Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s paintings in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena are among the most famous monuments of late medieval art, celebrated for their unusually secular imagery and their evocative enumeration of the ideals of the Sienese Commune. This talk proposes that much of the vast scholarship on the paintings has fundamentally misread their communicative strategies, seeing them as straightforward propagandistic statements. Setting aside the iconographic, stylistic, and social-historical methods that have been repeatedly applied to the paintings, I turn instead to their visual rhetoric and pictorial operations. The paintings are best understood within the context of the widespread Trecento practice of diagrammatic painting; through this lens, they emerge as complex, ambivalent, and contingent images. The paintings do not just communicate stable political meanings; they enable viewers to generate meaning themselves—to use the images, not merely view them. The paintings’ visual rhetoric is explored both through a close reading and reappraisal of their pictorial structures and also through comparison with other diagrammatic painted allegories of the period.
Department of Art & Archaeology