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Dino Compagni and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1)

Andrew Zaleski

Dino Compagni’s Chronicle of Florence provides readers an inside glimpse at the political workings of Florence as they stood in the late 13th century leading into the opening decades of the 14th century.  Through Compagni’s eyes, readers are given an account as to why the political system of late Medieval Florence suffered, which he greatly attributes to a convoluted governing system, class and social tensions bred by familial and economic factionalism, and a man’s seemingly natural tendency for power (and, as a by-product, corruption).  Extrapolating from Compagni’s book and class discussion allows for connections to be made between Compagni’s ideas of governance and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s concept of governance.  Despite Lorenzetti’s work being created for the town hall of Siena, the correlations and parallels that can be drawn from Lorenzetti’s paintings to Compagni’s work speaks volumes about the Italian concepts of good and bad government during the late 1200s and early 1300s.

To focus on factionalism as a tenet of Compagni’s disenchantment with Florence is to hone in on one of his key points of contention in his chronicle.  Factionalism appears to come in three varieties: familial factionalism, that is, families pitted and allied against other families; political factionalism, or the separation of Florentines into myriad political parties, so to speak; and classism, or groups of individuals allied together and hostile to other groups on the basis of wealth and material possession. 

Florence Baptistery ca. 1100A good, early example of familial factionalism is the account Compagni gives of Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti’s wedding in Book I, where he spurns the daughter of Oderigo Giantruffetti for another family’s daughter and, in doing so, insults the Giantruffetti family and gets himself murdered.  As Compagni writes, “As a result of this death [Buondelmonti’s] the citizens became divided, and relatives and allies were drawn in on both sides so that there was no end to this rift…” (6).  This division led to the creation of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties in Florence, each of which would fight relentlessly—in both the political arena and on the battlefield—for governing clout in not only Florence, but in nearby city-states as well.  An extremely complex social ladder adds another level of discord in Florence, as groups of people were segmented off into magnates (the knightly, chivalric nobility), popolani (wealthy, non-noble merchants who want a share of Florence’s political power), and popolo (everyone else).  Important to note is the ironic interconnectedness of these three types of factions; for instance, a poplani Guelf male who married a magnate female would not only advance himself on the social ladder, but he would facilitate an alliance between the two families, which could then be exploited later on if that male should succeed in winning some sort of political office.

Compagni appears to take issue with such separatism in his city-state, and it seems that, for Compagni, the common good of Florence is the highest goal to be attained for the Florentine people.  This is evidenced by his definition of justice—“…they should watch over the wealth of the Commune, [that] the magistrates should deal justly with everyone, and [that] the small and weak should not be oppressed by the great and powerful” (8-9)—and by his early support of Giano della Bella, a poplani figure who, in 1293, sought to rally and strengthen the power of the popolo in Florentine government.  This idea of the common good also resurges in the example discussed in class: namely, Compagni’s gathering of the magistrates at the baptistery of San Giovanni, to whom he remarks, “Dear and worthy citizens, who have all alike received sacred baptism at this font, reason compels and binds you to love one another like dear brothers, especially since you possess the most noble city in the world” (38).

For Compagni, the universal aim of all Florentines should be the betterment of their city-state, characterized by sentiments expressed by Compagni at the beginning of Book I: “This city of Florence is very populous and its good climate promotes fecundity.  Its citizens are well-bred and its women lovely and adorned; its buildings are beautiful and filled with many useful crafts, more than any other city in Italy” (5).  The corruption, competition, and vice brought about through the factionalism and incessant squabbling and power jockeying is precisely what Compagni wishes to avoid, and a recurring trope in the Chronicle is this idea that the sinful behavior perpetrated by many Florentines, combined with abuse of laws, the selling of political positions, and ongoing war will result in the undoing of a city-state.

The paintings of Ambrogio Lorenzetti, then, aim to provide a visual credence to Compagni’s spoken argument.  As discussed in class, the sensory impressions of images on people living in the late Medieval period played a pivotal role in shaping opinion and conception.  Lorenzetti’s works, insofar as they relate to Compagni’s work, are visual representations of good government and bad government, along with the effects associated with each particular mode of governance.Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Bad Government and Effects of Bad Government, 1338-40

