by Gabriella Piccinni

The search for good government and the common good, that is, the subordination of private interest to that of the community, has traversed the history of Western thought as one of the greatest themes of political reflection of all time. To these themes and concepts of universal value the painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1338 dedicated one of the most important cycles of civic frescoes of the Middle Ages, painting their abstract principles and effects on the walls of one of the most representative among the magnificent Italian palaces of civic power, the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Tuscany. This cycle of three large frescoes runs along three walls, for a total of 36 meters of painting. It features just under 300 human figures, built environments, and countryside.

The complexity of the message transmitted by Lorenzetti, full of political cues and philosophical references, could ­only be fully ­interpreted and appreciated by the more cultured, but the use of so many details of daily life made the content of immediate and suggestive understanding even for the less knowledgeable public. This is still the case today and for this reason the communicative power of Good Government makes it possible for us to look at it today almost as if the painter had just given it the last strokes.

Genuine prosperity, the artist tells us, is possible if agriculture, craftsmanship and trade are intertwined and interdependent, if the city and the countryside are in dialogue. Only then will the explosion of grandeur in the buildings shape and embellish the urban design. Only then will the well-finished houses, the stores, the schools, and the streets be populated by people of all social strata engaged in work, exchange, and leisure. It is only by respecting the tranquil rhythm of the seasons that the countryside, shaped by man to nourish an increasing number of people, will guarantee to all the serenity of their living or working contexts and in their peaceful and continuous movements.

Of course, each society has its own model of the world, and in every place and in every age property, wealth, work, education… have been valued in many different ways. We cannot, therefore, think that the ideas of seven hundred years ago are in all respects the same as ours, or that the aspiration to peace, security and justice was expressed then in the same terms as it is proposed to our sensibilities today. Yet the universal value of the concepts on which Ambrogio Lorenzetti reflected makes it possible to use his frescoes as an iconographic reservoir to be proposed to the whole world.

Some details of the images painted to the artist were used as a symbol suggestion for the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for people, planet and prosperity. In fact, on the occasion of the Siena Food Innovation Festival, which was held in 2017 at the University of Siena, a film was presented with the explicit title, From Agenda 1338 to Agenda 2030, where each goal is illustrated through a detail of Good Governance, on the initiative of Angelo Riccaboni, president of the PRIMA Foundation (Partnerships for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area), funded by the European Commission and the 19 Euro-Mediterranean countries, which deals with research and innovation on sustainable agri-food systems in the Mediterranean.

In particular, to illustrate Objective #12, Responsible Consumption and Production, a piece of the suburban landscape was used in which the city has shaped nature to suit its food consumption, creating a landscape in which wheat cultivation is integrated with olive trees and vines. Here, impressively precise, is the description of the hydraulic-agricultural arrangements. The arrangement of the vines is the one called “a girapoggio” which allows to better exploit hilly terrain, even if steep as long as regular, because it follows the contours of the hill: along them the rainwater can collect and then be conducted in the open ditches that instead follow the line of maximum slope, drawing the frame of the plot, while on the wet soil of the bottom of the steepest hill appears a beautiful reed bed. Only one vineyard, on the right, follows the “cavalcapoggio” arrangement, and there is no trace of the less evolved system of “a rittochino” cultivation, the one that follows the lines of maximum slope and that Pliny had already defined as one of the most damaging to the environment.

Grain, olives and vines represented the entire economic system that aimed to make the city as self-sufficient as possible, structured on a model that shaped the landscape through the mercantile capital necessary to the arrangement of fields, the construction of houses for farmers and roads in the countryside “humanized”.

About the author

Gabriella Piccinni is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Siena, she is President of the Italian Center for the Study of History and Art (CISSA) and of the Scientific Committee of the Journal of Agricultural History as well as a member of the Steering Committee of the Italian Historical Institute for the Middle Ages (ISIME). She is also a member of the scientific committee of the Centro studi sulle campagne e sul lavoro contadino, of the Centro di Studi sulla Civiltà del Tardo Medioevo and of the “Bollettino dell’Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medioevo”. A student of Giovanni Cherubini, she has dedicated herself to the history of Italian society and economy in the last centuries of the Middle Ages.