The pain that nevertheless remains bears witness to ... the experience of having been able to exist for, through, with another mind. When one dreams of a happy, harmonious, utopian society, one imagines it built on love, since love exalts me at the same time as it exceeds or overtaxes me. Yet far from amounting to an understanding, passionate love can be equated less with the calm slumber of reconciled civilizations than with their delirium, disengagement and breach. A fragile crest where death and regeneration vie for dominance.--Julia Kristeva, "In Praise of Love" (1)
Near the beginning of his Tesoretto (ca. 1260-66) Brunetto Latini, the Florentine notary who is best known to modem readers as Dante's schoolmaster from the circle of sodomites in Inferno (canto 15), provided an explanation for the dream journey that makes up the remainder of his little poem. In the relevant passage Brunetto describes his response to the news, conveyed to him by a scholar whom he encounters on his way home from an embassy to Castile, of the defeat of the Florentine Guelphs at the Battle of Montaperti. For Brunetto, as a member of the defeated faction, this entails exile from his native Florence. Taking stock of his situation the poet "returns," as he says, to "the nature" he has heard is "possessed by every man coming into the world." In the lines that immediately follow Brunetto, in describing the divisions that occur with birth, articulates the order of filiation, to father, family, and state, ending with a declaration that is familiar to students of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's great fresco cycle for the Sala dei Nove (1338-40) in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena: "All in common should pull together on a rope of peace and welfare, because a land torn apart cannot survive." (2) In the Sienese frescoes Brunetto's words are translated in and around the personification of concordia, who, in a visual enactment of her name, joins together the two cords she receives from the scales of Justice and then delivers the resulting rope to a line of citizens (Fig. 1). The citizens in turn pull together on that rope, which, at its other end, binds the wrist of the personification of Siena's sovereignty.
Brunetto Latini was a civic rhetorician and one of the great compilers of human knowledge in communal Italy. His most ambitious work, Li livres dou tresor (ca. 1260-65), includes, in three books, an encyclopedia of the natural world, a treatise on the virtues and vices, and a discussion of the uses of rhetoric in civic government, concluding with a section that explicitly associates rhetoric and ethics. (3) This last book of the treatise has been read by students of the Sienese frescoes as a manual for communal government, a manual in which Brunetto advocates the ideal of republican government that is represented in the frescoes. (4) Quentin Skinner has argued that the relation between Brunetto's writings and the Sienese frescoes, clearly visible, for example, in the representation of concordia, constitutes evidence of the prehumanistic and predominantly Ciceronian ideas that stand behind their imagery. Whether or not we accept all the particulars of Skinner's conclusions, some of which have been disputed by proponents of the specifically Thomistic-Aristotelian interpretation of the frescoes first put forward by Nicolai Rubinstein in 1958, (5) his contribution to the study of the frescoes is important because it brings to light the prehumanistic culture of civility that had flourished in the communes of central Italy since the twelfth century. This culture was given voice in the writings of Brunetto Latini and a complex visual interpretation by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the frescoes of the Sala dei Nove, the executive council chamber of Siena's city hall (Fig. 2). Particularly relevant here is Skinner's explication of the value, promoted in the writings of the dictatores (civic rhetoricians), of actively bringing forth peace "into the center of things," an idea that was visually translated by Ambrogio in the placement of the personification of peace in medium (at the midpoint) between the figure of Justice and the representation of Siena's sovereignty (Fig. 3). Equally important is Skinner's observation that Ambrogi o represented Peace, following the tradition of the dictatores, not simply as the absence of discord but rather as an active agent of the goal she represents. Peace appears accordingly in the Sienese frescoes as a seductive Venus-like figure, reclining on a suit of armor. (6)
For Brunetto, a real commonwealth in nature is replaced after birth by a series of social allegiances on the one hand, and a desire for a peaceful communal society on the other, a desire that is reignited by the circumstance of his exile and the divisions that it makes so vivid to him. (9) The healing of those divisions is made possible, on the one hand, by a fiction of human government in which concord represents the binding force and, on the other hand, by the poetic remembrance of nature as a common possession, a process that Brunetto figures as the imaginary journey through nature's realm, which takes up the remainder of the poem. This journey constitutes a vital part of Brunetto's representation of commonwealth. Without the poetic remembrance of the reality of nature, the fiction of concord is hollow and the commonwealth remains a bloodless ideal.