Lorenzetti’s portrayal of bad government and its effects offers striking parallels to the behavior decried by Compagni in his book.  In the Allegory of Bad Government, the three figures of avarice, pride, and vain glory hover above the head of the tyrannical ruler of this bad government, who looks equal parts repulsive and monstrous—devilish, even.  The connection, then, is that sinful virtue governs bad government, which results in a leader, or multiple leaders, hell-bent on power regardless of cost.  The very concepts of avarice, pride, and vain glory are the behaviors that Compagni finds in the various factions developing in Florentine.  Perhaps the most poignant figure accompanying the tyrannical ruler is the woman sawing herself in half, signaling division, which is disconcerting on two levels: On one hand, a viewer can reconnect Lorenzetti’s sawing lady back to the rampant divisiveness in Florence, what with black and white Guelfs, Ghibellines, and a social hierarchy with numerous tiers; on another hand, Lorenzetti’s portrayal of division as a woman calls attention to the abuse and violence toward women that comes about as a result of bad government.  Indeed, when Lorenzetti depicts the effects of bad government, crumbling city buildings, a countryside aflame and infertile, warring bands of men pillaging and killing, and violent acts committed toward women are all represented.Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government, 1338-40

Conversely, Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government depicts a scene that falls right in step with Compagni’s preferred vision for Florence.  The figure of justice takes on a great significance in this painting: Wisdom sits above the head of Lady Justice, who sits atop Lady Concordia, who holds a level attached to by two cords from Justice.  The picture creates a domino effect, if you will—wisdom influences decisions of justice, and notions of justice in turn influence equality.  The two cords held by Concordia (which can be literally translated as “with cords”) are brought together in a representation of anti-factionalism.  Finally, a long procession of similarly dressed, similarly stationed men follows to the right of Concordia, supposedly in a representation of the common good; all the men look the same and all strive for a unified goal, instead of individual goals.

The three figures in Good Government represent the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  They hover above the head of the ruler of good government, a man sitting in a throne and dressed like a king.  This kingly figure seems to be Lorenzetti’s way of physically creating a center of good government—a center of common good.  In this sense, Lorenzetti makes an implicit equivocation between an authoritative yet benevolent central ruler and the achievement of the common good.  Compagni makes a similar equivocation in his Chronicles, first by exalting the person of Giano della Bella, and then by ending his book with a reference to the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, poised to attack Florence, who seems to be the only individual Compagni can put faith in to restore Florence to its greatness.  Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City, 1338-40

The effects of good government as depicted by Lorenzetti again are another implicit connection to Compagni.  The artwork depicts a city with beautiful buildings, undifferentiated architecturally (demonstrating justice and equality); a school for children and shops for merchants are busy at work; various city figures are all taking part in different jobs to ensure the city runs smoothly; harvesting takes place in the fields, and livestock are abundant.  Furthermore, one can see dancing women in Lorenzetti’s painting, a symbol of beauty and justice.  In short, Lorenzetti’s work presents a picture of the Florence Compagni would like to see.  But, for Compagni at the end of Chronicles, his consistent lamentations about the state of Florence can only leave him hoping that a conquering army of the Holy Roman Empire will come into his city, restore some semblance of order in the government, and remake Florence once again.


Dino Compagni and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (2)

Katie Eisner

Both Dino Compagni’s account Chronicle of Florence and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco paintings Good and Bad Government provide historical representations of governance in Italian city-states during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  As both works illustrate, the systems of government for the Italian city-states of Florence and Siena, respectively, were prone to fostering civil strife among their citizens.  Through their particular style of expression, both men attempted to provide resolution to the problem of poor government by chronicling the results of effective and ineffective means of governance.   

During the time Dino Compagni covers in his Chronicle of Florence, the city of Florence had become both large and prosperous, and above all successful.  Built on both sides of the Arno River in Italy’s Tuscan region, Florence took advantage of its’ fortunate location by becoming deeply involved in international trade and banking.  Along with their thriving wool trade, these two interests allowed the city to flourish, attaining a population of around one hundred thousand by the fourteenth century and requiring the expansion of the city walls on multiple occasions.  Besides physical growth, Florence also developed a bustling economy, occasionally described as an example of “pre-industrial capitalism.”  With the city’s financial growth came also the growth of the middle class.  As both Florentine wealth and population grew, class lines were redrawn and the competition for power intensified.

Traditionally, the leaders of the wealthy patrician families, or magnates, who inhabited the city’s surrounding countryside ruled Florence.   However, as Florence’s wealth increased, so did the political influence of the members of the rising middle class, or popolo grassi, and the successful, but more modestly living shopkeepers, guild members, and merchants, known as the popolo minuto.  The potential for conflict between the three classes further increased as the magnates began moving inside the city walls to take advantage of the great wealth available in commerce.  A member of the popolo minuto himself, Dino Compagni expresses his frustration and disgust with the inability of all citizens of Florence to support one common body of chosen officials in his Chronicle of Florence

Compagni’s account chronicles the conflicts and changing alliances that undermined the good governance of Florence throughout the thirteenth century.  He identifies the murder of Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti as the beginning of Florence’s factionalism and responsible for the formation of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines.  Early in the city’s history of discord, the identification of Guelf and Ghibelline factions tied the city to the larger political movements of the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor, through alliances with each authoritative power respectively.   During the remainder of the century, the Florentine governing body and the Florentine system of government changed as the balance of power between Rome, HRE, and their allies shifted. 

