Between 1337 and 1340, Ambrogio Lorenzetti was employed by the Comune of Siena to fresco the Room of the Nine in the city’s town hall. The room is also called Sala della Pace, a reference to Lorenzetti’s famous allegorical figure of Peace painted on the North wall. This space hosted the Nine, the highest Sienese magistracy, and effectively acted as the centre of power of the Tuscan city. Lorenzetti produced a complex mural-painting cycle featuring a double allegorical series of the Good and Bad Government with their respective effects on the city and contado (countryside). In this post, I will consider the complexity of this work, spanning over the entirety of three walls, and I will show how Lorenzetti used its iconography to address different groups of viewers.
Originally, visitors would have entered from a door located on the Southern end of the East wall of the room. They would have immediately seen the dreadful allegory of the Bad Government and its effects on the opposite wall. Then, they would have turned toward the North wall, against which the Nine seated. Behind them, they would have found the allegory of Good Government and its effects on the East wall. Through this complex and ambitious work, Lorenzetti conveyed a complex political message which reminded the viewer of the ideal foundation of Siena and, at the same time, provided the rulers gathering in the room with a moral compass to govern the city.
Lorenzetti depicted nine virtues. Each of them can be identified by specific attributes, as well as by their name written in Latin. For example, Justice (Iustitia) holds a sword and a decapitated head. This is a reference to the supreme right given to the state by its laws, that to judge and thus condemn or absolve. The number is unusual and it includes the four cardinal virtues, the three theological ones, and two more: magnanimity and peace. There are various theories concerning Lorenzetti’s decision. Most likely, the artist intended to draw a comparison between the figures and the magistrates sitting beneath them. In this regard, the painter shows awareness of the viewer’s potential position in space as he organised the cycle so as to fit the function of the room.
The frescoes are not meant for the room’s occasional visitors only. On the East wall, inscriptions in vulgar address the Nine and invite them to behold the effects of the Good Government on the city. They are positioned on the Northern end and thus they were meant to be read by the magistrates from their seats. This shows the complexity of Lorenzetti’s work, which targets different audiences by taking into consideration their expected position across the space. In this regard, the cycle provides simultaneously different messages. First, it reminds the visitors of the glorious Sienese political tradition and emphasises the authority of the Nine, comparing them to the virtues. This is particularly important in a period of political struggles such as the late 1330s when Siena faced food shortages and epidemics. Second, it provides moral guidance for the rulers, reminding them of the qualities which are needed to govern.
In conclusion, the fresco cycle of the Sala della Pace shows how in the Middle Ages art could be used to express complex political messages. Lorenzetti’s work accomplishes to reach different groups of viewers and, at the same time, to show a vast universe of allegories and symbols. From the iconography of the virtues to the secondary figures in the frames, the cycle represents the painterly world as an interconnected reality where the genius of the artist articulates multiple threads of narration. For an instant, we are transported back to the Middle Ages, in the time when Siena was a prosperous city-state under the rule of the Nine.