In all the discussion of the importance of Brunetto's writings for the understanding of the foundations of republican government as they are represented in Arnbrogio's frescoes, relatively little attention has been paid either to what Brunetto identifies, at the beginning of the Tesoretto, as the real source of commonwealth or to the significance of his explanation for the interpretation of this famous Sienese fresco cycle. Skinner alludes to an answer, founded in the relation between peace and nature, when he refers to Seneca's description of "'that fortunate time when the benefits of nature lay open in medio'--in such a way as to be possessed by all (Epistolae Morales 90.36)." (7) The answer is given far more explicitly in the Tesorett o, where Brunetto abbreviated the material of his Tresor and collapsed the three books of the encyclopedic work into a poetic journey to the realm of nature, the goal of which was the ethical education of the citizen. (8)
The appearance, in Ambrogio's frescoes, of Lady Concordia therefore begs the questions if and how a corresponding remembrance of a lost nature is also constituted in the paintings. My contention is that the group of dancers at the heart of Ambrogio's peaceful cityscape--a figure that has already been associated in the literature with such abstract ideas as concord, social harmony, love, and peace. (10) -- conjures a notion of love whose source is precisely that common nature of which Brunetto speaks (Fig. 4). Infinitely fragmented but nonetheless real, that nature can only be remembered poetically, as an experience akin to that described by Julia Kristeva in the above-quoted passage as "A fragile crest where death and regeneration vie for dominance."
While invoking Kristeva, and thereby also the psychoanalytic and poetic terms of her project, I intend not to abandon the historical enterprise but to expand it to embrace the question of experience. I must say at the outset that it is not my primary goal to present new historical evidence for the interpretation of the Sienese frescoes. In fact, many of the materials that are relevant to the present discussion have already been assembled around the frescoes. Nor do I reject the prevailing historical interpretations of the fresco cycle as constituting, both in the figure of the dancers and as a whole, a representation of the peaceful commonwealth. In fact, I hope to provide support for the idea that peace--most obviously represented by Ambrogio in the figure of the reclining nymph at the center of the diagrammatic portion of the fresco cycle (Fig. 1)--is the central element of the complex and vital notion of commonwealth that is represented in the frescoes. (11) What I have to offer is an interpretation that e mbraces the fullness of the metaphor constituted in the figure of the dancers, a metaphor that encompasses not just an idea but also an experience of peace.
Let me begin by rehearsing the state of the question regarding the dancers as part of the imagery of peace, and particularly the problem of their dress as it concerns that issue. The dance itself has been assimilated, relatively easily, to the idea of peace and harmony that the image of the ideal city has been taken to represent. Jack Greenstein, for instance, observed that the dancers' "stately demeanor and ordered actions" seem to be reined in by the influence of the celestial Venus, who appears personified in the upper border of the fresco over the cityscape. (12) The costumes, however, have proven more difficult to accommodate as part of such a chaste and dignified image of peace. If anything, they appear to have been orchestrated by the terrestrial Venus.
As Jane Bridgeman and others have observed, the elaborately decorated costumes--some parti-color, others historiated, one with slashed sleeves, and all with fringed hems and with what by contemporary standards would have been considered daring decolletage--constitute a veritable catalogue of extravagant dress as described and proscribed by contemporary Sienese sumptuary legislation. (13) In a general sense all of the dresses call to mind the words of a Sienese statute of 1330 banning elaborately decorated, inscribed, and/or historiated costumes. (14) The law specifically prohibited the decoration of clothing with painted, embroidered, woven, applied, or otherwise affixed images of trees, fruits, flowers, and foliage, or with any kind of animal imagery. (15) In fourteenth-century terminology, the Sienese dancers might be said to be dressed alla ninfa (as maidens): which is to say, in ornate, quasitheatrical, capriciously decorated, and effeminate garb. (16) In a civil context, such dress was considered blamewo rthy for its luxury and specifically because it obscured or subverted all sorts of important social distinctions, including both gender and class.
While such costumes were generally proscribed for upstanding citizenry, they were closely associated with the itinerant entertainers variously designated in the documents as istriones, giocolatori, giullari, and menestrelli. (17) More tellingly for the present case, they also belonged to the type of dress associated with the bands, or brigate, of youths and maidens whose activities were the focus of festive springtime rituals in communal Tuscany. In fact, the remarkable imagery decorating the dresses of Ambrogio's dancers, particularly the caterpillars and dragonflies on the dresses of the two centrally located dancers (Fig. 6), points to this ephemeral species of attire. Unlike most of the other animal patterns we know from historiated textiles--griffins, lions, or parrots, for example--caterpillars, in particular, do not offer a very good basis for the kind of bilaterally symmetrical, positive-negative repetitive patterning that lent itself to the medium of weaving. (18) This suggests, especially in the cas e of the dress emblazoned with caterpillars, that the reference may be to a painted, embroidered, or otherwise affixed pattern rather than to a woven one, an allusion that would be consistent with the notion that the dancers' apparel refers to the realm of costume and festivity, not to that of everyday life. (19)
Records in contemporary chronicles of the types of celebrations in which such clothing might have appeared are numerous. Giovanni Villani, the great Florentine chronicler of the fourteenth century, remembered several such rituals in the pages of his Cronica (ca. 1300-1348). He offered the following description of the celebration of the rites of May in 1289:
And each year on the calends of May, to express the happiness and well-being of the city, brigate and companies of noble youths dressed in new clothes [vestiti di nuovo] would gather, making courts covered with banners and veils of silk, and wooden enclosures in various parts of the city. Similar [companies] of ladies and maidens, wearing garlands of flowers on their heads, and playing musical instruments, would gather and go through the city, dancing in train and in couples, spending time in games and amusements, in dinners and feasts. (20)
It is significant that in this context, despite both the social prohibitions of his time and his own frequently moralizing stance, Villani puts judgment aside to celebrate the dancers. A similarly positive assessment of the Sienese dancers, with all their erotic potential, is, as Jonathan Alexander has suggested, worth exploring. Alexander rightly recognized the value of their eroticism as part of the imagery of generation proper to the celebration of May Day. (21)
Villani's "companies of ladies and maidens, wearing garlands of flowers on their heads.. . dancing in train and in couples" are certainly relatives of the figures in Ambrogio's frescoes, but while the painted dancers had important social correlatives, both in May Day celebrations and in weddings and other similar festivities, their presence in the fresco cycle is neither anecdotal nor simply illustrative of social practice. The dancers, who appear in association with the bridal procession represented on the far left of the cityscape, are surely to be taken as signs of peace and concord. (22) As Chiara Frugoni has observed, the larger political significance of weddings had to do with a notion of altruistic love, which an ideal marriage represented, and toward which human society properly strove. (23) I would take the argument one step further to propose that it is not just an idea but also an experience of love, both positive and negative, that is evoked by the dancers' presence.
