A fine piece of medieval art? Yes, but that’s not why I am writing about it.
An example of religious iconography? Yes, but that’s not what interests me.
The interesting question is, “what exactly is it we are seeing here?” Not the subject – what is remarkable here is the object.
This painting, from the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, shows Jesus being scourged by Roman soldiers. Typically of art of the early Renaissance, it makes no attempt at historical accuracy – the clothes are contemporary – and shows a considerable technical competence (the navel of Jesus, symbolic of the Incarnation, is the dead centre of the image). But what really interests me is the medium – the thing it’s painted on. Most such art works of this period are altar pieces – the museum has several. But this is not an altar piece.
It’s a file cover.
Yes, just like the Lever Arch files which fill the shelves of offices around the world, this is the cover of a file of documents. For a stationery fetishist like me, that’s fascinating. But it’s not the main reason I’m interested in it.
What really matters is why this file was created, in the city state of Siena. From the eleventh century until 1555, Siena was an independent republic, striving to retain freedom from the rule of powerful families like the Medici in Florence. To do this, the city had a rule that public office was a public duty. Citizens occupied the position of proveditore (supervisor), managing the city’s administration and finances. But – a crucial point – to ensure that no-one could use their position to entrench their family’s position in the city, the rule was that each proveditore served a fixed term of just six months. At the end of that term, they were required to hand over a file showing the accounts of the city for that period.
This is the cover of one such file. The archives of the city of Siena has a collection of these, known as tavolette. (There are also some in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum). They are decorated with elaborate paintings, along with texts and the coats of arms of the relevant family. It must have cost a fortune. I suppose the idea was a little like the glossy annual reports produced by companies and organizations – try to impress the public with an expensive-looking design.
I don’t know much more than that. Siena was an oligarchy, not a democracy, and I think the process was by no means as transparent as it was supposed to be. But I love the idea of public officials not only publicising the records of their work, but doing so with such a display of civic pride. Giving the still grudging attitude to freedom of information still shown by many public authorities, it’s a lesson from the middle ages some could benefit from today.