Fresco cycle by Ambrogio Lorenzetti


Today I want to show high tensions of a republican culture in the fresco cycle painted in 1338-1340 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the “Room of Peace”, the Sala dei Nove or meeting hall of the Nine, the chief citizens’ council of the Sienese republic between 1287 and 1355.


So many words strategically patterned as a kind of armature of writing invite attention even before we read them. They stand out as a system of signs coexisting with but also intrusively distinct from the order of pictorial effects. The differences between picturing and writing work to generate distinctions between pictorial and textual “levels” that have in turn many analogies and corollaries – surface and depth, form and content, even effect and cause. Texts take the place of a common denominator in this play of differences, both because they name things but also because the serve as a uniform class oк kind of signification amidst changes in line and color. When we actually go on to read, the inscriptions signal the need for completion beyond or behind the otherwise inert script: the effect at any given moment is one of concentration diverted from what we can see to the underlying sense of what we are reading. Leading as it does away from the perceptible surface, this exercise in reading is disciplinary, abstracting, and ascetic.


So, the paintings expose the utopian fictions of republican ideology, that the realm of the inscriptions exists only as a function of writing, while the “realistic” details are mediated by abstract distinctions and official formulas. It is part of their enduring interest that Lorenzetti’s frescoes, as a political statement and as a work of art, contend with the problematic and perhaps ultimately irresolvable tensions of republican representation.


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