The Power of Place – ‘A Month in Siena’ by Hisham Matar

Having lived near Siena for a relatively longer time than Hisham Matar’s sojourn, which he eloquently describes in “A Month in Siena,” I appreciate his experiences there. As a college student, my encounters with the city were more with people than with a conscious engagement with art and architecture. So, I loved “living” there again through his eyes and his immersion in Siena’s interior life. Goodread’s book description summarizes this work well–[ ]. I’d like to add a few passages from the book to that summary:

I loved his description of Siena’s central square, La Piazza del Campo, where “no matter where we were in the square we were able to see the entire place.” p. 13. No one in the square was invisible. Everyone, in a sense, mattered, reflecting the culture of that complex, involuted commune. And Matar wanted to be of that place, not only in it.

In Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, the center of civil life, Matar immersed himself in a fresco, the “Allegory of Good Government” and he noticed that Lorenzetti’s composition “starts and ends with Justice. Lorenzetti …intended us to read his fresco from left to right, and then not fall off the edge but rather be turned back again in a perpetual assessment. Perhaps this is ultimately what every painter wants, I thought…” p.21. Matar liked the work’s circularity and its wealth of symbolism represented in word and image designed to hold the gaze of any who would regard it.

And then, Matar’s crafting of language: “Outside of class [he was studying Italian] I mostly managed not to speak a word. I felt as though I were, with the passing of each day, coming a step closer to a fire. It warmed and delighted but, I somehow knew, was capable of annihilating me. And I suspected, in the silence of those days, that that might be the fire’s true desire.” p.105  But Matar retrieved his sense of self and found solace and release in Siena, through language, art, and the city’s unique built environment reflecting its own independence and singularity. Much like this book.


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