaser we went shopping at Upim, the local department store, and found, on sale, a sportjacket, pants, two shirts and a hat for me, a teaching wardrobe for the coming year.

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