Wednesday 18 March 2020

A Month in Siena | Hisham Matar #NonFiction

Sometimes you read a book, or discover an author, that opens up a new world to you. Or a world that you knew existed, but one that doesn't really intersect very often with your own every day, ordinary life.

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar was one such book and one such author.

It's hard not to feel a little envious of someone who has allocated and prioritised their time for thinking, wondering and pondering. Someone who has made their life around really understanding art, history and sociology. I wonder what it would take to live that kind of life. What are the sacrifices? How do you earn a living? Raise a family?

The joys, to me, are obvious.
Spending hours in front of your favourite art work to really see everything there is to see. Spending a month, on your own, in Siena to facilitate your obsession with this period of art history. Then writing a book about what you've learnt.
A picture changes as you look at it and changes in ways that are unexpected. I have discovered that a painting requires time. Now it takes me several months and more often than not a year before I can move on. During that period the picture becomes a mental as well as a physical location in my life.

At a micro level I can also obsess, research and blog about certain topics (most recently Moby-Dick and Herman Melville) and over the years I have become addicted to the peace and calm that radiates out of The Sea Hath its Pearls | 1897 | William Henry Margetson on regular view at the Art Gallery of NSW. Maybe it's simply that Matar has found a way to turn this into a career, whereas for me it's something I fit in around my working life. One of the things I have taken from this book, is to make this habit of observation a more conscious act and I no longer think I'm weird for returning to the same painting every time I visit the Art Gallery.

I thoroughly enjoyed Matar's detailed, intimate descriptions of his favourite Sienese paintings. I especially loved the colour plates that were included in my hardback edition of the book, so that I, too, could spend time pouring over every detail in the painting, marvelling at Matar's observational skills and interpretative ability.
Only love and art can do this: only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly let into another's perspective. It has always struck me as a paradox how in the solitary arts there is something intimately communal.
The Effects of Good Government in the City | Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Matar also gives us a potted history of Siena and walks around a number of the main areas, describing what he sees, including the local cemetery.
It is one thing to consider the particular intimacy of a single grave, another to glimpse death's endless brave and heroic we are in the face of undeniable evidence that life cannot be maintained, that regardless of what armour we choose, all things must pass.

Given the Covid-19 news at the moment, his reflections on the Black Death that decimated the world in the 14th century felt very relevant. The decline of civilisation as more and more people died, the growth of fear and fanaticism in the face of such chaos and the need for scapegoats to shoulder the blame that 'provoked violent sectarianism and social division.' Criminal groups and rebellions increased. Christianity viewed the plague as a form of guilt (we did something wrong and are being punished approach). Muslims saw it as something else to be endured or resisted, in a long line of God decreed acts to be endured or resisted. But out of this devastating event, came the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.

I have yet to read The Return by Hisham Matar, but I understand that A Month in Siena grew out of the time he needed after writing The Return to come to terms with not being able to find out anything about what happened to his father. Such a profound loss needs a special solace.

A Month in Siena is part of that process for Matar. It's about art and history and philosophy and sociology, but underlying every chapter, every idea, is the loss and grief for his fatherless state.


  1. Wow. Such a profound book.

    1. It was that indeed.
      The chapter on the Black Plague seems even more relevant and profound than it was a few weeks ago.


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