Learning from the last great art before the Black Death.
(This essay originally appeared in a substantially different form as an“ignite talk” I delivered for The Long Now Foundation, an organization dedicated to fostering long-term thinking, on 10/20/2020. Ignite talks are five-minute presentations consisting of 20 slides, which change every 15 seconds, compelling the speaker to a very tight presentation. I have added slides and comments.)
Eight months ago I was in Siena, Italy, looking at this painting from 1338. The same day, Italy had its first COVID quarantine. That day in Tuscany and that impending pandemic turned out to be related to each in ways I didn’t realize at the time. In both of them are what I’ll call long wave cultural changes, and the way that, every now and then, History rhymes exquisitely.
Particularly when it’s telling us deep truths about who we are and what we need.
But let me start by saying that when the quarantines lift you must go to Siena and stand in this room. Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of Good and Bad Government,” as it’s now called, isn’t almost seven centuries old. Consisting of three frescoes on three walls of a room in Siena’s Palazzo Publico (the fourth looks out on the Tuscan countryside,) it’s Europe’s first landscape painting since the Roman Empire. It’s also the last great artwork before the Black Death. Thus, it looks knowingly back and unintentionally forward in compelling ways.
Siena has a number of other astonishing works of art that portray a world newly energized by discovery, change, and growth. It became a republic in 1260, just a few years before this pulpit was carved for Siena Cathedral. In 1310, about the same time Duccio painted this 15' x 16' Maestà, Siena wrote the world’s first vernacular constitution.
So how is one little town rocking it so hard?
The answer is -Globalization! The Mongol conquests stabilized trade routes from Europe all the way to Korea. Siena went into banking and luxury goods. See that silk, and and Tartar writing where the virgin is sitting in the painting? As late as 1300 there was a Mongol mission to Rome for the jubilee year, and plenty of discussion of which great religion the Mongols would change. But that’s another story.
It’s not like everything was super delightful in Tuscany, though. There is serious Medieval mayhem and ruin going on, particularly by traitorous mercenaries like Castruccio Castracani, pictured at Left.
Siena’s rulers, a rotating group of elites called The Nine, faced external mayhem and domestic riots at times. Like lots of ruling powers, they sought ways to justify themselves, and maybe even inspire them to rule well. So they hired a painter to give them a big, important allegory.
Let’s break it down:
If you scrape away the angels, the central Northern Wall is pretty familiar stuff: Justice comes from Heaven, flows through the people, is expressed by the Wise Leader (The Nine). Peace reposes on a pile of armor. The other virtues can flourish, and the well-disciplined army deals with the local miscreants.
So what happens when you take Justice away?
Stop me if any of this seems familiar. Without Justice, Tyranny takes over. He guided entirely by different kinds of selfishness. He teams up with vices, who riff on different ways to betray and wound themselves and each other. This is very bad news for the citizens of such a country.
As you can see, it’s a pretty awful time -violent, unpredictable, and solitary. The mercenaries are riding out into a ruined countryside (the Western wall was suffered weather damage so it’s in bad shape, but there’s a bit of it coming up.)
For a 14th Century Christian this is even worse than the mayhem and physical harm we see. There is essentially no way to survive in this world without sinning, which means when this bad life is over, you will burn forever in Hell.
So what happens if there is Justice? Let’s turn to the Eastern Wall.
Obviously, things are a lot better. But it’s more than just prosperity in both the city and the country. People are connected, and together they are depicted various kinds of the Seven Medieval Artes. These were the trades supposedly designed by God for human betterment. Their work has connection to the order of the universe, and healthy meaning — Even the dancing, part of the art of Theatrica, is chasing away the worms of melancholy, depicted on the dress.
You can see why this is the first landscape in 800 years: For Europe it’s pretty much the first time since Rome that the world is worth looking at and enjoying. That ocean on the far right of the landscape is next to the port of Talamone, which Siena hoped to annex and use to become a trading power.
It didn’t end there, either. Lorenzetti, who was probably assisted by a number of scholars and political types in laying out this painting, added on the borders the seasons, astrological symbols, and the Trivium and Quadrivium, the classical methods of understanding and manipulating the world.
There’s a similar relationship between the heavens and worldly work, by the way, on the first level of the Campanile that Giotto was building in the rival town of Florence. Clearly, there is an emerging sense of harmony between our lives and the next reality which had been sorely missing for several centuries.
Art, Religion, and Politics! Good mission statement, The Nine!
But then reality shows up with a few surprises for this new vision of progress.
In the fall of 1346 a Genoese trading vessel calls in to Messina from the Black Sea. The crew is sick. The authorities don’t let the men off, but rats come down the ropes that tie this vessel to a distant point of Europe. Within five years 30% of the continent is dead, though it’s not an evenly-spread mortality.
Siena and its surrounding countryside lose anywhere from 50%–75% of their people (including Lorenzetti and his three daughters) in less than a year. It basically looks like the landscape in “Bad Government” (center image.) The rule of The Nine ended in 1355, ending 60 years of stability in Siena’s factional politics. Siena’s population recovered its 1350 level about 600 years later, in the 20th Century (one reason it’s such an interesting place to visit today is the centuries when it didn’t need much new construction.)
But the effect the Black Death extends far beyond a five-year reaping of humanity, and here’s where our aperture opens a bit.
In fact, the plague doesn’t last five years, or even 10. The Black Death was the first and biggest wave of a disease that returned to one or another part of Europe every generation or so for the next 350 years.
Think of it: In almost every urban life, at some point you’d hear about thousands of dead in the streets someplace, usually over no more than a few months.
The mental and emotional effect of that creates a powerful long wave in Europe’s cultural ecology.
