Rome, the Eternal City; a place where Roman emperors have paraded, painters have worshipped God with their art, and ordinary people have lived. Robert Hughes touches on all of these aspects with his massive book on Rome, which is a mish-mash of history, art, and politics that spans the thousands of years that the city has stood upon its seven hills.
It’s non-fiction heavily filtered through Hughes’s own lens; he doesn’t provide any footnotes or endnotes, so I decided not to take anything he said for absolute truth and just enjoy the ride – although there is a lengthy bibliography for those who would like to learn more (as I would).
The book follows the history of Rome in chronological order, but it switches around between different areas of focus. It shifts around mostly with what was happening in the city at the time. So, while it takes place during the Roman empire, the focus is mostly on the history and the emperors, because for the most part we know a good amount about that. There’s less about individual artists, simply because there is less about them. The book moves on to the Middle Ages and devotes a lot of time, naturally, to Renaissance artists, and then straight up to the present day. In the 20th century, though, we move away from art and back into history and politics with Mussolini.
It also seems as though Hughes focuses less on art when he’s less interested in the art – he is an art historian after all – so when Rome is mostly influenced by Greece, and when Rome is in the modern period, there is far less art history and more just ordinary history.
Unsurprisingly, the narrative is actually most interesting when Hughes is talking about art. He’s clearly an expert and reading his opinions and views on the many different works of art that I actually saw was enlightening. It also made me really want to go back, but in the meantime my hardcover edition had a lot of photos inside so I could get an idea of what he was talking about in the parts of Rome I didn’t see. Reading more about Michelangelo, Raphael, Caraveggio, and Bernini, just to name four, was fascinating for me. If nothing else, this book will make you crave a really good art museum like little I’ve ever read before.
Unfortunately, I do think the book fell down somewhat in areas that aren’t Hughes’s expertise. He also gets very pessimistic about modern Rome and mass tourism – and given that I just engaged in mass tourism, I know that it is ridiculously overcrowded, but still felt a bit insulted that he could wish to deprive everyone of the sights he so gloriously describes – which was off-putting, and right at the end of the book as well. But Rome is the Eternal City, and even if we can’t see where it’s going, it’s hard to criticise modern Romans. After all, their ancestors took pleasure in watching lions tear humans apart; you can’t really get much worse than that, in my view. People throughout history have decided that their era is the worst of all of them; this sort of tired attitude was quite frustrating, in the end.
Still, Rome was a fascinating if uneven work – it really shines when Hughes is talking about his clear expertise. I’d recommend it for anyone who is particularly interested in the art of the city, but be aware that it isn’t a perfect book, and certainly can’t fit the whole of Rome’s history, art and political, in the space of a 500-page hardcover. You’ll find it hard to resist a trip after this read.
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