As in the rituals commemorated by Villani, so also in Ambrogio's fresco, the masked dance has a mythic dimension, which cannot fully be fathomed from a historical or objective perspective. Far from simply reflecting social norms, such ritualistic activities, as vital forms of mythopoesis, aimed to suspend time and cut through contingent boundaries--social, political, temporal, sexual, and linguistic--in hope of recapturing, quite literally re-presenting, the potential for commonwealth. This is why, for example, the laws prohibiting public dancing and luxurious dress were often suspended during rites of celebration.(24) It is surely true, as Richard Trexler observed, that this goal was the stuff of dreams and did not find a corresponding "reality" in the festivals themselves, which were both far less inclusive and far more politicized than their representations would suggest. (25) Since we are dealing here with an elaborate and multifaceted fiction, the dream, the lost reality that it masks, and the contingent experience of "delirium, disengagement and breach" must all be taken into account as components of the poetic undertaking.
The conditions of mythmaking and poetic remembrance, so eloquently bound up, for example, in Giovanni Boccaccio's Genealogiae deorum gentilium (1350-75), explain the limitations of social history, iconography, and philology, all heirs to a modern notion of history that depends on boundaries, values diachrony over synchrony, and objectifies the past, to respond fully to the vital species of mythopoetic imagery to which Ambrogio's dancers belong. (26) The study of the Genealogiae deorum, as it has evolved in recent scholarship, is an exemplary case of how poststructural approaches to the problem of interpretation have rescued from near oblivion a text that was as important in its own time as it has been perplexing to modern classical philologists. Jeremiah Reedy spoke for the latter tradition in the introduction to his translation of Boccaccio's "Defense of Poetry" (Genealogiae, book 14) when he characterized, with evident ambivalence, Boccaccio's scholarship: "Initially the reader of the Genealogy is impressed by the scope of Boccaccio's knowledge of classical literature.... Recent scholarship has shown, however, that, by modern standards, Boccaccio as a scholar leaves much to be desired.... Even in the case of Vergil, Ovid, Cicero, and Seneca Boccaccio frequently quotes from decadent compilations or from memory...." (27) The problem, particularly for those who seek to localize value and/or objectify meaning, either in a poetic text or in an image, is succinctly explained by Mary Carruthers, in the conclusion to her work on medieval memory.
Indeterminacy of meaning is the very character of recollective gathering. Emotions are the matrix of memory impressions, and so--of course--desire moves intellect, as all learning is based on remembering. These themes of deconstruction and psychoanalytic criticism are not socially subversive when we detect them in medieval literature; they are the tradition itself. (28)
The stalemate that has been reached in the scholarship on the Sienese frescoes between those who recognize the eroticism implied in the costumes of the dancers but are unsure what to do with it, and those who avoid the issue altogether by assigning the dancers to the realm of "symbolic figures" seems to buttress the contention that the historicizing perspective cannot ultimately accommodate, except in implicitly negative or explicitly subversive, terms, either a memorialistic culture, like that of the Middle Ages, or a memorial rite, like that imagined in the Sienese frescoes. (29) An initial key to the resolution of the stalemate, therefore, lies in the observation that Ambrogio's dancers appear to be participants in a festive ritual, a context in which dressing alla ninfa transcended its negative social implications to acquire the mythic dimension that is written into the very history of the word nymph.
Before tracing that history it is necessary to draw an obvious but easily overlooked distinction between the real festivals and their poetic and/or visual representations. While the real festivals were animated by the living bodies of the city's noble youths, Ambrogio's dancers have no bodies. Indeed, where modem interpreters have identified the dancers' costumes as …