A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History
Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307268440, 512pp.
Publication Date: November 1, 2011
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.
“In his engrossing, passionately written new book, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, Robert Hughes, the former art critic for Time magazine and the author of critically acclaimed works like The Fatal Shore, gives us a guided tour through the city in its many incarnations, excavating the geologic layers of its cultural past and creating an indelible portrait of a city in love with spectacle and power . . . The reader need not agree with Mr. Hughes’s acerbic assessments or even be interested in Rome as a destination on the map to relish this volume, so captivating is his narrative. Although his book is a biography of Rome, it is also an acutely written historical essay informed by his wide-ranging knowledge of art, architecture and classical literature, and a thought-provoking meditation on how gifted artists (like Bernini and Michelangelo) and powerful politicians and church leaders (like Augustus, Mussolini and Pope Sixtus V) can reshape the map and mood of a city. . . . razor-sharp portraits . . . intriguing asides . . . vigorous, pictorial prose.” —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
“A fascinating personal history of the Italian capital, “Rome” begins with an exegesis on the founding myth of Romulus and Remus and ends with a rant about how the city has lost its “Dolce Vita”-era glory.” —Stephen Heyman, New York Times Magazine blog
“. . . freewheeling, massive, magisterial . . . It’s very much, as billed in the subtitle, a “personal” history—one animated by historical persons and personalities as seen through the personality of the author. . . . our guide conjures up a well-known work of genius and makes it new, moving effortlessly from biography to art to engineering as he illuminates its every detail.” —Will Heinrich, New York Observer
“Ever since Livy dipped his quill and Gibbon marked his proofs, histories of Rome have been a dime a dozen. But there is only one Robert Hughes—only one writer, it’s safe to say, who would describe the ancient city as ‘Calcutta on the Mediterranean’ and then convince you of the rightness of that vision. . . . This is vintage Hughes, and reading his strenuous, argumentative, vitally impassioned prose you are reminded just how insipid, prim, and nervously conventional most history and art history writing is. Hughes could be writing about Lady Gaga’s choice of nail polish or manuals of plumbing and it would still be tonic. In fact, being the kind of writer whose head—even when communing with Michelangelo—is never lost in the stars, he does write about Roman plumbing, and reminds us that the word itself has everything to do with the lead from which its engineering masterpieces were fashioned. So although the ostensible subject of his book is the Eternal City, the real tour d’horizon it offers is a walking tour of the hard-structured, brightly lit, and capacious expanse that is the Hughes brain. It’s an organ that is Olympian—in that it can survey, in a unified vision, the rolling sweep of the centuries—but without any other sort of lofty detachment. . . . [N]o one will put this book down feeling deprived of historical company, for it is essentially history as portrait gallery—almost all of it painted with unforgettable sharpness. . . . Without laboring the point, Hughes catches in this exhilarating, rambunctious book something that has eluded more solemnly exhaustive accounts.” —Simon Schama, Newsweek
“Robert Hughes wastes no time luring readers into his love affair with Rome. . . . Like the Rome of his description, Hughes is driven by appetites and passions. His big books are feasts of information, opinion and fascinating detail—too much to digest but nourishing even in small bites. Rome is one of those. It’s a sweeping, personal history that races from the city’s beginnings to its current state as a woefully crowded tourist attraction. Fortunately, the author pauses for Hughes-style reflection. No ordinary tour guide, he makes the story compelling by focusing on art. With typical bravado, wit and rage, he puts art and architecture in sharp social, political, religious and historical context.” —Suzanne Muchnic, Los Angeles Times
“With elegance and beauty, Hughes majestically conducts us through the rich history of Rome . . . 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.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred)