Climb the scaffolding with restorers of Gothic fresco in Siena

The city of Siena has embarked on an innovative restoration program for The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a masterpiece of 14th century Gothic fresco art by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in the Sala dei Nove (Hall of the Nine) of the Palazza Pubblico. The scaffolding went up in March and diagnostic investigations of the frescoes have begun. When the study is complete, conservators will use the new information to craft a targeted restoration plan.

The room is currently closed to the public during the study phase and the initial conservation phase. Come October, visitors will be allowed inside the hall to admire the masterpiece as it is restored. Special guided tours will be offered, led by the restorers themselves. Best of all, visitors will be allowed to climb the scaffolding and view the fresco and the conservation work at eye-level, just like the conservators do.

Lorenzetti was commissioned by the Sienese government to paint the frescoes in the council hall of Siena’s nine executives (hence the Hall of Nine) in 1338. An homage to the room’s function as the Republic’s center of power, the fresco is a rare example of art from the period with a civic theme rather than a religious one. Lorenzetti utilized imagery associated with religion (bearded Wisdom looks a lot God, the virtues of Good Government look a lot like angels or cardinal virtues, horned tyrant looks a lot like the Devil, Vices of Bad Government look a lot like demons) to symbolize the advantages of a republican system in stark contrast with the viciousness of tyranny.

An inscription in the lower border makes the association explicit:

“This holy virtue [Justice], where she rules, induces to unity the many souls, and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good their Lord; and he, in order to govern his state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the Virtues who sit around him. Therefore to him in triumph are offered taxes, tributes, and lordship of towns; therefore, without war, every civic result duly follows—useful necessary, and pleasurable.”

The finished paintings covered three of the four walls in the room. The allegories of good and bad government are accompanied by illustrations of their effects in the city and the country.  It is a tour de force of figural, landscape and architectural imagery and the fresco series was immediately hailed as Lorenzetti’s greatest masterpiece. For the next decade, he was the undisputed leading artist of the city until the Black Death took him along with 50% of the population of Siena in 1348.

The last time the frescoes in the Sala dei Nove were restored was 35 years ago. The painted surface began to suffer from gradual deterioration very soon after the work was completed, and while the last intervention stabilized them, they are again in need of attention. The study takes a multi-disciplinary approach. Restorers are working with architectural archaeologists, chemists, petrographers, physicists and architects to analyze the works both to determine their conservation needs and to learn more about Lorenzetti’s painting technique.

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