Saturday, December 13, 2008

Good Government in the Countryside

The latest New York Review has an article about Siena by Ingrid Rowland which begins with a description of its landscape.
'Unlike its near neighbour and inveterate rival Florence, the city is shaped by the land, from the curves of the three hills on which it sits to the strange volcanic pinnacles and underground springs that mark its territory. The most profound mystery enveloping Siena, then, is the very mystery of our human relation to nature. No countryside seems more harmonious, and more natural, than the rounded slopes that roll outward from the city's shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, and yet the very gentleness of those slopes gives away the fact that this is one of the most worked-over landscapes in the world.
Long familiarity has brought human and natural rhythms into so complete a balance that sometimes the trees truly do seem, like the trees of the Psalms, to clap their hands in exultation. Yet among these forests of exultant trees there are stretches of terrain where bare chalk crags rear up as sere as a hermit's roost. A band of local monks built one of their most beautiful monasteries in the midst of one craggy Sienese chalk bed and called it the Mount of Olives, Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The grapes fortunate enough to grow in the region's chalky soil produce red wines of rare quality, including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (all created by methods going back to the Etruscans). The same terrain hosts underground deposits of alum, natural gas, and alabaster, as well as artesian springs gushing forth hot and cold, the remnants of ancient volcanoes...'

When some years ago we stayed for a few days in Siena, I was impressed by its streets and squares and buildings, but what really seemed unique was the way the edges of the city melted into the surrounding hills and valleys - a landscape that looked unchanged since the Middle Ages. The view I photographed above, for example, looked to me hardly any different from Ambrogio Lorenzetti's depiction of life in the countryside in the Palazzo Pubblico frescoes of Good and Bad Government. And, as Ingrid Rowland says, it seemed both harmonious and thoroughly 'worked over'.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Good Government in the Countryside (detail) c1338-40

There is an interesting discussion of Lorenzetti's painting in Malcolm Andrews' Landscape and Western Art. He recalls that Kenneth Clark placed Lorenzetti at the start of the Western landscape tradition (perhaps unsurprising when you see how 'accurate' the buildings, hills and valleys he painted appear). But the countryside in Lorenzetti is, according to Andrews, 'represented not in order to celebrate a rural idyll, with its implied denigration of urban life, nor as a precocious virtuoso exercise in naturalistic landscape painting'. Instead it is a political landscape: the subject of the work is good government and Lorenzetti promotes the idea that the city and countryside can be strongly linked in a prosperous two-way exchange. This can clearly be read into the activities of the nobles and peasants, but it can also be seen in the use of scale: figures and architecture 'diminish in spatial recession not from the spectator's point of view, but from the point of view of the city itself.' And Lorenzetti even ignored the natural light source (on the right) to make it radiate out from the city of Siena.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great post.

Anonymous said...

Ambrogio Lorenzetti's piece is actually called "Peaceful Country" from the fresco "Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country".