In 2016, when I finished writing The Return, a book about my journey back to Libya after 33 years of not being able to go there for political reasons, and my failed search for my father, a Libyan political dissident who was imprisoned and made to disappear by the Gaddafi dictatorship, I went to Siena. I spent a month in the Tuscan city looking at paintings from the Sienese School, which covers the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Works from this period have interested me ever since I first saw them at the National Gallery in London, some quarter of a century before, when I was 19, the very year my father was abducted. Something about their availability and vitality appealed to me. The time I spent in Siena provided a space to consider the connections between love and loss, death and art.
The Sienese School, which sits between the waning influence of the eastern church and the Renaissance, was dramatically changed by the 1348 plague, the Black Death. That pandemic was the most devastating incident in human history. It altered not only human society but the imagination itself. Its traces can be perceived today, and perhaps more lucidly during these difficult days. With their lack of modern technology, the 14th-century Sienese were even more incredulous than we have shown ourselves to be in the early days of the coronavirus crisis. The speed of the Black Death was so staggering that in just over a year it had conquered the known medieval world, reducing the population of each country by an average of 45%. To the Sienese artists, who were engaged in a fruitful competitive collaboration with one another and had established a supportive infrastructure of apprenticeships to train young artists, the carnage seemed very far away and the reports were so wild and grotesque that they could scarcely be believed. But then when they heard that Sicily had fallen, it became obvious that there would be no escape. Fear and hysteria gripped Siena. Some people ran into the countryside; others, believing themselves safer inside the metropolis, rushed to enter through one of the many gates that surrounded the city like open mouths.
Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Vermeer were all threatened by the Black Death. It is thought that Titian died of it
Before Italy became a nation, it was made up of a collection of city-states governed by un’autorità superior, in the form of a powerful noble family or a bishop. Siena was an exception in that it favoured civic rule. This partly accounts for the unique character of its art. It produced Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a series of frescos housed in the Palazzo Pubblico, the civic heart of the city. It is one of the earliest and most significant secular paintings we have. If civic rule were a church, this would be its altarpiece. Siena also imbued its artists with a rare and humanist curiosity that, even in their depictions of religious scenes, involved them in meditations on human psychology and ideas.
This changed with the arrival of the Black Death. The Sienese, like their medieval European Christian counterparts, suffered under the conviction that all diseases came from God. They took the Black Death as proof of their guilt. In the 14th-century Middle English narrative poem Piers Plowman, William Langland puts the matter succinctly: “These pestilences were for pure sin.” The Tuscan poet Petrarch, observing the abandoned bodies of the dead, wrote: “Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables. We have, indeed, deserved these [punishments] and even greater.” The church encouraged such supernatural explanations. Many priests refused to bless the infected on the grounds that they were receiving God’s punishment. Most of the believers devoted themselves to prayer and penitential practices, repairing churches and setting up religious houses. The papacy became more powerful. Ideas and the very structure of people’s values shifted.
The 1348 Black Death and its various proceeding reoccurrences, shaped our attitudes to death and dying and, by implication, to life and living across the world. Ibn Khaldūn, the Tunisian historian and historiographer credited with pioneering the field of sociology, lost his parents to the plague. To him it was an event of immense global importance, but also a personal affront. It drove him to conclude that the Black Death exposed profound weaknesses in human civilisation. His was a pre-Darwinian Darwinian view, and he wanted to see the opportunities in the tragedy. It made life seem, he wrote, “as if it were a pristine and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew”. Indeed, the plague was destructive but also generative. The flowering of the Renaissance and the baroque took place in its shadow. Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Vermeer were all periodically threatened by it. It is thought that Titian died of it. And it entered their minds, tinged their thinking, and made death a familiar and inescapable guest, the silent companion who will inevitably have the last word. The imagination began to focus on the end of things. “No thought is born in me which has not ‘Death’ engraved upon it,” Michelangelo wrote in a letter to Vasari.
The religious fervour the Black Death inspired in Siena instilled a powerful commitment to the church. Barely seven years had passed when, in 1355, the city’s civic rule ended. The clergy now were the principal clients. They had a great deal of money and influence. They determined what was painted. They commissioned a new chapel down the corridor from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Taddeo di Bartolo, the artist assigned to decorate the walls of the chapel, had a big task to fulfil. He needed to revive and carry forth the Sienese tradition as well as reinvent it and make it more adaptable to the tastes of the new patron. His depictions of the death of the Virgin, pictures concerned with the end of things, is a register that was not up to then central to Sienese art. It is impossible to look at The Funeral of the Virgin and not think of it as containing the memory of the dead of Siena, the bodies piled high on pavements because there was no place to bury them. Each of the Apostles carrying the Virgin as well as the onlookers seem utterly alone, as though touched by the thought of death. The whole chapel is a fabulous and contradictory performance of repentance and excess. Every surface – every centimetre of floor, wall and ceiling space – is decorated. It is an anxious space. Through its grandiose certainty, its sheer assertiveness, it manages to satisfy the clergy while at the same time expressing the problem with faith: that faith, any kind of faith, and regardless of how adamant it might appear, is a space of doubt. It was as though Bartolo was echoing that mischievous statement of Boccaccio’s, the Florentine poet and Petrarch’s friend and correspondent, who had also witnessed the Black Death: “A seemly thing it is … that whatever we do, it be begun in the holy and awful name of Him who was the maker of all.” An element of that sardonic rebellion is here in the chapel, albeit faintly, perhaps even unintentionally, through the double-edged gesture of assertive magnificence.
I thought I had gone to Siena simply to look at art. It turned out that I had also gone to mourn, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here. In writing A Month in Siena, I had to think about all of this and about how death changes things. It is uncanny then to emerge from that to find our own world captured by a pandemic. And in thinking about all of this I find myself remembering the 20th-century Italian poet and novelist Cesare Pavese’s statement that art is “a defence against life’s offenses”. Although that may be too ambitious a role to assign to it, true art is always a symptom and a revelation. It may delight or offer solace, but it is also a tool for considering the present and our place in it.
• A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar is published by Viking. Matar is taking part in the Coronet theatre’s Inside Out series of free online presentations of film, dance, art, installations, theatre, poetry and seminars. See thecoronettheatre.com.