The 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winner’s latest work
A 25 years long-awaited encounter with Siena
Hisham Matar’s A month in Siena is not a travel book, not an art essay, nor a biography. The 2017 Pulitzer prize winner’s latest work is a journey taking place at once in the narrow alleys of Siena, in the contemplation of frescoes and paintings from the XIII – XV centuries, and in the bitter-sweet recollection of past moments and thoughts.
In these few days since my arrival Siena had already succeeded in making my eyes unaccustomed to the horizon. I suddenly felt I understood, and could see from Siena’s point of view, that infinity is a claustrophobic prospect, that it is perfectly appropriate, given the chaotic nature of life, to cordon off an area in which to interpret ourselves, where one can decide what is important, what is to be privileged and what to be left out, determine the axes of the main thoroughfares and the arrangement of streets between them.
The 25 years-long wait of Hisham Matar
Hisham Matar allows us to follow him from the halls of London’s National Gallery, where he was first enchanted by the Sienese painting school at the time of the disappearance of his father, to the encounter with Siena 25 years later.
[Piazza del Campo] This is where Siena reaches the middle of itself, where it pours out completely. But here also is its source. This is the end and the beginning, the location of the twin tides, declared in the open. And it was as though Diana and I had entered a space that was ours, one in which we had all along been anticipated and where, we suspected, once we left we would continue to be expected. Isn’t this at least one definition of happiness, I thought, to be anticipated?
During his 30 days spent in the city that “began to occupy the sort of uneasy reverence the devout might feel towards Mecca or Rome or Jerusalem”, Hisham Matar plunges into Siena and its culture. While moving among Duccio di Buoninsegna, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Simone Martini, Giovanni di Paolo, and the painters of the Sienese school, the reader joins Matar in his exploration of the city, and his understanding of one of the most important events of the year: the Palio that the “contrade” run every year on July 2 and August 16.
Travel, learn, grow: Hisham Matar’s approach
A month in Siena, though it is not a travel book, shows that even in the age of mass tourism, travelling is still a soul-searching process if you allow it enough time to look at things closely, to speak with people, make new acquaintances, and to engage with language learning. In fact, since Odysseus, travelling and exploring new cultures is one of the most important ways to transform yourself and to be conscious of your limits as well as your analysis skills.
Perhaps learning a new language is a reminder of when we were unable to say anything at all
This is how Hisham Matar feels about the process of acquisition of another language and we do agree with him. In this sense, learning a language and the culture of a community could mean for an individual to grow slowly up in another personal dimension, similar – but not identical – to how we were before.
A month in Siena is is therefore a precious book for those who want to come to Siena for the first time, but also for the Sienese cizitens: because it shows them an alternative but complementary vision of their city and their culture.