Empty room, empty throne: the gesture of Lorenzetti’s frescoes-cycle and the Hetoimasia

Lorenzetti, Ambrogio . Allegoria ed effetti del Buono e del Cattivo Governo. Between 1338 and 1340. Fresco. Palazzo Publico, Siena. URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_-Allegory_of_the_Good_Government(detail)_-_WGA13487.jpg

Despite the already obvious political nature that their name bear and depict, the frescoes of Ambrogio Lorenzetti that adorn the three walls of Salon of Nine of the Palazzo Pubblico in Seina reveal something deeper.

Like cinema in which still pictures are understood along the reel, the frescoes must be taken together as a singularity to show that it is a cycle of governmentality that illumine the machination that defines the politics of the West.  The different elements of the frescoes, from its medium to its characters, may reveal the historical situation of Siena in Lorenzetti’s Trecento or that it may raise the audience to form a mimetic bond to the universal categories of the human condition. Whatever the case, this way of seeing Lorenzetti’s frescoes-cycle is to consider it as what Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics calls as poeiesis. Taking a different angle, the frescoes-cycles can be seen not merely as an action of means that finds its fulfillment in its end; but rather as a gesture, which Agamben reads Varro as supplementing Aristotle’s types of action.[1]  

From the point of view of the window in the salon, the frescoes as a cycle show in clockwise motion the good and bad effects of government. Interestingly, the cycle pivots in the central wall relative to the window of the salon.  The central wall depicts, as Quentin Skinner[2] interprets, the personification of common good or Siena himself, seated like a sovereign—or perhaps is the sovereign—surrounded by the virtues. It is a showcase of conspicuous Aristotelian heritage that seeks to ground politics in ethics, through the perfection of virtues. This bivalent depiction, however, does not necessarily contradict each other since the fundamental telos of the state, in this case, Siena, is the common good.

The central configuration of the common good renders translucent its pivotal function in the cycle between the so-called effects: it is for the common good that thrusts the state to war, and it is for the same common good that seeks to bring about peace. It is for the common good that inspires insurrection; but it is also for the common good that tramples on protestors. It is for the common good that allows for the safeguarding from terrorism, but it is also for the common good that allows for a detention without warrant; it is for the common good that seeks to expedite peace, but it is also out of the common good that cities are leveled. It is for the common to safeguard citizens from the pandemic; but it is also for the common good to lockdown entire communities.

The configuration of western politics cannot seem to escape this entangled destiny with the common good; it is in this light that the frescoes is a gesture—gerare is to support—of the political destiny instantiated not only in the Trecento of Lorenzetti, but also the present.  Bad government does not refer only to external wars, but also to internal wars, viz., civil war, war on whatever X. Zev Trachtenburg[3], for instance, highlights this consideration that the frescoes can be understood in relation to the current pandemic. After all, lockdowns and other security measures, whether in terrorism or pandemics, all find their justifications for the common good. Thus, in this light, war and peace become indistinguishable; the depiction of the frescoes-cycle of the effects of bad government is as much as the effects of the good government; it is as much a result of security measures as it is the absence of security measures. The oscillation of the cycle makes these two panes ambivalent but what remains constant is the pivot that holds them together; the common good; the sovereign. It cannot also be missed that in the middle wall, just right to the common good, is Iustitia; and that despite the less emphasized imagery of vivid executions besides her only shows that she is the accomplice, the means, for the common good.  And justice, as shown, is possible only through violence. With this, the frescoes-cycle can be taken with a fuller understanding; the common good is served by justice. And justice is actualized through violence. Whereas the common good is the pivot between the two walls that depicts the cycle of good and bad effects of government, what permeates through out that gives the cycle its motion is violence. For the ancient Greeks, bia and dike, are intertwined with nomos. And nomos, as Pindar sings, is sovereign.

The most crucial gesture of the frescoes-cycle, however, can be seen not in the frescoes-cycle itself but outside it, but which constitutes its very intelligibility as Lorenzetti’s frescoes-cycle and, thus, places it as internal to the frescoes-cycle.  Leaving the two dimensionality of the frescoes-cycle, this gesture pans the view to the center of the chamber, which once hosted the Nine that determined the life of Siena and has now become a terminal of transient tourists and a museum that celebrates what is revealingly absent: the empty council.  

Ceiling Mosaic, Arian Baptistry. Ravenna Italy.
I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. URL:https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/92/Battistero_degli_ariani%2C_int%2C_mosaico_della_cupola_05_etimasia.jpg

This is like the empty throne, the Hetoimasia, the decorates some early Christian churches and embellishes the arches of the Byzantine court.[4] The empty throne, for instance, on the mosaic ceiling in the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, shows that, ultimately, the powers of government, in its oscillation between what Sieyes calls as constituting and constituted powers find its grounding in the empty throne. In the case of Lorenzetti’s frescoes-cycle, the secret of sovereign power is felt in the frescoes-cycle through its depicted effects, but its secret lies outside it, that is, in the absent council room. This is what Benjamin, as Agamben expounds, as Divine Violence.[5]

As a gesture, the frescoes-cycle is interpreted not only as a frozen object in time that transports the audience to the Trecento of Lorenzetti, nor is it a mimesis of the human condition. Most importantly, however, as gesture, it is an apparatus that like Foucault’s panopticon renders intelligible a series of phenomenon, that in our case is no less that the destiny of western politics.

In one of its faces, the common good, which is the embodiment of the state, is most often acted out for the security of the people. It is precisely this face which further reveals the ambivalence of the frescoes-cycle; for security, after all, is a compound in Latin: sine and cura, that is, without care.  Thus, it is in this light that the frescoes in the Salon that is interpreted, or even intended by Lorenzetti himself, to depict the good effects of government, while the other presents the bad effect, become indistinguishable.

The Salon of Nine: an empty museum room.
Joanbanjo, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/ff/Sala_amb_frescos_d%27Ambrogio_Lorenzetti%2C_Palazzo_Pubblico_de_Siena.JPG

[1] See Giorgio Agamben, Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics (Minneapolos: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 49-62.

[2] See Quentin Skinner, “Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Buon Governo Frescoes: Two Old Questions, Two New Answers” in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 62 (1999): 9-12.

[3] See Zev Trachtenburg, “Our Pandemic and Siena’s Plague: Looking Outside Lorenzetti’s Fresco”, July 29, 2020, URL: https://inhabitingtheanthropocene.com/2020/07/29/our-pandemic-and-sienas-plague-looking-outside-lorenzettis-fresco/#more-6005

[4] See Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and  Glory, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[5] See Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”in Selected Writings Vol.1. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 236-252.

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