My Favourite Painting: Cressida Bell

' I could look at it for hours and not become bored'

The Effects of Good Government in the City, part of a cycle known as ‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’, 1337–40, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (about 1290–1348), 9ft by 46ft the entire cycle, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy. Bridgeman Images.

Cressida Bell says:
‘I have always found Siena a most enchanting city. In the centre, the beautiful, pink-brick Piazza del Campo is dominated by the Palazzo Pubblico, in which this extraordinary painting is to be found. The entire cycle is 46ft long and this section is almost like a diorama, with intricate details of an idyllic life in both town and country. There are dancing girls, merchants, hunters and peasants, all set in a captivating landscape. I could look at it for hours and not become bored. If you ascend to the top of the Campanile, the view over the landscape today is amazingly similar.’

Cressida Bell is an artist and designer. Her recent book Cressida Bell’s Cake Design is a revolutionary take on the art of cake decoration.

John McEwen comments:
‘The ways of Ambrogio were…rather those of a gentleman and a philosopher than of a craftsman,’ wrote Giorgio Vasari, ‘and what most demonstrates the wisdom of men, he had ever a mind disposed to content with that which the world and time brought, wherefore he supported with a mind temperate and calm the good and the evil that came to him from fortune.’

Lorenzetti’s life coincided with Siena’s rule by the rolling committee of the ‘Nine Governors and Defenders of the Commune’ (1287–1355). Each member was elected by public ballot, served two months, was chairman for a week and could not serve again for at least 20 months. The Nine lived together in the Palazzo Pubblico. This complicated administrative system meant the majority of Sienese participated in what was called il Buon Governo. The intention was to ensure the Commune did not fall into the hands of I Grandi, a self-serving elite.

Fifty supremely powerful families were excluded from election, as were lawyers, in favour of il Popolo. In this idealistic civic society, private patronage of public art was almost unknown. Lorenzetti’s then rare secular masterpieces filled three walls of the Sala della Pace, where the Nine deliberated. The extreme left-hand end of this section of the cycle has been insensitively reworked, the original starts just to the left of the dancers. Its harmonious variety, from city to distant sea, celebrates the social well-being of Siena’s brief ‘ideal’ republic. Lorenzetti died in the bubonic plague, which killed half the city, the inevitable tax rises bringing an end to the Nine.’

This article was first published in Country Life, September 25, 2013