Our Pandemic and Siena’s Plague: Looking Outside Lorenzetti’s Fresco

Burying victims of the Black Death

Burying victims of the Black Death

The COVID-19 spring, and now summer, of 2020 has kept me thinking about something with which I have been preoccupied for about a year now: the fresco series by Ambrogio Lorenzetti known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, painted in 1338-39 in the council chamber in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Last fall I did two posts aimed at interpreting the work in terms of the niche construction concept I (and others) have explored on this blog. But the onset of the pandemic brought me back to the work, to consider ways it might—or might not—speak to our present moment.

Siena cathedral

View of Siena Cathedral, showing wall of uncompleted expansion. Photo by author.

The second of my posts appeared in mid-December, shortly before the initial reports appeared of a new infectious disease, and well before the pandemic took hold. But the relevance of the emerging situation to the frescos was in fact prefigured by a specter that haunts anyone who sees them: the plague that shattered Siena in 1348, less than a decade after the frescos were completed—part of the continent-wide Black Death. I was fortunate enough to visit Siena last summer, and saw the frescos after visiting the magnificent cathedral—whose planned expansion to become the largest church in Christendom was halted by the plague. (The project was never resumed, due to errors that had been discovered in the construction—and, I assume, the weakened condition of the city.)
Lorenzetti’s fresco thus can be seen as a document of self-assertion by a city that was—as we can understand but its creator and patrons could not—at the very height of its power. The dreadful and diminished future brought by the Black Death is certainly not visible in the idealized depiction of the city, or even within its horizon. But it has been present to viewers practically since the plaster was dry. And of course its presence is intense for us now, given our own—mercifully less horrendous—experience of a widespread disease.

It is hard, then, to look at Lorenzetti’s work in our moment without our pandemic in mind—and it is imperative to make the connection explicitly if we want to consider what the work says to us today. Here I will pick up on a stimulating the discussion of my earlier posts by our group back in December, reflected in Robert Bailey’s incisive comment from December 20, that raises the question of what is “inside” and “outside” of the fresco—and therefore related questions about the theory I argue the fresco conveys.

Reapers and theshers

Detail of “good countryside: social cooperation in agriculture

As I concede in my reply to Robert, the depiction of the good city is very much self-contained: everything that matters to the story it tells is visible; there is little sense that what is beyond the frame is relevant. This discounting of the image’s outside matches what seems to be the conception of niche construction being depicted, namely that it has no (meaningfully autonomous) outside either. The “inside” of niche construction consists of the social processes by which people sustain themselves; the “outside” would be the recalcitrant, unpredictable nature Robert mentions in his comment. The version of niche construction celebrated in the fresco, however, is social all the way down; it simply assumes minimally habitable environmental conditions, and leaves the rest to human cooperation.

But perhaps Lorenzetti’s vision is discredited by its seeming obliviousness to threats to the project of niche construction that come from outside its horizon. The pandemic—which has been interpreted as a version of “nature’s revenge”—should thus reaffirm the suspicion that the outlook on the way people inhabit their surroundings Lorenzetti represents is dangerously hubristic. On this view, niche construction encourages a deluded expectation of invulnerability; in fact we should expect unforeseen natural hazards, e.g. unexpected disease vectors, as surely as the return of the repressed.

Detail of fresco: Soldiers invading

Detail of fresco: Soldiers invading “bad countryside”

It is certainly true that Lorenzetti does not thematize natural hazard, or mitigation of risks from such hazards. But it is notable—if only indirectly applicable—that he does in fact depict an intrusion into the fresco from outside its frame. That is on the wall opposite the idealized countryside; he shows a band of soldiers entering a scene of pillaged farms that anticipates their depredations.

Can this invasion be viewed as a metaphor for the plague, hence for the kind of “external” threat to niche construction the fresco seems otherwise to lack? This reading is, admittedly, anachronistic. Nonetheless, the association between plague and invasion is compelling, especially in light of one of the consequences of the Black Death, as discussed by Barbara Tuchman: the appearance of bands of armed men marauding the countryside (p. 13). Perhaps this association is something our pandemic compels us to see in Lorenzetti’s fresco, so that we are compelled to acknowledge in the scene an image of the republic’s vulnerability to danger from outside its own sphere—including from an essentially unsocialized nature.
There is no question that Lorenzetti was deeply concerned with the vulnerability of republican political institutions. As I note in my reply to Robert, vulnerability is a central theme within republican political theory. But the theory’s emphasis, certainly expressed in the fresco, is on an “internal” source of danger to the republic: the moral character of the rulers and citizens.

