The Pope in the Palace: The Alexander Cycle, Siena

Andrew Martindale explains why Renaissance Sienese doctored the history of a 12th-century papacy when decorating their new city hall.

The Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, facing onto the campo at the heart of the city, needs little introduction. It is one of the 'great' city halls of Europe, as splendid without as within. Towering above the campo is one of the most astonishing bell-towers ever built: while inside, a large part of. the medieval and early Renaissance decoration survives intact. It is a focus of pilgrimage for thousands of visitors every year. They will come to admire, in particular, the frescoes of Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti – the 'Virgin in Majesty', the equestrian painting of Guidoriccio da Fogliano and the so- called 'Good and Bad Government'. All of these have a time-honoured place in the history of art. However, in hurrying along to reach this Mecca of trecento painting, it is important to realise that the route of the twentieth- century visitor bears no relation to the medieval modes of access, today one will almost certainly traverse at a brisk pace a chamber which has now, perforce, become a passage – but in the later Middle Ages was a self-contained space called the Sala di Balia.

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