Skip to main content

The Power of Images: Siena, 1338

The Power of Images: Siena, 1338

Patrick Boucheron

ISBN: 978-1-509-51289-8

May 2018, Polity

240 pages




Where can the danger be lurking? Two soldiers are huddled together, one gazing up at the sky, the other darting a sideward glance. They derive a tacit reassurance from their weapons, but they are both in their different ways alone and scared. They were painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, and they seem symptomatic of a state of emergency: the year was 1338, and the spectre of the signoria, of rule by one man, was abroad in the city, undermining the very idea of the common good. 

In this book, distinguished historian Patrick Boucheron uncovers the rich social and political dimensions of the iconic 'Frescoes of Good and Bad Government'. He guides the reader through Lorenzetti's divided city, where peaceful prosperity and leisure sit alongside the ever present threats of violence, war and despotism. Lorenzetti's painting reminds us crucially that good government is not founded on the wisdom of principled or virtuous rulers. Rather, good government lies in the visible and tangible effects it has on the lives of its citizens. By subjecting it to scrutiny, we may, at least for a while, be able to hold at bay the dark seductions of tyranny. 

From 14th century Siena to the present, The Power of Images shows the latent dangers to democracy when our perceptions of the common good are distorted and undermined. It will appeal to students and scholars in art history, politics and the humanities, as well as to anyone interested in the nature of power.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface: The site of an ancient urgency
  • 1. ‘I thought of these images, painted for you’
  • 2. Nachleben. The watchful shadows
  • 3. The Nine
  • 4. Ambrogio Lorenzetti, famosissimo e singularissimo maestro
  • 5. On each side: allegory, realism, resemblances
  • 6. Esto visibile parlare: the walls speak to us
  • 7. Guernica in the lands of Siena
  • 8. The seductions of tyranny (what the image conceals)
  • 9. Concord with its cords
  • 10. With the common good as lord
  • 11. What peace sees: narratives of spaces and talking bodies
  • 12. Well, now you can dance
  • Epilogue: Vanishing point
  • Appendices
  • The fresco of the Dala della Pace: silhouettes, inscriptions, identifications
  • Inscriptions in the vernacular: transcription, edition and translation
  • Notes
  • Published sources
  • Bibliography
  • Picture credits
  • Index
"This superbly written book invites us to reflect on both history and art, and entices us to go and experience Tuscany for ourselves" 
Livres Hebdo

"Analyzing the fresco of 'Good Government' painted in Siena in the 14th century, Boucheron powerfully elucidates the nature of political representation."
Philosophie Magazine