Tyranny and vices

Detail of “bad city”: Tyranny and vices

Consider, then, a more literal reading of the invading army. Diana Norman argues persuasively (pp. 331 ff.) that this part of the fresco is a direct reference to an actual recent invasion of Sienese territory by forces from Pisa. Pisa, Norman holds, played a specific role in the Sienese political imagination: it represented tyrannical rule (pp. 325 ff.). The presence of the armed men is a further expression of the meaning of the entire left hand wall on which they appear. The city they approach has architectural elements evocative of an anti-republican regime (p. 320). And, appearing at the very left end of the wall they stand in visual correspondence with the scene at the very right end: the frightful figure of Tyranny, surrounded by associated vices.

The invading army can thus be read as an external manifestation of an internal cause: the evil character of the tyrant, who, as a text panel explains,

neither wills nor acts in disaccord with the filthy nature of the Vices … and calls around herself every evil schemer. She always protects the assailant, the robber, and those who hate peace, so that her every land lies waste.

The lesson that Lorenzetti himself seems most likely to be trying to convey on the left hand wall, therefore, is not so much that the Sienese should be vigilant against threats from beyond their borders, anthropogenic or natural, but rather against the threat from within their own moral character. The vulnerability he highlights is not due to the strength of a neighboring city, but instead to their own weakness: they themselves might succumb to the temptations of their own selfish impulses.

But perhaps my insistence on Lorenzetti’s “internalism” only reinforces the concern that his theoretical outlook is not suited to the problem we face with the pandemic. If my reading of the fresco is correct, perhaps that shows its interest is largely historical and aesthetic, but that the political theory of niche construction it conveys is radically incomplete, hence ultimately inadequate to the theoretical needs posed by this moment.

common good

Detail of fresco: Figure of the Common Good

I will conclude this post by suggesting one ready extrapolation that indicates how the republican theory Lorenzetti presents might encompass situations like the pandemic; in my next post I’ll add another. The basic idea is simply that the moral character that is the core of the republic’s “inside” is expressed in political and social structures which enable better or worse responses to external dangers, anthropogenic or natural. And, as I discuss in my previous posts, at the core of moral character, on Lorenzetti’s view, is dedication (or its absence) to the Common Good; he associates Justice (as a personal virtue) with precisely this moral attitude.

Now the textual explications that accompany the images in the fresco at most merely allude to the state’s response to external danger, noting that Justice “guards and defends those who honor her.” And, to be sure, Lorenzetti seems to have external anthropogenic danger in mind. Thus the tyrant, who figures the utter rejection of Justice, does nothing to protect the city from armed invasion—indeed, the destruction it brings is a fitting expression of tyranny.

But it seems obvious that the same moral logic applies to non-anthropogenic dangers, like disease. Indeed, protecting against pandemic is a uniquely perspicuous example of dedication to the Common Good: because everyone is vulnerable, the benefits of resisting the disease are enjoyed by all. And, as Robert observes in his comment, it is not hard to conceive of protection against disease as an aspect of niche construction—features of the niche provide the “extended immune system” Kyle Harper describes in his post on Pathogens and the Anthropocene.

In my view, then, it is possible, and indeed helpful, to think of the pandemic in the way suggested by the theory that informs Lorenzetti’s fresco (here’s one example; here’s another). For that way emphasizes that what is morally salient about the pandemic is not that it comes from “outside” of the human realm, from recalcitrant nature. Rather, what matters is what is “inside” people’s social and political institutions—those internal factors determine the impacts of the external threat. The quickest glance at the infection rates across the globe makes this, for Americans, shamefully and scandalously clear.

Bending COVID curve


NOTE

The first post looked at the fresco’s depiction of the good city and its countryside, arguing that Lorenzetti illustrates the idea that people cannot construct the niche that supplies both their metabolic and cultural needs without the security provided by political institutions devoted to justice. In that sense, the idealized niche we see on one side of the chamber can be characterized as “republican;” it is made possible by people’s capacities to create and sustain political institutions dedicated not to the private benefit of the rulers, but to the common good.

The second post looked at the opposite wall of the chamber, which illustrates the failure of niche construction—to the point of niche destruction—that results from tyrannical politics, which allows for injustice to corrode the cooperative relationships people need to create the conditions for their survival and flourishing. I concluded that we can interpret the frescos not only in the narrow terms of political institutions, but more broadly in terms of the “moral climate” of just interactions among people in the state those institutions must foster. By implication, the human capacity to act justly lays the foundation for human niche construction.

[RETURN]


Zev Trachtenberg (ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2084-9103) is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma.

Niche Destruction: The (civic) republican niche (Part 2)

[Part 1 of this post appears here.]