Underlying and complicating these lines of division were clientage and marital connections that crossed classes, creating a convoluted and fickle web of alliances.  In 1293, Giano della Bella established the Ordinances of Justice and a government of six Priors and a Standard-bearer of Justice, each appointed for a two-month term, for the protection of the popolo minuto.  The Ordinances of Justice disenfranchised the magnates by prohibiting them from entering the highest positions of office in the city government.    As a result, a complex and highly unstable power struggle ensued.  Although, members of the popolo minuto often achieved positions in Florence’s government, magnates and members of the popolo grassi were often able to overthrow or ignore them because of their wealth and connections.  Reconciling each faction became increasingly difficult for the Priors during their short terms of office, as family connections and clientage relationships triggered two more large-scale factions.  First, the Guelfs split along family lines into the Black Guelfs of the Donati family and the White Guelfs of the Cerchi family.  Eventually the victors, the Black Guelfs reined over Florence just a short time before they too broke over a dispute into Corso Donati’s faction and Rosa della Tosa’s faction.

In the end, Rosa della Tosa and his followers were successful in gaining control of Florence, however, Compagni’s work was meant not so much as a chronicle of a power struggle, as a cautionary tale of how not to govern a city.  Short terms of office fueled a competition for power on the one hand and on the other prevented any one person from seizing stability from the factions.  The convoluted and difficult to follow narration of Compagni’s work makes the ineffectiveness of this system clear.  He himself adds extra reason to avoid the power hungry spirit that developed in Florence by arguing that the factionalists were sinning against their city in fighting against the common good.  Compagni laments the “wicked citizens, authors’ of [their] city’s destruction” and his account serves, in its painful relation of Florence’s troubles, to warn of the effects of bad government.

Not too far away in Siena, Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted his fellow citizens a similar warning in the form of his frescos Allegory of Good Government, Bad Government and the Effects of Bad Government in the City, and Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country.  Although Siena fared better than Florence, the city maintained a similar government and experienced similar power struggles.  Lorenzetti’s allegorical works fittingly covered the walls of the Sala della Pace in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, the hall and building in which Siena’s government lived and held council.  Combined, Lorenzetti’s works illustrate Compagni’s belief that a government bent on serving the Common Good is most successful and most supported by God.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government, 1338-40

In Allegory of Good Government, Lorenzetti illustrates the direct connection between God and the common good of the city.  The painting begins with Justice, who sits under the presence of wisdom, holding two scales, one meting out rewards, and the other punishments.  Justice also holds the ends of two cords, which Concordia receives.  Symbolically, Concordia holds a wood plane on her lap to represent the leveling off the field that occurs when justice is present.   The cords Ambrogio Lorezetti, Allegory of Bad Government, 1338-40are then braided and passed through the crowd of governing officials standing beneath the great-enthroned figure.  Dressed in Siena’s colors of black and white, the figure represents the common good and the model authoritative figure of God.  Surrounding his figure of the Common Good with various virtues, Lorenzetti clearly emphasizes the need for all citizens to believe and act for justice and equality to govern a city well.  Below his painting, Lorenzetti makes clearer his painting by remarking that wherever justice rules, “she induces to unity the many souls and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good their Lord.”

Ambrogio Lorenzetti contrasts his vision of good government in Allegory of Bad Government.  To emphasize further his belief in the necessity of justice in good government, he places Justice bound at the feet of the hideous Tyranny.  The unnatural and monstrous figures of cruelty, division, war and furor form Tyranny’s court and the surrounding portrait of the city and accompanying fresco of the countryside illustrate many of the unfortunate results of bad government.  Several of these are lamented by Compagni in his Chronicle of Florence such as fire and destruction of the cities beauty, treachery and of course division.  Below these images, Lorenzetti cautioned viewers, who would daily be Siena’s leaders, to “let the mind and understanding be intent on keeping each always subject to Justice, in order to escape such dark injuries.”  When the dual portraits of government are viewed in conjunction, Lorenzetti’s visual rhetoric is difficult to ignore.          

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries witnessed great civil strife in Italy’s northern city-states.  For both Dino Compagni and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the answer to their cities’ problems lay in choosing to govern with justice and the common good in mind.  


Compagni, Dino. Chronicle of Florence. Trans. Baniel E Bornstein. Philadelphia: U of       Pennsylvania P,1986.

Kleiner, Fred S. "Italy, 1200 to 1400." Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History. 13th   ed.Vol. 2. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009. 497-516.









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