How I came by A Month in Sienna

My father bought the short book from Gleebooks and gave it to me as a gift. I hadn’t heard about it, but nevertheless, reading Hisham Matar is always a treat.


Reading Hisham Matar is often like drifting through a dream or walking through a breeze without having your feet touch the ground. Even though he is a very different kind of writer to Shirley Hazzard, his writing has the same kind of effect on me, just with much less verbiage. Easy, technical, hard – these aren’t the right kind of adjectives for his work. I’d say that A Month In Sienna, much like The Return and An Anatomy Of A Disappearance, but to a lesser extent, is sweet, refined and melancholic. It is light, inquisitive and always in search of something illusive.

I’ve never read a critique of artworks and paintings before so it was a nice change of pace.


It is neither fiction, nor exactly a memoir. It is the author’s account of the time he spent in Sienna, exploring the art galleries and museums of the city and mainly mulling over the artworks in those places. He ties his musings of the paintings with larger questions relating to life, people, memories of home and his father, as well as God.

Take Away Points

Perhaps what I found most pertinent in A Month In Sienna and curious is that in the author’s analyses of Sienese art, he touches upon the Black Death that plagued Europe and the East in the 14th century. Chillingly, he notes that the ‘in just over a year it had conquered the known medieval world, reducing the population of each country by an average of 45 percent’. History Today states that the Black Death ‘was an epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates among wild rodents where they live in great numbers and density’.

This may sound familiar. But the staggering statistics of the Black Death would also probably make a person feel grateful that they live in the 21st century.

Matar recalls the Black Death and how it affected both the West and East. He highlights that the disease killed the parent of Ibn Khaldun. He writes:

‘Thinking about Ibn Khaldun here in the chapel of the Palazzio Pubblico, where I stood surrounded by Taddeo Di Bartolo’s depictions of the death of the Virgin, pictures concerned with the end of things, a register not central to Sienese art up to then, I wondered if, as that terrible event had determined the art of the chapel, it had not also played a role in the strange habits that would afflict Ibn Khaldun’s adult life…’

There a couple of take away points, for me, from this passage. The first is (and I’ve been contemplating this quite a bit) is the overall connectedness of humanity in the world. Diseases such as the Black Death, and COVID-19, have the ability to make, despite the differences we always insist upon, us all uniform. Nation states that rarely see eye to eye are all behaving in the same way, and cooperating, in order to eliminate the outbreak. In addition to that, the loss, the tragedy of losing loved ones and the suffering seem to be universal. Today I heard of a young Lebanese man die of COVID-19 in Africa – his parents are screaming that they want to bury him in Lebanon, but it is unclear if that will happen. What happens in China affects the rest of the world. What happens on Wall street affects the rest of the world. As does what happens in Italy and Spain. And so on. We might have known this all along. We might have been pretending. But it’s never been clearer that we are all connected.

The second point is Matar’s point about the influence of the disease had both on Sienese art and the life of Ibn Khaldun. It does make me (and others) wonder if this outbreak is going change the way we do things. In addition to the loss of loved ones to individuals, I wonder if, once this ordeal is over, it will have a lasting impact on our collective psyche. Or any impact on our psyche. That we are all connected. That perhaps human life is more valuable than geopolitics. Perhaps this will change how we view capitalism. Maybe it will influence how we interact with the environment. It might prompt us to be kinder to one another, or kinder to ourselves. Maybe this will change us. Maybe it won’t. But I hope it does.