Detail, Lorenzetti Allegory of Good and Bad Government

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 Continue reading

The (civic) republican niche (Part 1)

Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” (1338-39), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

Let me emphasize something from the start: I mean “small r” republican—this post (and another to follow) will have nothing to do with the “capital r” American political party. I’ll consider some ideas associated with Continue reading

Plastics and Animal Communication in the Anthropocene

Satin Bowerbird at his bower JCB.jpg

Ubiquitous plastic in the environment is a hallmark of the Anthropocene (Waters et al. 2016). Wildlife routinely ingest, becoming entangled in, and are impaired by plastic pollution, creating a pressing global problem (e.g., Vegter et al. 2014). While undoubtedly an environmental crisis, these acute impacts are not my focus. I am interested in a more subtle phenomenon: Continue reading

“Designing Autonomy: Opportunities for New Wildness in the Anthropocene”

CITATION:
Cantrell, B., Martin, L.J., and Ellis, E.C. 2017. Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 156–66.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
Maintaining wild places increasingly involves intensive human interventions. Several recent projects use semi-automated mediating technologies to Continue reading

CRISPR as Niche Construction: an Aristotelian View

CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) is part of a system, noticed in certain bacteria, by which a cell can make changes in strands of DNA. This mechanism appears to be a proto-immune system: it enables a bacterium to recognize Continue reading

Cities as Human Niches: Against the ‘Natural City’

We welcome to the blog Nir Barak, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.


The city is in some sense our niche; we belong there, and no one can achieve full humanity without it. (Holmes Rolston III[1])

In this post, I want to turn our gaze to cities as the paradigmatic embodiment of niche construction in the Anthropocene. I wish to outline Continue reading

Historicizing the Anthropocene: A Peek at Paris

Historians love questions of dating and chronology, and there are two questions about dating the Anthropocene. First, stratigraphy and other sciences have been searching for physical evidence for when Continue reading

The Ecological Circumstances of the Circumstances of Politics

This is the first in a series of posts on Environmental Political Theory.


With his famous phrase “the circumstances of politics” the philosopher Jeremy Waldron offers an abstract characterization of what politics are at the most basic level. Waldron holds that Continue reading

Video of Ellis Talk and Panel Discussion

THIS POST CONCLUDES OUR ANTHROPOCENE BIOSPHERE PROJECT–A SERIES ON ERLE ELLIS’ ‘ECOLOGY IN AN ANTHROPOGENIC BIOSPHERE‘ (ECOLOGICAL MONOGRAPHS, 85/3 (2015))

Continue reading

4 questions about anthroecological theory from a biologist

THIS POST IS PART OF OUR ANTHROPOCENE BIOSPHERE PROJECT–A SERIES OF POSTS ON ERLE ELLIS’ ‘ECOLOGY IN AN ANTHROPOGENIC BIOSPHERE‘ (ECOLOGICAL MONOGRAPHS, 85/3 (2015))

As a wildlife biologist I have questions about the ways Ellis’ anthroecology theory is different from the long history of ecological theory that precedes it. In reading Ellis (2015) four questions occur to me for which I could not find an easy answer. Continue reading

Hypothesized Hope

THIS POST IS PART OF OUR ANTHROPOCENE BIOSPHERE PROJECT–A SERIES OF POSTS ON ERLE ELLIS’ ‘ECOLOGY IN AN ANTHROPOGENIC BIOSPHERE‘ (ECOLOGICAL MONOGRAPHS, 85/3 (2015))

In preparation for Erle Ellis’ visit to OU’s campus in April, I’ve spent some time considering topics I hope we can address during his visit. Continue reading

“A Paleolithic Reciprocation Crisis: Symbols, Signals, and Norms”

CITATION:
K. Sterelny. 2014. Biological Theory, vol. 9, pp 65-77.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
Within paleoanthropology, the origin of behavioral modernity is a famous problem. Very large-brained hominins have lived for around half a million years, yet social lives resembling those known from the ethnographic record appeared perhaps 100,000 years ago. Why did it take 400,000 years for humans to start acting like humans? Continue reading

“Beyond DNA: integrating inclusive inheritance into an extended theory of evolution”

CITATION:
E. Danchin et al. 2011. Nature Reviews Genetics, vol. 12, pp. 475-486.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
Many biologists are calling for an ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ that would ‘modernize the modern synthesis’ of evolution. Biological information is typically considered as being transmitted across generations by the DNA sequence alone, but accumulating evidence indicates that Continue reading

“The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language”

CITATION:
Steven Pinker. 2010. PNAS, vol. 107, suppl. 2, pp. 8993–8999.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
Although Darwin insisted that human intelligence could be fully explained by the theory of evolution, the codiscoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, claimed that abstract intelligence was of no use to ancestral humans and could only be explained by Continue reading

Environmental Under-determinism, Part 2

In my post last week I voiced the concern that rejecting the dualist separation between nature and society might lead to an implausible environmental determinism. To put it reductively, if nature and society are not two separate things, but only one thing with two separate names, it seems as if Continue reading