Siena and Her Art Soothe a Writer’s Grieving Soul

25 April, 2022
A recent view of Siena (pho­to cour­tesy Hotel Athena).


A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar
Pen­guin UK (2020)
ISBN 9780241987056


Rana Asfour


A Month in Siena is avail­able from Pen­guin.

In 1990, when Pulitzer Prize win­ner Hisham Matar was a 19-year-old stu­dent in Lon­don, his father Jabal­la Matar — a for­mer Libyan diplo­mat turned polit­i­cal dis­si­dent, liv­ing in exile in Cairo — was kid­napped. Bun­dled into an unmarked air­plane, then flown back to Libya, Matar’s father was impris­oned and “grad­u­al­ly, like salt dis­solv­ing into water, he was made to van­ish” by the Qadaf­fi regime.

With his world upend­ed, and for rea­sons that remain unclear to Matar, he began to vis­it the Nation­al Gallery in Lon­don. Each week, he’d ded­i­cate most of his one-hour lunch break to just one pic­ture, before mov­ing on to a dif­fer­ent one the fol­low­ing week. One at a time, and as the pic­tures began to trans­form into “a men­tal as well as a phys­i­cal loca­tion” in his life, he encoun­tered the Sienese paint­ings that to Matar stood “alone, nei­ther Byzan­tine or of the Renais­sance, an anom­aly between chap­ters, like the orches­tra tun­ing its strings in the inter­val.” Near­ly two and a half decades lat­er, Matar’s fas­ci­na­tion with Duc­cio di Buonin­seg­na, Simone Mar­ti­ni, the Loren­zetti broth­ers — Ambro­gio and Pietro — as well as Gio­van­ni di Pao­lo and all the oth­ers has not only deep­ened but has become a nec­es­sary part of his life.

In this very slim book, the author exam­ines eight mas­ter­pieces, begin­ning with Lorenzetti’s fres­co “Alle­go­ry of Good Gov­ern­ment” at the Palaz­zo Pub­bli­co. True to the spir­it of engag­ing with the art, the author is con­tin­u­al­ly uncov­er­ing par­al­lels between what he sees in the art­work and his mem­o­ries in dif­fer­ent cities in the world. In Lorenzetti’s fres­co for exam­ple, Tyran­ny, por­trayed as an androg­y­nous dev­il, reminds the author of graf­fi­ti on walls across Tripoli that car­i­ca­tured Qaddafi after his fall. What cap­tures Matar’s atten­tion most is the paint­ings’ remark­able pow­er to chal­lenge the imag­i­na­tion, to nudge the per­cep­tion, so that even for an instant, the world may be remade.

“These paint­ings seemed to me then, even from with­in my ini­tial bewil­der­ment, as they seem to me now, to artic­u­late a feel­ing of hope. They believe that what we share is more than what sets us apart,” he sug­gests. “The Sienese School is hope­ful but also flat­ter­ing, pro­duc­ing paint­ings that are con­fi­dent of your pres­ence, intel­li­gence and will­ing­ness to engage. They are exam­ples of the kind of art that would lat­er dom­i­nate, where­by the sub­jec­tive life of the observ­er is required in order to com­plete the picture.”

It was only after con­clud­ing work on The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (2016), a prize-win­ning mem­oir of his jour­ney home to his native Libya in search of answers to his father’s dis­ap­pear­ance, that Matar felt that the time had come to jour­ney to Siena. This book is an homage to the birth­place of the paint­ings that had through­out thir­ty years rep­re­sent­ed a metaphor for safe­ty, solace and hope to a son who had found no traces of a miss­ing father. A Month in Siena is in part a por­trait of a city but also a con­sid­er­a­tion of love, grief and the inti­mate engage­ment between art and the viewer.

Why Non-Arabs Should Read Hisham Matar’s The Return

Trained as an archi­tect, Matar is cap­tured by Siena’s build­ings. From the moment he arrives in the city that was the first Ital­ian metrop­o­lis to restrict access to motor vehi­cles in the ear­ly 1960s, he describes the sharp turns of the pas­sage­ways and the close­ness of the build­ings as if one were enter­ing “a liv­ing organ­ism,” inside a place both known and unknown — the way peo­ple are with one anoth­er, the bis­cuits with fen­nel seeds that are iden­ti­cal to those of his Libyan child­hood, the dis­cre­tion with mon­ey and the pride about one’s home and food mixed in with the deeply unfa­mil­iar parts of a city that day or night seemed to be dic­tat­ing the pace and direc­tion of his walks in which reflec­tions min­gled with memories.

