Following his father’s death, Hisham Matar set out on a quest in search of paintings he’d waited 25 years to see
I was 19 and aimlessly wandering through London’s National Gallery when I first came across the quiet and strangely hypnotic The Healing of the Man Born Blind, a painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna, the 13th-century father of the Sienese School. The picture baffled me, but I kept returning to it. It gradually led me to Duccio’s followers: Simone Martini, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Giovanni di Paolo and others. Looking at their work is like eavesdropping on a captivating conversation, one concerned with what a painting might be, what it might be for, and what it could do.
Their work stands alone, neither Byzantine nor of the Renaissance, an anomaly between chapters, like the orchestra tuning its strings in the interval. And over the past 25 years, the more fascinated I became with these paintings, the more Siena itself began to occupy the sort of uneasy reverence the devout might feel towards Mecca or Rome or Jerusalem, and I became, out of a scepticism about such pilgrimages, suspicious of my desire to visit the city. I simply avoided it.
There were also practical concerns: given the depth of feeling I had for the place and the number of paintings there that I wanted to see, I would need to find the time for a long stay in the city. But recently, overcome with grief at the loss of my father, I went alone to spend a month in Siena. The colours, delicate patterns and suspended drama of these pictures gradually became necessary to me.
First morning I was up early. This is the time when I would usually write, and yet I had no sense of obligation. I sat opposite the Duomo, its facade a blinding, icing white in the light. The square was empty. An elderly black woman walked across it. We greeted one another. She sat beside me, a polite distance away, and began talking in Italian. Quickly perceiving my handicap, she spoke with that generosity of outsiders, uttering each word clearly, gesticulating and looking me straight in the eyes. Her voice echoed easily against the buildings and the stone-slab floor of the vacant piazza, which, with no soul in sight, appeared uncertain in scale, as though it could have been significantly larger or indeed smaller than it was. What I gathered from what the woman told me was that she was originally from Nigeria and that she had been living in Siena for 23 years and was now, finally, eligible for Italian nationality. She pointed to a grand building to one side of the square.
“That’s the ministry,” she said.
“What will you do when you get your passport?” I asked.
“Visit my country,” she said, and in the silence that followed she repeated, more to herself, “Yes, my country.”
I wanted to go to the Pinacoteca, the museum that houses several of the paintings I have, for so long now, been wanting to see. Lying in bed the night before, I felt that rush of excitement I recognized from my childhood summers, when knowing with trembling certainty that as I lay in bed the sea was still there and would continue to be there throughout the night and the morning too when I would wake up. I had fallen asleep imagining those paintings in the darkened museum rooms of the Pinacoteca. But now sitting in the square beside the woman who had been waiting nearly for as long as I have been wanting to visit Siena, close to a quarter of a century, to return home, I felt it was not yet the right time to go to the paintings. I waited with her until the ministry opened. I wished her luck. She placed a hand on my cheek and thanked me. Her skin felt cool and dry.
I walked on and watched the city wake and busy itself. I followed several individuals from a distance. I told myself that I was engaging in this slightly disreputable activity in order to see how locals navigated Siena, to catch a glimpse of their daily lives, to live, as it were, in their wake. But the truth was simpler, more bodily than intellectual, more to do with rhythm than ideas. I simply wanted, like a stonemason grinding his chisel on a rough slab, to sharpen myself against the city. I followed a man to his place of work. From about 15 metres away I trailed a woman and her young boy. When they arrived at his school, she stood a long time watching him through the gates until he entered the building. She remained there for a minute or two, looking up, presumably, at the window of his classroom.
Siena was as intimate as a locket and yet as vastly complex as a maze. It completely shielded me from the horizon. My compass could only be guided by it, by its twists and turns, its manoeuvres and decisions, by its tastes and purposes. Siena is its own North Star. And, as it is the case that those who are jealous are to some extent invested in control, Siena too seemed to me that day to be anxious about my freedom and fidelity. I had never been anywhere so determined, so full of intention and so concerned about my presence, for, no matter which way I turned, the city seemed to be the one determining the pace and direction of my walks. There and then I believed I could spend a lifetime here in this foreign city where I had, for so long and for some mysterious reason, longed to be.
It was still not the right moment to go to the Pinacoteca. I returned to the flat I had rented, ate and slept a little, then spread the map on the small table that stood between the two windows. I decided, in order to keep new my sense of the city, I would walk every day to one of its boundaries, leave through one of the city gates and then, once I had lost sight of Siena, return to it again. By the afternoon I left the map behind and wandered out towards the south-western edge.
The streets narrowed as though each were defending its own territory. One after the other they descended out into the periphery, fading. I was now by the city wall, looking out on to a vast landscape. The openness seemed strange and marvellous. 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. And somehow these boundaries seemed to be a circuitous acknowledgement of nature’s power, its freedom and confidence, its enthusiasm for the light, its open-heartedness.
I looked out at the cypresses and olive trees, the metallic light on the hills. The air was luminous and moist, and the sky glowed as if licked with a porcelain glaze. I stood there for a long time. All about me was silence. Then a couple of schoolchildren approached – one on his mobile phone, reporting his day at school, and the other with his head down as he struggled up the hill with a heavy rucksack on his back. More children appeared behind them, some with parents and others unaccompanied. They were all leaving the large, square building at the bottom of the hill. I wished I knew a family here, as the company and conversations of children, I thought, would surely help me to improve my Italian, this language I can just about understand but feel an impediment to speak. Then I heard a man talking in Arabic to his young boy and girl. He looked my age and his face was like that of people I had grown up with. I said hello in Arabic. He stopped, greeted me and seemed both surprised and a little amused.
