… Siena was to me as intimate as a locket you would wear around your neck
and yet as complex as a maze.
– Hisham Matar, “A Month In Siena”
Recently I read a book called “A Month In Siena” by Hisham Matar. It recounts the author’s time in this Tuscan city, doing a deep dive into Sienese art and culture, forming thoughtful relationships with both paintings and people. Having been to Siena a number of times to see its art treasures and having painted it only once, I was interested in what the author had to say about his experience.
What I wasn’t expecting as I read it was to be touched in so many ways. I’m a rabid highlighter, so many many sections of this book are now bright yellow! My reading would produce sighs and exclamations of “yes, yes”. As I haven’t travelled to my muse Italy in awhile, Matar immediately took me back there in such an evocative way. His descriptions of walking through the narrow streets were transporting – I could feel myself in step alongside him.
“The sharp turns of the passageways and the closeness of the buildings gave me the sense that I was entering a living organism. With every step I pressed deeper into it and, as though in response, it made room.”
He would also share how his encounters with Siena, its art and making new friends ignited greater insights into himself. Travel does this for me and TO me as well.
“Every day I walked to its edges – north, south, east, west – and it often felt as though I were tracing the limits of myself… modest and particular yet never totally knowable, for it was a constantly moving target, changing with every passing influence and unfolding day.”
Lastly, his speculations about an artwork’s origins and artists’ intentions were spot on for me. I loved how thoroughly he’d explore particular paintings, often spending hours in front of a single piece. When he talked of artists, I felt like he “got me” and why I make the art I make.
“…maybe what an artist wants… is to make a flat surface give way, to open up a space… I pictured a man literally enter and escape into the fresco.”
My intention IS to have the viewer enter and escape into my little paintings – to relive travel memories or imagine one day being there, to appreciate these incredible places and let them move you.
After I finished this small book, I had the strongest desire to go to Siena right then – to get in touch with all these same feelings. But as that wasn’t immediately possible, sometimes the next best thing to being there for me is to paint it. Luckily I did have a small ink drawing of Siena in my last year’s undone pile, awaiting paint!
As I was finishing this piece, I thought about Matar’s words, mixed with my own Sienese memories, and about an upcoming visit I have planned to the area this summer. I’m curious about how I will encounter the city again in person and in paint, and I greatly look forward to finding out. Thank you for the inspiration, Hisham!
This is “Palazzo Pubblico di Siena”, inspired from a 2009 travel photo.
To get purchasing info for this original painting and to see it matted, click here.
To get purchasing info for Hisham Matar’s “A Month In Siena”, click here.