On good government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good Government (Sala dei Nove, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena: 1338-39)


This piece started out as some Tweets yesterday. It is intended as a friendly useful guide to our Board of Governors on the art of good government; be that as is, or in using ideas from it and adapting them to new ideas of governance. Medievalists are, as ever, here to help in the here and now …

UBC, a public university, is currently celebrating its centenary. And in the midst of governance crises. Here are two reasons why some frescos in a council chamber can help. 



Various things have been happening here at UBC: nearly two weeks ago now, our Board of Governors voted against divestment (contrary to the majority opinion of faculty and students) and there was a two-day workshop about sexual harassment and assault. The latter will be followed up by further such events over the next month. 

There are ideas in the air, and most importantly there’s TALK. A lot of that talk has been on Twitter; I’m liking its form and format, we hear too much of its ills and equal aptitude to awfulness. 

There’s also talk about talk, and talking about talking about talking; and then there’s calls for less talk, and calls for more action; and all of these and any imaginable combination and permutation thereof from all points of view. The curious thing, perhaps, about UBC Current Affairs is that it’s not a simple “us vs them,” nor black-and-white, nor even black-and-white-and-grey; it’s all very “rainbow with shades, tones, timbres, patinas.” Which was one reason to turn to art for guidance.

TALK: In the civil/ised Irish sense, with individuals speaking freely, perhaps at length, perhaps poetically; with others listening (and, as any student learning languages knows and anyone teaching them sure does: LISTENING is the most important part of talking); with turn-taking, respect, consideration, care, treatment as equals; with questions and answers; and with—this is what we all need to practise more, especially administrators used to a certain interpretation of “leadership”—with, last but not least, actual CONVERSATION. There’s blather, gas, free-wheeling, ad-lib creative play.

Not a monologue to a passive audience.

Not a dialogue between agreed, acceptable, authoritative representative voices.

Not an exchange of views (or series of monologues), or a free-for-all, or a shouting match.

A proper conversation, where ideas aren’t just expressed or exchanged, where the intention isn’t to have one pre-stated thing emerge at the end of “discussion” as an end-product “result.” 


A proper intelligent conversation, that’s also intellectual work. In which the work that happens in conversation, the conversation itself, is already a “result”; and where the “product” isn’t just the ideas with which participants “came to the table,” but ideas that have cross-fertilised, ideas that have been generated from previous ones, entirely new ideas, and ideas for further recombinations and what to do next. That sense of future possibility is a further “result.” 

Because that, ladies and gentlemen, is how negotiations and peace processes go; that is the work of changing things and making a new world. If recent and past history worldwide are anything to go by.

There will be another post on here (possibly more than one, as it’s part of the July ICLS work) on conversation.

There will also be at least one more strictly on philology. 

For the main thing that’s happened over the last week or so (since the Board of Governors meeting and the sexual assault workshop) has just been talk; or rather, the production and publication of words. From various Powers That Be, both via UBC News and via the actual press. The Graduate Student Society’s document on sexual assault was leaked: it’s actually a good document and has excellent ideas for what to, you know, actually DO. There were responses to that: why had it not been released in the first place, was is suppressed through threat by Powers and fear of them, etc. And some items in the mainstream press here, op eds of various sorts and qualities.  

These pronouncements, statements, and other utterances all include words; and if you’re in luck there are ideas and arguments too; there’s even been some nice words of aesthetic and maybe even literary merit, such as the fun new term “spiralist” (from here) which gave this particular reader a moment of joy on Friday evening:



I promise that there will not be a long ranty mouthy blog post on recent and past history. Even with the commemoration of 1916 round the corner. That’s for proper historians and not the likes of me, I’m just a simple little medievalist. 

That having been said, I shall say the following very short thing and leave it at that:

OK. Done. 

But there’s now a fair quantity of material in shorter forms over on Twitter (and some more, with or without overlaps, on Facebook). Twitter is just too good for the likes of me and for my kind of working day, when I don’t have a leisurely three-hour block in which to write but bursts of time here and there. The problem is collecting everything together into one place, and hoping I’ve been rigorous and ruthless in the use of hashtags. And there’s a lot of pertinent stuff, even after rereading and editing… It’s not going to squish into one post. 

