Nicolas Poussin, “The Triumph of David” (c.1631-1633) oil on canvas

“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice” Marco Polo says to Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. “To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit.” Like Marco Polo’s Venice, “Siena comes to seem like the only city … an allegory of a city,” says Hisham Matar in his recent book, A Month in Siena. Matar visits Siena after finishing his research for The Return, the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir in which he travels to his native Libya to investigate his father’s imprisonment and murder under the Gaddafi regime.

Exhausted by his search and seeking a way to grieve his father, Matar turns to his own love of paintings by the Sienese School, which he discovered as a 19-year-old living in London. Having lost his father earlier that year, Matar would spend his lunch break standing in front of a single work in the National Gallery, observing it silently. For Matar, these paintings “articulate a feeling of hope,” one he desperately needed in that troubling year. Thirty years later, after failing to find evidence of his father in his homeland of Libya, Siena becomes Matar’s reference point and center, his first city.

Detail, ‘Héloïse and Abelard,’ from Giovanni di Paolo, Paradise, 1445, tempera and gold on canvas, transferred on wood

In Siena, Matar continues to spend hours, days even, in front of a single work. The insights derived from these visits are beautifully descriptive yet concise, textbook perfect, formal analyses. Looking at Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath,” (1610) he notes David’s disgusted glance and Goliath’s surprised stare: “Goliath’s old eyes stare into the distance: shocked, doubtful, as if caught inside a dream or, the opposite, woken up by death from the sedative cycle of the days.”

However, Matar’s experiences with the works are as much about understanding their historical and formal qualities as they are about using them as a means of grappling with the loss of his father. For Matar, these works are a means by which to situate himself, both in the city and within the world.

Sano di Pietro, “Angelo annunciante” (ca. 1450), tempera on wood panel (photo by Hisham Matar)

Standing in front of Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of Good Government” (1338) at the Palazzo Pubblico with his wife Diana, Matar ruminates on how she sees the work. This interest in the limits of his own perception pervades A Month in Siena. Indeed, his own perception of the works is influenced by their indelible connection to his father. In the chapel at the Palazzo Pubblico, which was painted during the Black Death, Matar reflects on the impacts of the plague and descriptions of mass graves. To bury, he notes, is to deny, as was the case with his father’s murder at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996.

As Matar draws nearer to the paintings, they also draw him further into Siena. He connects with the works as they relate to the urban fabric of the city, grounding him and enveloping him within its walls. “I knew that I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here,” he says. Shielded from the outside world, Siena becomes a sanctuary where he can grieve, as well as immerse himself in the city’s aura.

Giovanni di Paolo, Paradise, 1445, tempera and gold on canvas, transferred on wood

While Matar revels in being sequestered, he finds that the city pushes him toward other people rather than isolating him. It is the design of the city, he believes, that leads him to meet a Jordanian family living in Siena and forge a friendship with his Italian teacher. Indeed, Matar finds that the city’s design reminds him, and any solitary being, that it is “neither good nor possible to exist entirely alone.”

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar was published by Random House in October of 2019. 

Jonah Goldman Kay is a writer and editor currently based in Eastern Europe. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter at @goldmankay