It’s marked at first by a new isolation. Asia is distant, owing not only to the Black Death, but the inability of the Mongols to sustain their empire.
The isolation is personal, too. Life has more peril, there’s a sense that there’s no good way to plan. Petrarch, in his Familiares, publishes his inner feelings shared with friends, creating a new sense of personal intimacy and trust amid the instability. It’s a first marker of Europe’s new, powerful sense of individual experience in a random world, with great individuals seeking new ways to derive meaning from life.
Starting early in the next century, we start seeing artists as interesting individuals, like the sculptor Donatello and his friend Brunelleschi, the great architect of Florence Cathedral’s dome. We celebrate lone creative Renaissance geniuses like Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Political and religious thought takes on a much more individualistic cast, sometimes directly from the effects of the plague.
Thinkers as different as Martin Luther and Machiavelli write almost simultaneously about ways that unmediated individuals can find meaning and power. Luther translated the the Bible into the vernacular, enabling a direct encounter with God. Machiavelli wrote in praise of the mercenary, Castracani, as such a paradigm double-dealer. The nine would have been bummed.
Luther survived a plague in Wittenburg and wrote about the ways priests and judges must not flee their people during plague. Machiavelli, who’d been spirited out of Florence as a baby to flee an outbreak, was not so dutiful. Montagne, the introspective modern man in his tower, saw one-third of his city die. Descartes steered clear of Paris because of the disease and settled in a more obscure place when he started writing. For Centuries, seemingly everyone has plague stories.
As a baby, Shakespeare lost 20% of his village to an outbreak. He wrote much of his works during the five shutdowns London endured in his working life, imagining new kinds of emotional experiences. Galileo was only able to publish his ideas because the censors in Rome and Florence were sidetracked by disease. Newton did his revolutionary work on calculus, optics, and gravity during a year that Cambridge was shut because of plague.
And so into our modern world of new meanings, subjectivity, and today’s great paradox, mass personalization! Do we owe it all to a bacillus? Not exactly, but our response to that intermittent visitation of chaos played a big role in our cultural ecology for centuries.
So eight months ago tomorrow I was thinking about this Great Dead End — How politics, religion, and art lined up, then flew apart, and a long cultural wave changed consciousness.
Then a few days later, History started to rhyme. A new pandemic landed in our globalized world, with its own potential to interact with the cultural ecology.
To be clear: Our pandemic isn’t anywhere near as deadly. The plague killed in a day, sometimes, at a much higher rate than COVID-19. Nor is it likely to flare up over coming centuries. We’ll have new visitations and pandemics, for certain, but that’s another story.
In thinking about disease and long wave changes in the cultural ecology, this pandemic is most interesting for the effect it’s likely to have on an exceptionally powerful long wave that’s been underway for the past couple of decades.
This is the first pandemic in the Age of Hyperawareness — the long wave of science, sensors, computing, phones, social media that is changing innumerable aspects of human life, and even our consciousness, much the way technology revolutions have throughout history.
You can judge the power of Hyperawareness by the unprecedented way we’ve virtualized so much of our lives in the face of COVID-19. Virtual exercise classes, online learning, and gaming are the new social settings. We have global business meetings under the terms “Work from Home,” and “Remote Work,” horseless carriage terms that refer to an older style of “work” as a place you go to that’s rapidly changing. We voluntary surveillance via smartphone contact tracing, digital thermometers, fitness bands, and more (don’t be surprised if your house’s air is soon monitored, with real-time readings sent to your phone.) We have a boom in online delivery, digital “twins” of work operations, and software-modeled prototypes of supply chains and physical goods, thanks to cloud computing facilities (disclaimer: I work for Google Cloud, but the views herein are entirely my own, and do not reflect the views of Alphabet or any other of its employees.)
It’s worth noting that, though we are virtualizing ourselves during a pandemic, this is only because we can. It’s a pretty sure bet that this is the kind of thing that people would have done during the Spanish Influenza, or any number of plague outbreaks. What’s called “digital transformation” was such a strong natural step in the early days of the COVID-19 quarantines because the move resonated with us on a deeply human level.
This aspect of how we are functioning under COVID-19 underlines the growing reach and power of Hyperawareness. It also raises what might be the question of our time: If we’re really hyperaware, and we can also, to a degree unique in human history, see how cultures and consciousness change over long waves — can we steer that change mindfully?
If, in the early 16th Century, people could discern and project the impact the new technology of print, and the rising sense of individual importance in a precarious world, how might they have treated these changes? In the 19th Century, how might they have treated the new senses of time and space from photography, telegraphy, and railroads, if they’d better connected these to the social turmoils of migration and urbanization? No points for claiming they’d have stopped them; “A new technology? Take it away!” is a phrase almost never heard in human history.
We do have that opportunity, in part because we’ve already changed our consciousness to readily accept something like a multidetermined, interdisciplinary, mass situationalist (okay, our language for this isn’t good yet) view of social reality. Do we use that to affect the new values we are evolving? If so, what might that look like?
We might start where we scraped away the angels in Siena’s 14th century wall, where we saw how, without Justice and Peace, there’s selfishness and social division. And how hard it is to find durable meaning when there’s division, leading to a kind of damnation in life.
Or for that matter, when we politicize a disease, and turn ourselves into new kinds of tribes of isolated individuals, dedicated more than anything to the other side being wrong, and being erased.
And remember, and we hurtle forward, the deep message of Siena’s Eastern Wall: How we heal ourselves and each other by honoring and setting to work that matters.
If we’re really hyperaware, maybe we’ll have the awareness to make that part of this new long, technology-led, wave.