Recently I have been reading several books on cities, among them Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book Jerusalem: The Biography and Robert Hughes’s Rome, the latter published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson before the summer. The Australian-born, US-based art critic Robert Hughes first came to Rome in 1959 and his book, in which he charts the history and art history of Rome from its beginnings until the present day, is the product of a lifetime’s acquaintance with the city (in which it should be said he has never actually lived).
The book is engagingly written, with some refreshing personal asides and the author does away with some popular myths (no, Caligula did not make his horse a consul and no, Nero did not fiddle while Rome burnt). The sheer magnitude of the topic such as the Eternal City obviously means that the author has to be selective when deciding what to include and on what to focus.
The author’s perspective is indeed often that of the critic, which means that there are many highly personal evaluations. Personal preferences also seem to have a strong influence on what Hughes chooses to focus one.
Occasionally the author will allow himself to be carried away into some rather lengthy digressions on topics which appear rather peripheral to the story but for which he evidently has great enthusiasm. There are for instance several pages on the brilliance of Velazquez, who was never more than a visitor to Rome.
At first the focus is mostly on the history of the city, but as one reads on its shifts to Rome’s art history and one is able to tell that the author feels more at ease with the arts than with history. The best part of the whole book is probably the pages on Bernini, whose artistic genius Hughes does full justice – to the extent that one may wish that a book on Bernini might be his next project.
The shifting of focus is not entirely unproblematic, as some key historical events during recent centuries are passed over quite summarily. This is also the case for the post-war years. Hughes is rather pessimistic about the current condition of Roman and Italian culture and although he argues that nothing of great value – except Fellini’s films – have been produced after World War II, he spends many pages on saying so while hardly saying a word about the post-war history of Rome.
There are some unnecessary repetitions and some contradictions. For instance that Vercingetorix is said to have been “ignominiously strangled in a dungeon” in 52 BCE on page 49, but “beheaded in 46 CE” on page 104. To die twice, in two different ways and 98 years apart would surely have been a remarkable feat.
But all in all this 534-page tome is an enjoyable and informative, although selective and not exhaustive, account of the rises and falls of one of the world’s most intriguing cities.