Real lessons in civic education are hosted on the walls of a small room in the Italian city of Siena. The Salon of Nine, Siena’s dominant government from 1287 to 1355, used to meet here. It’s also the location for Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. A work of art that comes with a didactic aim.

In fact, it doesn’t feature a single figure without an explanation of their identity underneath. Tyranny sits on the throne of the Bad Government, flanked by Greed, Pride, and Vainglory. At their feet lies Justice, tied up and abused. Violence has devastated the landscape surrounding the scene: the city is crumbling, and war rages beyond the walls. On the other hand, the Good Government seats the Township on its throne. Close by are the cardinals and theological Virtues. The city’s effects are those guaranteed by an ideal administration: buildings under construction, a teacher with a class of children, and a carol of women in revelry.

The Sienese style

In the first half of the 1300s, Siena was the beating heart of the Italian Gothic. The Lorenzetti brothers (Pietro and Ambrogio), along with Simone Martini, are the founders of a painting style that would have a historical impact on Italian art in the following decades, through to the late 1400s.

The exquisite Sienese style inherits an important trait from the cycle of Assisi frescoes by Giotto (and his school). It is the realistic representation of the everyday. This characteristic reveals the artist’s intent to make these painted stories more concrete, allowing the public to identify better. Today, we would call it an “immersive experience.”

This is the great power of The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Through examples taken from everyday life, recognizable to its entire audience, it produces an effective declaration of political and didactic intent.