Here, then, is one single more coherent thing from yesterday. It is intended as a friendly useful guide to our Board of Governors on the art of good government; be that as is, or in using ideas from it and adapting them to new ideas of governance. Medievalists are, as ever, here to help in the here and now…


I blame the excellent Erik Kwakkel


I was catching up on the virtual world of medieval manuscripts (and other medievalism), as you do on a leisurely Saturday morning. 


That first (i.e. chronologically second) item starts out thusly:

Which led naturally enough to … 

I saw those frescos in 1999; I remember them vividly. What a happy recollection for a sunny weekend, and for feeling joyfully republican in a good—Classical and Renaissance and revolutionary—way (not that strange perversion of the word in American usage).

Siena, you will recall, is also home to one of the first publicly-funded universities in the world (the very first will be appearing here next week); its official foundation was a century before Lorenzetti painted his frescos. 

UBC, another public university, is currently celebrating its centenary. And in the midst of governance crises. Here are two reasons why some frescos in a council chamber can help. 


A modest proposal for modelling governance reform. In gift to the UBC Board of Governors and to the UBC Community from a grateful citizen. 

The personification of Good Government, as embodied representative of their City, is the President of the University.

Appointed members of the Board of Governors (14) are sent from On High. Each plays a specific role in being the Representative On Earth of each of the following virtues (plus a couple of angelic helpers):

  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Charity
  • Peace
  • Fortitude
  • Prudence
  • Justice 
  • Magnanimity
  • Temperance
  • Wisdom = “sapientia” as personnification of Σοφία: perhaps a philosopher?
  • Justice #2 = role: helps Wisdom, in practical justice: perhaps a lawyer who is also an ethicist and political theorist?
  • Concord = role: helps Justice #2 and Wisdom
  • Two angels = no specific qualities: role: help Justice and Wisdom; perhaps Board Secretariat?

Elected members of the Board (24):

  • 24 wealthy citizens = members of the UBC community (alumni, faculty, graduate students, staff, undergraduate students). “Wealth” in its broad sense, not just the narrow one of financial riches. Role: help Concord (who helps Justice and Wisdom)


  • Lords = senior administration. Role: formal submission & obeisance, including providing supplementary expert advice on specific topics and in specific situations, as circumstances require (to The President, NB; not to the Board)
  • Senate (not depicted / one of the two lords if together they are senatus populusque / or the she-wolf) = representatives of faculties, departments, etc. Role: advise The President directly on academic matters (ours being a bicameral system, with the Senate in a parallel—equal but different, if you will—position to the Board)

Symbol of the city:
= two small children playing and suckling, being nourished and nurtured by a wolf: wild radical alterity brought into the civil sphere—though neither tamed nor denatured—through basic kindness, a duty of care, for the common good. The wolf might be The Bad Old #UBCBoG Ways / Policies & Procedures & Practices, and a symbol of hope through redemption. Or she might be the Faculty and other constituents of the University Senate.

= a duty of care to past and future: to look after them and look over them; protecting from external cares, burdens, influence, and interests; without interfering; to enable innocent free play 

= intellectual freedom. 

Not just academic freedom. Nor just the free play of students. A freedom of intellectual enquiry and adventure for all citizens, for the whole community.


The text in the fresco’s lower mural:
Approximate and perfectly serviceable translation:

This holy virtue [Justice], where she rules, induces to unity the many souls [of citizens], and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good [ben comune] their Lord; and he, in order to govern his state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the Virtues who sit around him. Therefore to him in triumph are offered taxes, tributes, and lordship of towns; therefore, without war, every civic result duly follows –useful necessary, and pleasurable.

(Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Allegory_of_Good_and_Bad_Government unattributed, but it looks, if memory serves, somewhat like the wording used by Quentin Skinner.)


All gubernatorial business should be conducted in one purpose-made space, a special Council Chamber. 

It should be for the exclusive use of Governors and for Governing business (by which I mean “work involving busy labour”). No other places (Star Chambers or otherwise) should be used for governance. It is a sacred task, to be performed in the appropriate sacred space. 

That special, sacred space should be consecrated as follows. 

Its surfaces should be covered in artistic depictions of governance, to serve as constant reminders to the Good Government and to provide inspiration and intellectual stimulation, to succour them in difficult decisions. 

In the Sienese case, all walls are covered in frescos except one, which has windows looking out onto the main town public square: that windowed wall serves as a reminder of the actual, practical, living nature of governance; of its effects and consequences; of the very real nature of responsibility, to a res publica and comune as a whole, and to each and every individual citizen. 


