Martin Gayford

In love with economic disaster

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

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.

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