The Sienese Renaissance painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348) makes a good point in placing the classroom right at the heart of the city in his fresco known as the Effects of Good Government in the City, completed in 1339. The school classroom is not at the edge of town, cloistered and fire-walled. It is right in the eye of the storm, flanked by buzzing shops, opening on the marketplace.
Good government, Lorenzetti suggests, starts in the classroom and doesn’t have its own support bubble. Instead, it is inclusive of all the city’s activities and professions, from the magistrate to the teacher and the artisan. Lorenzetti was reflecting the humanist project in regards to education and civic consciousness.
For many Italian humanists, the letters are of no use, and education is hopeless if they don’t promote civic virtues. In fact, humanism took root in legal and governing circles, especially among the Northern Italian lawyers and notaries, who were closer than anyone – certainly closer than medieval teachers – to the circles of power and leadership. The ‘discovery’ of the ancients, which made the pride of the early humanists, was geared towards a re-assessment, and in many cases, a rediscovery of what it means to be a citizen and a leader. Civic humanism, as it is now known, emerged at the intersection of the classroom and the busy marketplace. It is only by assuming this position and acknowledging this parentage – too often forgotten – that schools are able to be competitive in the real world and serve the students who, once they leave the classroom, will find themselves in the public square.