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A Month in Siena (2019) by Hisham Matar and Letters to Camondo (2021) by Edmund de Waal

I have just finished reading two books which are in a sense linked as both offer reflections or meditations on aspects of life including loss and suffering, and art features prominently in both.

In A Month in Siena Hisham Matar reflects on how art can console and disturb in equal measure. Having just finished his Pulitzer prizewinning memoir The Return, Matar goes alone to recuperate in Siena, a town which he always promised himself he would visit, and stays there for a month, immersing himself in various significant works from the Sienese School of painting.

He meditates on how centuries-old art can illuminate our inner landscape – in particular relationships, grief and love. He feels really drawn to Siena and feels at home in time there. He looks in detail at several paintings which include Effects of Good Government in the City by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. Matar’s father was a Libyan activist who was abducted and never seen again, and his son writes with great sensitivity about the arts in general and painting in particular and what they offer to him about the human condition, finding in Siena solace and pleasure as he comes to terms with his father’s absence.

The book is generously illustrated. Interestingly, many of the paintings he describes depict Christian art, while he himself is a Muslim.

Edmund de Waal is familiar to many through his excellent The Hare with Amber Eyes, and Letters to Camondo, his collection of imaginary letters from himself to the [real] banker and art collector Moïse de Camondo, once again highlights what a superb writer he is with his measured, sensitive prose.
Camondo left his collection and the mansion built to house it to the French nation in memory of his son Nissim, who was killed in action during the First World War. It is now the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris, a huge private collection of 18th century art. Like de Waal’s relations, the Ephrussi family, the Camondos were prominent European Jews. In wandering through the rooms, de Waal offers his impressions of the treasures and reflects on the place of family and the value of memory. As was the case in his own family, highly cultured members of Camondo’s family were murdered by the Nazis. Letters to Camondo is also very well illustrated.

I enjoyed both books immensely. They opened my eyes to art works I knew little or nothing about and certainly as importantly offered much food for thought about the human spirit through simply beautiful reflective writing.