[Part 1 of this post appears here.]
A desolate, uncultivated countryside; a burning village; ruined houses; marauding soldiers—these are the first things visitors to the council chambers in 14th century Siena would have seen of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s magnificent fresco series known as the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government.” The original entrance (now displaced several yards to the right) opened onto a stark depiction of how a society could fail utterly in the fundamental task of providing for itself—how it could destroy rather than construct its niche.
The grim scene was meant to serve as a stern lesson to “the Nine”—the magistrates who served as Siena’s governing body, and who commissioned the work. It would appear to their left—the sinister side—as they conducted their business, the pictorial conclusion to an allegorical narrative showing how injustice corrodes society. The narrative’s implied injunction against unjust rule works in conjunction with the pictorial narrative on the opposite wall, to the magistrates’ right: the image of the thriving countryside I discussed in my previous post.
There I interpreted the scenes of agricultural productivity—coupled with scenes of the vibrant economic and cultural life of the associated city (seen below)—as Lorenzetti’s depiction of the fruit of a just civic republican political order. Lorenzetti paints the city and country-side as an integrated system; the country-side is not a niche in which the city is placed, but rather the city and country-side constitute a niche jointly. Though the agrarian practices Lorenzetti represents are manifestly niche construction activities, he grasps that human beings must do more than sow and harvest to survive. Specifically, they must construct the social conditions in virtue of which those activities can take place. Both pictorially and by incorporated text Lorenzetti indicates that the precondition for niche construction is security, which he includes in a network of conceptual associations with peace, and justice. Peace and security are products of the political effort to ensure justice within the complex social relationships among citizens that constitute their niche—the system by which they sustain their survival as individuals, and the survival of their city.
The elaborate panorama of a flourishing social system, underpinned by justice, was no doubt an idealization—but it invites viewers to envision what Siena could be. In particular it kept before the rulers an attractive goal for their rule, and reminders of the moral attitudes they should adopt to achieve it.
But a quick turn of the head makes it perfectly clear that Lorenzetti knew—and wanted his viewers to recognize—what could possibly go wrong with this picture. On the hope that the political ideas Lorenzetti expresses are still meaningful I will review his account of what can go wrong. First, though, I want to acknowledge some other ways we today might think things can go wrong, but which we bring to rather than take from the fresco.
The picture celebrates the activity of niche construction, including the transformation of the landscape it involves, and it accepts as given and rightful the stratification within the social system that constitutes the human niche it displays. I will leave aside the latter topic to present a more environmental concern: Lorenzetti’s uncritical acceptance of human niche construction itself. For it might be argued that the environmental crises identified with the Anthropocene can be seen as “Nature’s revenge” against humanity’s overweening efforts to dominate it. At one level, the celebration of niche construction thus seems premature, since our exploitation of natural systems can have unintended consequences that make the niche we have constructed less habitable. At a deeper level, therefore, the celebration of niche construction can seem misconceived; maybe what’s wrong with the picture Lorenzetti paints is that it represents an instrumentalist attitude toward Nature that we should actually reject.
But these do not seem to be Lorenzetti’s own concerns; for him the real challenge to human niche construction comes not from anything in Nature, but from human beings themselves. What can go wrong with the picture on the right hand wall is not Nature’s revenge, but human injustice.
The blasted landscape on the left hand wall has had its productivity destroyed: it cannot support the lives of the people in the associated city; unlike on the right hand wall, there is no one bringing goods from farms to the urban market. The agricultural failure is anthropogenic, but not mediated through a chain of environmental causes and effects—as when, in a case of niche construction backfiring, bad farming practices lead to soil depletion. Rather the damage is anthropogenic in a direct sense, resulting from the violence inflicted by the armed men roaming the landscape, wrecking the agricultural infrastructure—an example of literal niche destruction.
The left hand wall as a narrative unit makes clear that the source of the destruction is the city associated with the landscape, due to the perverse political values by which it is governed. In contrast to the right hand wall, which shows noblemen passing from city to countryside for leisure, the left hand wall shows a trio of armed figures leaving the city (through the gate at the left side), presumably to pillage the countryside.
This contrast is heightened, and explained, by the allegorical figures that appear in corresponding positions on the two walls, both at the interface of city and countryside, moving from the former to the latter. As I discussed in my previous post, the right hand wall features the figure of Security—the political accomplishment of the good city that is the condition for both productive activity and trade that benefits city and countryside alike. The left hand wall, as Diana Norman puts it, features “the grim allegorical figure of Fear, represented as a haggard woman in ragged clothes and armed with a menacing black sword. Her position—in flight over the city walls, in the general direction of the countryside—suggests that she is a malign influence emanating from the city itself” (1997, p. 314).
The road between city and countryside, that is, represents the systemic character of the human niche: the interactions between city and countryside are what underpin human life. On the right hand wall the political accomplishment of security allows for those interactions; the system is fully functional, and there is abundance in both zones. On the left hand wall the system has broken down. Not only is the countryside blasted and the road empty, the bad city is devoid of economic activity (except for a blacksmith making weapons, in doorway on left), and is instead a scene of violent assaults (lower right). Lorenzetti even depicts—in contrast to the construction work on the right wall—a building being demolished (upper middle): another vivid emblem for the idea of niche destruction.
The failure of the society presented on the left hand wall to maintain its niche, indeed, the fact that it has destroyed it, is explained by way of a contrast with the explanation Lorenzetti presents for the success of niche construction on the right hand wall. The explanation is summarized on the banner carried by the figure of Fear. Of course this inverts the moral associated with the figure of Security, which refers to the absence of fear. The moral associated with Fear attributes the absence of security to the overthrow of Justice by Tyranny.
Lorenzetti depicts precisely this at the right end of the left hand wall—the starting point for the allegorical narrative that flows right to left. Tyranny is shown as a demonic figure, surrounded by personifications of vices, with Justice defeated and bound at her feet (Lorenzetti’s text refers to Tyranny as female). As a text panel beneath the figure makes clear, Tyranny is responsible for the desolation depicted throughout the rest of the left hand wall: “She always protects the assailant, the robber, and those who hate peace, so that her every land lies waste” (emph. added). Niche destruction, Lorenzetti suggests, is a political consequence.
I will close by elaborating the civic republican quality of Lorenzetti’s view. Niche destruction, he shows, is the consequence of unjust attitudes among the citizens. Tyranny triumphs over Justice, Fear’s banner declares, “because each seeks only his own good.” In line with traditional civic republican theory, Lorenzetti frames this idea in terms of dedication to the Common Good. Where Justice rules, according to text on the center wall (showing the Allegory of Good Government), the citizens “make the Common Good their Lord”—but “where Justice is bound, no one is ever in accord for the Common Good.”
The relations between self-seeking, injustice, and the common good are too complex to unpack here. At bottom Lorenzetti seems to uphold an ideal of fair reciprocity in people’s dealings with each other; this is the norm “the assailant, the robber, and those who hate peace” violate, undercutting the ability of people to interact cooperatively to provide for flourishing lives.
The image of the Tyrant thus seems to figure not just a form of government, but a moral climate; tyranny allows (perhaps encourages) people to act on selfish impulses that are restrained by a regime dedicated to justice. In the same way that, in the civic republican tradition, peace is not simply an absence of discord but a victory over it, justice within a society is that society’s victory, achieved by its political system, over tendencies that lead people to act unjustly—hence the fresco’s many images of punishment. Maintaining the proper moral climate, from the civic republican perspective, is at the core of the social project of niche construction. If that climate is not sustained, the niche will be destroyed.