“Every day I walked to its edges — north, south, east, west — and it often felt as though I were trac­ing the lim­its of myself. Siena was so var­ied and con­sis­tent, so small and inex­haustible … it was not an alle­go­ry or a state of mind, but the self as city, mod­est and par­tic­u­lar, yet nev­er total­ly know­able, for it was a con­stant­ly mov­ing tar­get, chang­ing with every pass­ing influ­ence and unfold­ing day.”

Rent­ing a flat in the old part of the palaz­zo, Matar describes its fres­coed ceil­ings, the “pri­vate geneal­o­gy of rooms” — the plea­sure of which he car­ried with him every­where he went in Siena “like a pri­vate song,” as well as the sober façades that felt “like an ally to whom to unbur­den all sorts of secrets.” He remarks on the mag­ic trick the city likes to per­form, which he calls a “Sienese habit” that plays the under­stat­ed exte­ri­ors against the mag­nif­i­cent inte­ri­ors, the mod­est mod­er­ate face con­ceal­ing a fer­vent heart.

Detail of Ambro­gio Loren­zetti’s “Effects of Good Gov­ern­ment in the City (cour­tesy The Nation­al Gallery, Lon­don).

“The build­ings we encounter, like new peo­ple we may meet, can excite pas­sions that had up to then lay dor­mant,” he writes, “how just as we influ­ence and are influ­enced by oth­ers, the atmos­phere of a room too is marked by what we do in it … We often think of build­ings not as spaces where human life takes shape, but rather as sites for cer­tain func­tions and activ­i­ties. Siena resists this. It is as though the wall that encir­cles the city like a rib­bon is as much a phys­i­cal bound­ary as it is a spir­i­tu­al veil. It is there to keep out invad­ing armies but also to keep in and inten­si­fy Siena’s sense of itself. Inde­pen­dence here is not mere­ly a polit­i­cal con­cern, but a spir­i­tu­al and philo­soph­i­cal one, aligned with the sov­er­eign­ty of spir­it, with the right to exist in accor­dance with one’s own nature as well as the need not to lose sight of the self.”

It is these con­scious philo­soph­i­cal obser­va­tions on love, grief, the Black Death, jus­tice and the friend­ships the author makes along the way that tru­ly make this book a spe­cial one. Siena is where, by his own admis­sion, he has come not only to see paint­ings but also to adapt to liv­ing in a world that refused to give up its secrets of what had hap­pened to his father. Through­out his time in Siena, Matar remains a com­mit­ted griev­er, liv­ing “not so much inside a city but an idea, an alle­go­ry that was lend­ing itself, like an old and well-tai­lored gar­ment, to my needs.” This deep engross­ment in the process lends the chap­ters in which Matar records his encoun­ters with oth­er peo­ple an ethe­re­al feel, as if the present were forced to con­jure up these serendip­i­tous encoun­ters to remind the author of a world await­ing him and that he needs to even­tu­al­ly reunite with, for bet­ter or for worse.

In the end, A Month in Siena is an engag­ing explo­ration into the unique­ness of the griev­ing process despite pain and sor­row being uni­ver­sal human con­di­tions. Art and death, writes Matar, exist at oppo­site ends of the spec­trum; all that books, paint­ings or sym­phonies pro­vide is a record hon­or­ing our exis­tence, echo­ing our pains and joys, offer­ing solace to those who seek refuge with­in it. And, per­haps, ques­tions Matar, may not the entire his­to­ry of the arts be mere­ly the unfold­ing of such an ambition?



Born in New York City to Libyan par­ents, Hisham Matar spent his child­hood in Tripoli and Cairo and has lived most of his adult life in Lon­don. His debut nov­el, In the Coun­try of Men, was short­list­ed for the Man Book­er Prize and The Guardian First Book Award, and won numer­ous inter­na­tion­al prizes, includ­ing the Roy­al Soci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture Ondaat­je Prize and a Com­mon­wealth First Book Award. His sec­ond nov­el, Anato­my of a Dis­ap­pear­ance, was pub­lished to great acclaim in 2011. His mem­oir The Return was pub­lished in 2016 and won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Jean Stein Award, the Prix du Livre Etranger and sev­er­al oth­ers. It was one of The New York Times’ top 10 books of the year. Matar’s work has been trans­lat­ed into thir­ty lan­guages. He is a Fel­low of the Roy­al Soci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture, and Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Pro­fes­sion­al Prac­tice in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture, Asia & Mid­dle East Cul­tures, and Eng­lish at Barnard Col­lege, Colum­bia University.


Hisham Matar (pho­to cour­tesy Awakenings/Getty).



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