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What are the marks of good government, and what are the characteristics of a successful political leader? With a general election looming this autumn, Germans have found themselves obliged to ask these questions about their Chancellor in an unexpected form. 

According to a new book, The First Life of Angela M. by Günther Lachmann and Ralf Georg Reuth, until the fall of the Berlin Wall Angela Merkel wasn't just a physicist at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. She was also responsible for "agitation and propaganda" on behalf of the Communist youth organisation, the FDJ. In other words, she was much closer to the regime than her familiar image as the independent-minded daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Mrs Merkel has denied the allegation, but added the cryptic comment: "If it turns out to be different, I can live with that." So: is she the person most Germans took her for when they elected her? 

On a recent trip to Italy, I was struck by the simplicity of what "good" in politics means. I wasn't thinking of Berlusconi or Grillo, but had escaped to Tuscany from the Machiavellian politics of Rome. In Siena, seeking shelter from the rain, I went into the Palazzo Pubblico to study Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338-39). 

This first major urban landscape in Italian art stands out among the mainly religious themes of the time. Commissioned by Siena's ruling Council of Nine, its six scenes depict good and bad government on opposite walls of the council chamber. The Republic of Siena was then one of the richest and most powerful Italian city-states. They were turbulent times, too — a chronicle of wars and revolutions. These frescoes were intended as a warning to the rulers, comparing the effects of corruption and tyranny to those of virtuous governance. The lightly painted images, some of which have suffered damage over the years, are intricate renderings of civic virtues and vices. Standing in my rain-soaked shoes, it struck me that Lorinzetti's mural makes a point that is still valid today.

Now, I'm against nostalgia for a time of idyllic simplicity — as a critic of literature and art, I love complexity. Yet these frescoes were a reminder of the fact that a little symbolism may be effective. 

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