In the UBC case, there is a fine board-room situated in the Alumni Centre; the Board of Governors often has meetings there. This could become their designated exclusive space.

Windows: Governors should be encouraged to stand up, walk over, and look out of those windows onto the public square below, to observe their fellow-citizens engaging in everyday communal activities and being a living community. 

The board-room’s depictions of governance should be beautiful. Artefacts should be the artistic work of artists, artisans, and craftsmen. Beauty and artistry are what render this space sacred: special, unique, precious, and consecrated to Higher Things. The better to remind Governors of the values of work, skill, dedication, and talent; of the necessity of beauty to civil human existence; of the necessity of patronage to art; and of how all these wonderful things and people and ideas, and the relationships that bind them together and that they make together, are at the core of civil peaceful harmonious community.

Further: the ceiling could be decorated, with carved beams, plaster mouldings, and paintings.

Further still: the floor could be covered with mosaics and tiles, and carpeted in winter (to save on heating costs, for environmental sustainable reasons) with fine allegorical tapestries.

In this way, governors will be constantly reminded by all their surroundings of their sacred duty of care. 

This is effectively the very opposite of the current situation: where other, general-purpose rooms have been used for secret meetings; and where rooms (including board-rooms) either have blank white walls or have inappropriate ornamentation unfitting to their purpose. 

Consider the effects and implications of blank walls and blinds drawn, the deadness of the space, impersonal, inhuman: 


The space is deeply depersonalising, even from what is supposed to be an attractive, enticing, welcoming angle:


Now consider the choice of images on the walls in these photographs of this room in lived-in live action (photo credits: Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, https://www.facebook.com/jichikawa/media_set?set=a.10100958832608571.1073741884.1004279):


And consider once again those drawn blinds. 

They draw a veil over the world outside, blocking out (out of sight, out of mind, all in “a place of mind”) the public space outside and citizens going about their business. 

They filter the natural, true light of day; illumination comes mainly from artificial, false light. 

The unexpected live action of the 2 February 2016 UBClean protest recontextualises that opacity, reconfiguring and translating it into a fresh representation of Good And Bad Government that is none too flattering to our Board of Governors:


Remember what Good Government was protecting and nurturing, to what it had an eternal sacred duty of care? 

 To past, present, and future:


To students.

To free intellectual enquiry by faculty and students. And by anyone and everyone, that being one of the civic “Goods” of the ben comun.

A duty to a community as a whole.


And Good Government has a duty to a larger sense of “community”: to a whole ecosystem that extends beyond individual humans and groups at this particular point in time; a duty that extends to our local, regional, and global environment as a whole. (Also wolves—in interspecies nurturing supportive intersectionality or otherwise—amongst other non-humans.)



Divestment and investment; divestment as investment; action and interaction in solidarity  and mutual aid across what had for so long been seen as diverse, distinct, disparate groups but which we can now see afresh as integrated and integral parts of a communal whole: per lo ben comun

We’ve all been manipulated into competition and conflict for too long: it’s been good to see through that and into harmonious alliance. This isn’t a single-voice chant, the acord(ance) of following a leader: like any good concord this one includes discord and dissonance; it is they that, when woven in, and in that flexible motile supple weaving, in harmonics as much as in harmony, create the richer beauty of polyphony. The overarching motif that brings the whole together as a whole? Per lo ben comun.

Remember the bigger picture? 

The one the size of a wall, staring you in the face, looking you straight in the eye from on high? Positioned above the door, the last thing you see as you exit that council chamber in the Palazzo Pubblico of a city-state repubblica?

Larger than life? 

An image that is also larger than life because it is intended as an eternal reminder for all perpetuity: not a depiction of a moment in time and space in commemoration, nor a portrait of actual persons in order to immortalise them, not even an artistic portrayal of persons or place with some intent for them to serve as exemplary models to others. Allegorical representation goes beyond such figurative concerns, and their smallness and limitedness: in transfiguration. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is but a light-hearted fanciful medievalist allegory. But like all allegory, it speaks of deepest truths. It is true. And it is very real.

It’s also a flat-footed practical proposal. Paint those walls. Open those blinds. Consecrate that special space and dedicate its denizens to the sacred duty of good governance.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good Government (Sala dei Nove, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena: 1338-39)


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