civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes

This is highlight #2 from our recent time in Italy. Lucignano is a small medieval town in Tuscany, notable for its street plan of concentric ellipses capping a steep hill. During the middle ages, it was contested by larger city-states, but it sometimes enjoyed a degree of independence or civic freedom. It certainly had its own town hall and, within that building, a Sala di Consiglio or council chamber.

At first, this room was decorated by one large fresco of the Madonna in Majesty. If I recall correctly, the inscription under her picture reminded Lucignano’s leaders to listen to both sides of every dispute. Then, between 1438 and 1475, the town’s councilors contribruted personal funds to cover the ceiling with frescoes of exemplary figures from history, each labeled with a name, and most accompanied by an instructive quotation. “Virgil the poet” is shown above.

Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier offers excellent background information on this decorative scheme.* It was not uncommon to depict heroes from the past (often known as “worthies”) in public spaces. And there was a very famous model of a council chamber decorated with frescoes about good (and bad) government in nearby Siena. But the Lucignano frescoes were unique in that the list of exemplary figures came from a specific source, Dante, who also provided many of the quotations painted on the ceiling.

Dante held an elaborate political theory that I will not attempt to summarize comprehensively here. But it seems to me that Lucignano’s civic elders borrowed the following elements of his thought for their council chamber:

  1. Civic responsibility. Cicero is depicted as one of the exemplars (no surprise there); but as Joost-Gaugier notes, it was thanks to Dante that Cicero came to represent “the value of active participation in civic life” and the “civic spirit of Roman law as it centered on the complete man espousing the common good.” The Lucignano frescoes emphasize not only the value of participating in everyday civic affairs but also the need for sacrifice. For instance, the Roman heroine Lucretia is shown. Her suicide sparked the revolt that founded the Roman Republic.
  2. Lay government. One saint (Paul) is depicted among the worthies, but his quote from Romans 12:17-19 is about obeying the law. Figures like Justinian are deeply Christian, but they mingle on the chamber ceiling with pagan Romans and ancient Jews without distinction. The Roman republic and empire were Dante’s political models, and they were led by laymen rather than clergy. Although Dante and the medieval leaders of Lucignano believed that law should be consistent with scripture, the point emphasized in the Council Chamber is the primacy of law.
  3. Independence: Joost-Gaugier notes a subtle dig at Siena, from which Lucignano had won its freedom. Siena claimed to be founded by Remus, who was its mascot, but the frescoes in Lucignano suggest that Rome had been founded by the god Janus and not by Romulus and Remus at all. While Lucignano’s elders may have simply had a quarrel with Siena, they also hoped to govern their community free of any outside domination. Self-governance is an implicit theme here.
  4. The unity of history. Ancient Romans, Jews, and Christians all look alike in these frescoes. That is partly a result of the historical naivety of Lucignano’s artists. They had no idea that Samson and Virgil should be dressed differently from a Tuscan of the 1400s. At the same time, however, Dante offered a more substantive reason to treat all these worthies as similar. He held that world history had a unity determined by providence. See Paradiso VI, where Justinian mentions several of the other figures shown on the ceiling at Lucignano as bearers of God’s unfolding will.

People who thought in this way were liable to see themselves as appropriate heirs to the republican citizens of ancient Rome, capable of self-governance, obligated to sacrifice for the common good, and committed to the same law that had prevailed in Rome. This room is a vivid illustration of the idea that civic republicanism flourished in late-medieval Italy and came to the Atlantic world from there.

*Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, “Dante and the History of Art: The Case of a Tuscan Commune. Part II: The Sala del Consiglio at Lucignano,” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 11, No. 22 (1990), pp. 23-46.