Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes

Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History BY Robert Hughes. Knopf. Hardcover, 512 pages. $35.
The cover of Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History

Robert Hughes brings an impressive erudition to bear upon his biography of Rome, tracing the city’s rise from a patchwork foundation of local tribes to the site of La Dolce Vita. Sprawling subjects are Hughes’s specialty: His reputation as a prominent art and cultural critic rests on a series of expansive tomes, from American Visions: Epic History of Art in America to The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding, and Rome itself is subdivided into prodigious chunks on the Augustan age and the later Empire to the Grand Tour and Fascism. From mythical origins to caput mundi, from a post-Imperial backwater to Renaissance and Risorgimento, Rome’s perennial reinvention finds spirited, if somewhat uneven, treatment in Hughes’s hands.

Cultural and visual history take pride of place here, as the book’s subtitle makes clear. Discussing the late Empire, for example, Hughes offers an entertaining account of its bread and circus concessions, from the gladiatorial games to chariot racing to feast days. Not surprisingly given his role as a critic, Hughes focuses most keenly on architectural and aesthetic details—the public baths and their sprawling vaults, the engineering behind the Colosseum’s subterranean maze, and the “gastro-pornography” of patrician consumption. He duly invokes relevant passages by Seneca and Livy, mapping out the city’s fitful physical evolution. Throughout the book, Hughes remains more concerned with the elaborate frieze of Trajan’s column, say, than with the emperor’s political exploits; or even, in spite of Rome’s subtitle, the author’s own experience with the city. Hughes’s history is not especially personal, and having never lived in Rome, he lacks the familiarity that lent his previous book on Barcelona a graceful intimacy.

Hughes’s writing is lively and unpretentious: Passages are leavened with analogies to Scrooge McDuck and puns on the Sin of Ham and prosciutto crudo. There’s also a healthy dose of wit—Brunelleschi and Donatello’s visit to Rome is described as “a Quattrocento buddy movie,” and Bernini is called the Baroque’s “marble megaphone of papal orthodoxy.” Hughes conjures up not only the city itself but its moods and mores from the patrician heights of the Palatine to the gloomier travails of Papal history. “Before long,” he writes of the city’s infamous 1527 sacking by the armies of Charles V, “it was for the living in Rome to envy the dead.” Free of footnotes (or any citations at all other than a general bibliography) the book assimilates its many sources with apparent insouciance. This proves to be both a blessing and a curse.

The volume is marked by numerous, minor oversights—some the inevitable result of its ambitious scope and scale, others less justifiable. Telemaco Signorini and the Macchiaioli painters were advocates of chiaroscuro sfumato? Anything but. (And the former’s painting Leith is set in Scotland, not Ireland). Guillaume Apollinaire did not die in World War One; Giorgio de Chirico was not of French descent; and the positivist photographic experiments of Étienne-Jules Marey are entirely anathema to Futurist painting, despite superficial resemblances to the contrary. The presence here of early Futurism—and its polemical leader, F. T. Marinetti—raises a more pressing question, however. Why, in a book on Rome, would Hughes devote more than ten pages to a fundamentally Milanese phenomenon? Aside from the fact that Rome was the bête noire of pre-war Futurism, the movement is relatively marginal to the capital and its culture.

Thus far, Rome has received harsh appraisals from classicists such as Mary Beard. Readers, Beard suggested, “should skip the first 200 pages,” after which the author hits his stride. Hughes is indeed on firmer ground in a more modern Rome. But still, the city flickers in and out of focus the closer we get to the contemporary. While taking the Futurists to task for their willing engagement with Mussolini, for example, Rome becomes more of a backdrop rather than the main subject. Likewise, the space devoted to non-Roman artists like Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri would be less remarkable were it not for the glaring absence of filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, perhaps the most vital cultural figure in Rome’s post-war landscape. It is in these digressions and omissions that the book unravels somewhat. This, however, should not overshadow Hughes’s larger achievement: its wry interventions into a cultural history that often lumbering under its own millennial myths. Hughes’s Rome, like the city itself, is engaging even—or perhaps most of all—in its fragments.

Ara H. Merjian is Assistant Professor of Italian Studies and Art History at NYU. He is the author of Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City, which will be published in 2013 by Yale University Press, and is a regular critic for Artforum, Art in America, and Frieze.