Martin Gayford

In love with economic disaster

Martin Gayford on why we are drawn to places of financial and industrial failure

Text settings

We spent part of the last two weeks – as has become a family custom – mooching round Siena. And although, like Venice, the place can absorb a huge number of visitors before becoming unpleasantly crowded, we were by no means the only ones. That's because, of course, Siena is just about perfect – an intact mediaeval town, with hardly a building later than the 16th century, but a living community, not a mummified museum. It is also a prime example of what most of us love to look at when we go travelling. Namely, economic failure.

Siena looks the way it does because of a series of disasters. At the beginning of the 14th century it was one of the most go-ahead places on earth, a prototype of the way we all live today. It was almost the size of Paris, one of the financial centres of Europe, a relatively democratic trading republic with a written constitution. Then the clock began to stop. The great frescoes of 'Good and Bad Government' by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Publico, commissioned in 1338, show an understanding of the necessities for a thriving society that still holds in 2003.

Under the regime of good government – presided over by the figures of such key virtues as Justice and Peace – trade flourishes, the shops are full, the countryside blossoms, and maidens dance in the streets. It is true, according to art historians, that those last may in fact be young men dressed in women's clothes, but if so the scene is even more contemporary.

In the realm of Bad Government the judicial system and civil order have broken down, there are no goods to buy, criminals roam the streets and the fields are a barren battlefield. As a scroll explains, fear rules, justice is placed beneath tyranny. 'Nobody walks this road without Fear: robbery thrives inside and outside the city gates.' Look at Liberia, Iraq or any of the other poor and benighted places on earth, and you see the same pattern of Bad Government. Add allegorical figures of Diversity and Inclusion, and you've got a virtually Blunkettian view of life.

So if the Sienese had got so much right in 1338, what went wrong? First they were hit by Black Death and the population plummeted from 100,000 to 30,000 – it is currently 60,000. The city made a partial recovery, and then was conquered by Medicean Florence with results worse than plague. Banking was prohibited, and the economic clock stopped with the sumptuously beautiful results we see today.

But why are we so drawn to linger in a spot where industrial and financial dynamism ceased in 1555? The answer might seem obvious; it's marvellous. But it also leads to an interesting thought. What we in the developed, industrial, high-tech places of the world like to gaze at when we are at leisure tends to be underdevelopment, albeit suitably sanitised. Prosperity to most of us who benefit from it seems ugly. Or, as P.J. O'Rourke succinctly put it, 'The modern city is the mess people make when they get rich.' And it's getting steadily worse. Is there a town in Britain that isn't a good deal more hideous than it was 100 or even 50 years ago? Hideous, that is, to those of us who are used to it. To a bogus asylum-seeker or economic migrant, urban sprawl, ring roads and out of town shopping developments may appear as agreeable signs of wealth.

On the other hand, we rich Westerners like to look at the outward signs of old-fashioned, peasant agriculture – barns, timber-framed cottages, duck ponds and hedges – and ancient towns like Siena that had the misfortune never to develop enough to look like Manchester, Essen or Newark, New Jersey. This attitude is so familiar as to seem inevitable. But it has its ironies.

For example, peasant agriculture may be splendid to look at, but the experience of mankind is that there is no worse way to live. Why did all those exploited proletarians submit to the ghastly conditions of Regency mines and factories? Why do the rural poor of the Third World continue to pour into dreadful shantytowns? The answer is the same: anything is better than being a peasant.

And yet peasant life is the subject of much of our best-loved art – Constable, Samuel Palmer. Carefully preserved rural hovels – aka country cottages – are a favourite location for retirement and rural escape (of course inside they now have central heating, dishwashers and micro-waves). The lure of an undisturbed peasant landscape also helps to explain that widespread middle-class dream, the holiday house abroad.

A friend of mine lives for part of the time in a village in central France. It is absolutely lovely – just like a Samuel Palmer – with old wooden horse-carts still standing in the barns. But my friend is the youngest inhabitant by about 30 years. All the agricultural work, which used to require 80 labourers, is done by one young man called Pascal on a tractor. All the other villagers under 60 have left for the bright lights.

In all this we are profoundly unlike our Georgian ancestors. They commended signs, as they put it, of 'improvements'. That is to say, modernisation. On the other hand, we still have a good deal in common with the next generation, the first to experience the Industrial Revolution: the Romantics. Samuel Palmer in his Kentish valley was already escaping from the modern world – in later life he painted his windows white to keep it out.

So, too, was Lord Byron, though he also had a wife and multiple scandals to avoid. Many of the favoured destinations of early 19th-century travel – Byron's Venice and Greece, for instance – are popular still.

And equally current, I suspect, is the poet's irritation that people just like him were going where he wanted to go. He avoided Rome because he had heard it was 'pestilent with English – a parcel of staring boobies, who go about gaping and wishing to be both cheap and magnificent. A man is a fool now who travels in France or Italy, till this tribe of wretches is swept home again.' One feels just the same, equally unjustifiably, when a platoon of fellow tourists – worst of all fellow Britons – turns up at some remote foreign spot.

Many things have changed in the last two centuries. But, strangely, not that –nor the urge to get away from everything that makes us the rich and comfortable beings we are. My contention is that – unlikely though it may seem as we stand exhausted and sweating in the check-in queues at Gatwick and Stansted this summer – we 21st-century travellers remain oddly romantic at heart.