From Robert Hughes, one of the greatest art and cultural critics of our time, comes a sprawling, comprehensive, and deeply personal history of Rome—as city, as empire, and, crucially, as an origin of Western art and civilization, two subjects about which Hughes has spent his life writing and thinking.
Starting on a personal note, Hughes takes us to the Rome he first encountered as a hungry twenty-one-year-old fresh from Australia in 1959. From that exhilarating portrait, he takes us back more than two thousand years to the city's foundation, one mired in mythologies and superstitions that would inform Rome's development for centuries.
From the beginning, Rome was a hotbed of power, overweening ambition, desire, political genius, and corruption. Hughes details the turbulent years that saw the formation of empire and the establishment of the sociopolitical system, along the way providing colorful portraits of all the major figures, both political (Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Nero, Caligula) and cultural (Cicero, Martial, Virgil), to name just a few. For almost a thousand years, Rome would remain the most politically important, richest, and largest city in the Western world.
From the formation of empire, Hughes moves on to the rise of early Christianity, his own antipathy toward religion providing rich and lively context for the brutality of the early Church, and eventually the Crusades. The brutality had the desired effect—the Church consolidated and outlasted the power of empire, and Rome would be the capital of the Papal States until its annexation into the newly united kingdom of Italy in 1870.
As one would expect, Hughes lavishes plenty of critical attention on the Renaissance, providing a full survey of the architecture, painting, and sculpture that blossomed in Rome over the course of the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, and shedding new light on old masters in the process. Having established itself as the artistic and spiritual center of the world, Rome in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries saw artists (and, eventually, wealthy tourists) from all over Europe converging on the bustling city, even while it was caught up in the nationalistic turmoils of the Italian independence struggle and war against France.
Hughes keeps the momentum going right into the twentieth century, when Rome witnessed the rise and fall of Italian Fascism and Mussolini, and took on yet another identity in the postwar years as the fashionable city of "La Dolce Vita." This is the Rome Hughes himself first encountered, and it's one he contends, perhaps controversially, has been lost in the half century since, as the cult of mass tourism has slowly ruined the dazzling city he loved so much. Equal parts idolizing, blasphemous, outraged, and awestruck, Rome is a portrait of the Eternal City as only Robert Hughes could paint it.
With elegance and beauty, Hughes, who for three decades was Time's chief art critic, majestically conducts us through the rich history of Rome, a city he discovered as a young man, which for him gave physical form to the ideal of art and "turned art, and history, into reality. From its foundation to the modern world, Hughes points out the wealth of Rome's art and its influence on Roman history. For example, propaganda statues in ancient Rome perpetuated the power of leaders; the statue of the emperor Augustus, for instance, has few equals as an image of "calm, self-sufficient power. Hughes characterizes 19th-century Rome as a movement between orthodoxy and modernism, and reflects artists' commitment to or rejection of Italian unification. During this period, Rome was also swarming with foreign artists, notably a group of young Germans dubbed the Nazarenes for their demonstrative piety. Hughes bemoans the rampant tourism that has turned Rome into a kind of Disney World for the art set; yet the glories of the past remain. In a delightful guide, Hughes whose The Shock of the New was recently named by Britain's Guardian one of the 100 greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century provides a sometimes cantankerous but always captivating tour through the remarkable depth and breadth of the ancient city.
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Other sides of Rome
Hughes most valuable contribution to the mountain of scholarship on the urbs aeterna is matching commentary to urban landscape. Most books on Rome foreground the Classical and Renaissance, yet Rome, the physical city today, is Baroque and beyond. For instance, a long stroll from my favorite neighborhood in Trastevere over the Janiculum to Vatican City shows me as many statues of 19th century patriots, or even modern tombs of unknown soldiers as early churches or ancient monuments. The back stories of these more contemporary sites and personages are nicely told here.
On "Rome" and Hughes' Love/Hate Relationship with the Eternal City
A fascinating and fulsome journey through the centuries with a wise friend whose frank opinions and sharp insights into culture, politics, history, art, and Life (yes, capital-L Life) make for a sometimes exhausting trip at the end of which you feel you must put up your feet and rest, but can' t wait to hit the paving stones to explore it all over again. Kind of like a day, week, month, year -lifetime? - in Rome.
Read it if you like intellectual argument and grappling with opinions with which you don't necessarily agree - always a excellent way to learn anything, especially about yourself.
Rest easy, Bob. We should be sipping frascati in il Campo de Fiori...