Home > Art, Culture, History, Literature, Reviews > Rome According to Robert Hughes: A Piecemeal History

Rome According to Robert Hughes: A Piecemeal History

Summarizing the history, culture, art, and politics of 3000+ years of the “Eternal City” of Rome in a single 500-page volume ought to be considered a folly worthy of an excessive hedonistic Roman emperor. As it happens, the folly belongs to the highly-regarded art critic, popular historian, and cultural critic Robert Hughes, and it is no complete folly by any stretch of the imagination. But it is uneven and episodic, its segues often awkward, with different periods of Roman history (especially the millennium-long stretch of the Middle Ages) accorded less emphatic perspective than others. This is to say nothing of the persistent accusations of mistakes and inaccuracies in the section on classical Rome, first noted by Mary Beard in her Guardian review of the UK release of the book but left troublingly uncorrected in the subsequently-published US edition.

Maintaining a consistent quality of observation and insight on a city with such a varied and deep legacy would be a task beyond even a scholar in his prime. Hughes, hughesromehobbled by a serious car accident in his native Australia years before and fighting a long illness that would claim his life about a year after Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History was published, was at the end of a notable career as a critic of art, history, culture, and politics and cannot be counted on to muster his peak powers in the service of his civic subject. It does not help, perhaps, that Hughes has only been a visitor to Rome and not a resident, a shortfall which he acknowledges at the onset but never quite overcomes. Far be it for me to question a revered scholar’s understanding of an extremely complex world capital when I could never claim even a sliver of his expertise on the matter, but at many times Rome seems to be missing the irresistible force of scholarly prowess combined with penetrating, fabulously-written insight that defined Hughes’ remarkable account of Australia’s system of penal transportation in The Fatal Shore.

But there’s much good to Rome, and ought to be noted. As Beard notes in her Guardian review, it’s difficult to fault Hughes’ portraits of the heavy hitters of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque in the city. Summoned from the dusty annals of history and the fading works that they produced are the driven, powerhouse anatomical genius of Michelangelo, the sublimly gifted social butterfly Raphael, the quarrelsome but uncompromising champion of the Counter-Reformation Caravaggio, the impossibly talented giant of public design Bernini, his innovative but difficult architectural rival Borromini, and the mighty, ambitious Popes Sixtus IV, Julius II, and Clement VII, who between commissioned so many enduring works of public religious art.

Hughes also conjures the freewheeling 18th-century heyday of privileged tourism known as the Grand Tour in all of its heady admixture of highfalutin, demonstrative refinement and grubby, greedy exploitation. Even the late sections covering Italy under Mussolini and his Fascists and his neoliberal contemporary heir Silvio Berlusconi are trenchant and magnificently detailed, not to mention almost needlessly fair (Mussolini is frequently lumped in historically with his fellow Axis leader Adolf Hitler but his Fascist regime boasted both better art and public works patronage and less restrictions on minority ethnic rights in relation to Nazi Germany, at least until its closing years).

Even the opening pages on republican and imperial Rome, despite their evident errors, are rich with details from this profoundly alien past world whose cultural and political output was romanticized by Britain’s elite for so long. Magnificent villas and palaces rise alongside squalid tenement housing and brigand-ridden nocturnal streets, incredible engineering and architectural feats coexist with sickening self-indulgence and violent power seizures. Public baths, rowing ships, garum factories, imperial wars, and the upheaval of the rise of Christianity drift from the mists of time. Can you trust the truth of every word of it? Not really, if Beard is right, but even if this is the case, then what a compelling fantasy Hughes makes of this history.

Hughes has a talent for deploying fantastic (and maybe not strictly historical) anecdotes that illustrate the character of a time, a place, an important historical personage. He could detail the psychopathic excesses of Emperor Caligula (and does, at least a little), but he instead relates a bizarre (and possibly apocryphal) story of the Emperor ordering his legions to collect seashells as war booty as opposed to invading the British Isles. For all of his moderation as concerns the nature of Mussolini’s regime, he deposits a depth charge of terror in the form of the Fascist torture practice of forcing prisoners to eat a live toad (“The poor toad!” he mentions an Aussie actress reacting upon hearing the tale). And his riveting narrative of the moving of a towering stone obelisk during the Early Renaissance is both tense and dense with examples of superior engineering acumen.

But these anecdotes add up to more of a piecemeal history than a full, rounded view of what Rome means in historical or cultural terms over the centuries. This approach goes especially off the rails in his section on medieval Rome, which is rushed and betrays not merely a lack of expertise in the city of the period but a lack of interest in obtaining that expertise. This section becomes more of a history of the Catholic Church than a panorama of a thousand years of civic history. Hughes expends his efforts on discussing the 13th-century Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in France, a vital and under-recognized episode in the Church’s highly ambiguous legacy but not really, ultimately, a Roman story at all. He also drops in the compelling story of 14th-century popular leader and self-proclaimed Roman tribune Cola di Rienzo without drawing out the social and political forces of the period that contributed to his rise. It’s as if Hughes can’t wait to hurry on to the safe ground of the Renaissance, where his blows of insight land more truly.

It’s undeniable that Robert Hughes gave himself too much to do with Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal Memoir. His panorama of Roman history never rises back up to the level of his initial metaphor: the menacing bronze statue of Giordano Bruno glowering down at the lively flower market in Campo de’ Fiori, the piazza in which he was burnt at the stake for heresy against the Church in 1600. This contrast of beauty and horror, historical portent and quotidian delights, religious rigidity and belated guilt, is somehow understood by Hughes as quintessentially Roman. Does the rest of his book on Rome, at once overlong and not nearly lengthy enough to do the city’s ages proper justice, fully illustrate this quintessential character, whatever one might choose to call it? It’s hard to say that it does. But what a ride nonetheless.

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