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22 June 2015

Laudata Siena

The World Pope Francis Advocates Already Exists: It’s Called Tuscany

143. Together with the patrimony of nature, there is also an historic, artistic and cultural patrimony which is likewise under threat. This patrimony is a part of the shared identity of each place and a foundation upon which to build a habitable city. It is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment yet not always more attractive to live in. Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity. Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense.
Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ Of The Holy Father Francis, 18 June 2015
p. 42

156. Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. The common good is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment”.[122]
pp. 45-6

View of Siena from the south
With the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment it might be said that there is no longer any excuse of ignorance for ignoring our common home. It should also be borne in mind, though, that the situation he fears and the future he hopes for are equally evident already on the planet—the former in so many places built in the last century and a half, the latter in the world we inherited from before. Where that older world has not been destroyed, even if only preserved and not augmented, a vision of what the world could be is available, tangible, and accessible.

The Virtues of the well-governed city on the left,
and their effects on city and countryside on the right

The common good was painted in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco of the Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the Siena town hall as the “ruler” of the well-governed city. As the city in the fresco is understood to represent the real city outside, so too is the harmonious and fertile frescoed landscape meant to be continuous with the real landscape outside the room’s only window. This is how I summed it up in my book Timeless Cities:

"Lorenzetti’s attention to detail and the rich complexity of life he shows must have made his fresco seem very “real” to his fourteenth century audience; he also, consciously, wrote the inscription carried by Securitas in Tuscan rather than Latin, to make it accessible to a wider public. The real world is also intertwined with the allegorical world in the Good and Bad Government tableau by frescoing only three walls of the Room of the Nine, leaving the fourth, exterior wall (flanked in the corners by the extensions of good government of the city into the painted countryside) open through its large windows to the real Sienese landscape beyond, thereby blurring the distinction between illusion and actuality: just as the real city of Siena is alluded to in the image of the well-governed city by the way one enters the room, so too the well-governed contado is extended from the fresco out through the room’s real windows to the landscape beyond. Here, by means of this single simple leap from the fictive landscape of the painting to the real Sienese countryside available outside the window, practical politics (the actual “good” Government of the Nine which takes place daily in the room) ideally merges with the painted allegorical Virtues (the figures surrounding the good governor) and the sacred realm (in the form of the mater misericordia frescoed in the preceding room and embodied in the very shape of the piazza outside) in a complex sequence of scenes which iconographically convey many potential symbolic readings simultaneously, while their novel realism speaks directly to the humblest petitioner. As a work of art the fresco is almost inexhaustible in its possible levels of a appreciation. As a moral message it is both a promise to the citizens and an admonishment to their leaders. As an architectural ideal it both sums up and spurs an urban vision that would receive additional fleshing out over the next three centuries."

Looking south from the campanile of the Palazzo Pubblico
Siena and its landscape remain humane, beautiful, and sustainable. It has been a choice to preserve them, but the fact that they exist means we can also choose to make them again, wherever there is the will.

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