A quiet meditation on art and life.
Matar’s Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir, The Return (2016), was about his Libyan father who was kidnapped in Cairo and taken back, imprisoned, and “gradually, like salt dissolving in water, was made to vanish.” His father’s presence reverberates throughout this thoughtful, sensitive extended essay about the author’s visit to Siena, where he ruminates and reflects on paintings, faith, love, and his wife, Diana. Matar focuses on the 13th- to 15th-century Sienese School of paintings which “stood alone, neither Byzantine nor of the Renaissance, an anomaly between chapters, like the orchestra tuning its strings in the interval,” but he discusses others as well. First, he explores the town, “as intimate as a locket you could wear around your neck and yet as complex as a maze.” Day or night, the “city seemed to be the one determining the pace and direction of my walks.” In the Palazzo Pubblico, Matar scrutinized a series of frescos the “size of a tennis court” painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1338. As the author writes, his Allegory of Good Government is a “hymn to justice.” Matar astutely describes it in great detail, as he does with all the paintings he viewed. When one is in a despondent mood, paintings, Matar writes, seem to “articulate a feeling of hope.” He also visited a vast cemetery, a “glimpse [of] death’s endless appetite.” Over the month, he talked with a variety of Sienese people, including a Jordanian man whom he befriended. One by one, paintings flow by: Caravaggio’s “curiously tragic” David With the Head of Goliath, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s “epic altarpiece,” Maestà. Mounted onto a cart in 1311, it was paraded through Siena. Along the way, Matar also ponders the metaphysics of rooms and offers a luminous, historical assessment of the Black Death.
A beautifully written, pensive, and restorative memoir.