“Where are you from?” he said.
“Libya, and yourself?”
“Jordan.” He had arrived in Siena 30 years ago, he told me.
That was the same period of time I had spent in London, I thought. His hair was black and curly, like mine would be if I let it grow. His name was Adam.
“My loves,” he said, speaking to his children, “Kareem, Salma, greet your uncle Hisham.”
They smiled and extended their small hands.
“Do you need help?” he said. “Anything at all?”
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Are you here for work? Do you need help with papers, visas and such?”
“No, no,” I said, smiling.
“Really, I know the place and can take you around, help translate. Do you speak Italian?”
“I don’t, but I understand a little.”
“Then I can go with you. I have a car.”
“You are so kind, but really I am fine. I am just visiting. I have always wanted to see Siena, to see the art.”
He looked at me as though, having judged that I was hiding my true purpose, he was resigned to my privacy. His daughter, Salma, was looking at something in her hand, but Kareem was following our conversation, turning his head from his father to me as we spoke. Now the boy looked at me and smiled. His father pointed up the hill.
“See that street over there,” he said, “the one with the church? I am Number 90. My name is on the doorbell. Anything you need, consider me your brother here.”
Although such sentiments are not uncommon in Arabic society, Adam’s words moved me; I had no doubt, from his eyes, his face, his entire demeanour – and also from the kindness of his children – that he meant every word.
“I wouldn’t think of bothering you,” I said. “But perhaps we can have a coffee sometime?”
“Take my number,” he said and asked me to read it back to him. “Excellent,” he said. “Now give me a missed call.”
He took out his phone and we both stared at it until it lit up. He immediately registered my number, writing down my name in full. We said goodbye. He walked up the hill, Kareem and Salma keeping up a faithful trail behind him.
I walked in the opposite direction. Something about the encounter, how at once effortless and unexpected it was, made me optimistic about my time here. I continued walking down the hill. I wanted to be inside the landscape, to find a way out of the city, to cross all the new buildings that now encircle Siena, and enter the hills and stand among the trees Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted. I went out of the city wall and the sound of the air changed, becoming open and hollow, like when, having pressed your hands tightly on your ears, you release them. Now there was no shade and I felt the sun warming my back. Eventually, at the end of the road, I reached a dead end. There was a gate through it. I entered and found myself inside a cemetery. It was the size of a small city park.
Most of the headstones had a photographic portrait of the deceased and sometimes two: one when young and another near the time of death. Several of the dead were buried beside their spouses, who, it was more often than not the case, followed them a year or two later. Some of the dead had passed away decades ago, and several over a century past, yet it was clear that their descendants still visited, for the graves were carefully maintained and fresh flowers brought to them. The women on the headstones looked familiar. Theirs were the same concerned faces of the women of my childhood, and of that Nigerian woman I had met earlier in the Piazza del Duomo: faces that worry, faces that are unsure of the prospects. And it seemed to me then that these Sienese women suspected, when their picture was taken, that the captured image would outlast them. They look at the camera with wearied compliance. I was deeply affected by them – and it somewhat surprised me.
I climbed back into the city and went to the Pinacoteca. I spent the afternoon there mostly standing in front of the Madonna dei Francescani, a painting that is the size of a private letter. Duccio di Buoninsegna painted it around 1290. The Virgin Mother’s dark gown carves a sort of secondary domain into the middle space, as though she were a doorway on to another reality, or else unveiling a private space, one containing the very quality of her existence, its desolate vulnerability, which is contrasted here with the strength of her great son, who, although still a child, is already aware of the weight and power of his being. The three Franciscan friars at the Virgin’s feet appear as one man caught in motion, descending from a position of prayer to kiss Mary’s foot, like an early slow-motion film.
The child, like all children, has already been initiated into the language of punishment and forgiveness. He understands the friars’ plea for mercy and his mother’s good ability to give it. And the mother, who can read her son’s thoughts, is fortified and persuaded by his verdict. This unites the pair in a reciprocal scheme. They are seduced by one another’s dominance. This, together with their languid repose, set so starkly against the friars’ urgent appeal, makes them seem even more confident and authoritative.
But the whole plot is undercut by Duccio’s sly suggestion, which he introduces through the arid stillness of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, that there is something mildly premeditated about the two. They believe that they know more than most, or perhaps more than all, about the transactional power of blessings. And this, strangely, confines them to their fates. Predestiny here is not so much a theological as a psychological condition.
I spent most of the next couple of days in the Pinacoteca, passing from painting to painting, until one afternoon I found a missed call from Adam. In my phone I had listed him as “Adam di Siena”. I called him back. After we exchanged greetings he asked if I would agree to our being “informal” with one another from now on. I was taken aback by the request, both by how odd but also how genuine it was. We set a time to meet the following day. I was to visit him because, “Why have a coffee out when we can have it in the comfort of my home?”
The next day I bought a basket of figs and a couple of children’s books and walked to where I had first met Adam. From there I continued uphill.
A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar is published by Viking at £12.99