Some 35 years ago I visited the National Gallery of Sicily in Palermo on the hunt for the ‘Virgin Annunciate’ by Antonello da Messina, the painter of the beautiful ‘St Jerome in his Study’ in the National Gallery in London. It was hard enough to persuade anyone that the gallery was meant to be open, and what staff there seemed to be about (a couple of deeply suspicious museum guards) had clearly dedicated their lives to saving the gallery’s electricity, rationing us in a succession of deserted rooms to a few seconds in front of any one painting, before plunging the room into darkness, and hustling us into the next.
Museum guards in Siena must be made of more pliant stuff, because Hisham Matar was able to enjoy his month in the city at a very different pace. As a student of architecture in London in the 1990s he had become a frequent visitor to the National Gallery, and 25 years later an obsession with Sienese painting, that began with hours spent in front of Duccio’s ‘The Healing of the Man Born Blind’, finally brought him to Siena, to a flat in an old palazzo and his own folding chair, courtesy of the Pinacoteca staff, to gaze for as long as he liked on his favourite school of paintings.
Fifteen short chapters of this slender memoir take us from Duccio, to Siena the city, to Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s allegories of good and bad government, to Caravaggio and Poussin, to a chance meeting with a Jordanian, a walk in a cemetery, the Black Death and back to Lorenzetti and his ‘Madonna del latte’. These external stimuli give rise to a fluid series of meditations on big questions of life, on love, faith, time and on the nature and purpose of art, the influence of architecture and, most important of all to this author, grief, mourning and memory.
Matar’s books to date all deal to some degree with the loss of his father, a Libyan diplomat turned dissident who fled the Gaddafi regime but was kidnapped in Cairo, returned to Libya, imprisoned and disappeared.