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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

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


512 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0307268440

Robert Hughes’ Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History as a book by an author who seems to know the Roman terrain like the back of his hand, especially when discussing its art and architectural history, and because of this his book an enjoyable read overall. It is also, sadly, a rather careless book. Full of repetitions and the outright mistakes (ranging from the chronological order of some of the Caesars to the plot of Shakespeare’s King Lear). Hughes tells us that the project was pushed on him by his agent (shame on her) and he seems simply not to know enough to write a book about Rome from 800 BCE to today. His past work has usually been totally informed and incisive; long sections of the new Rome book are little more than medium length reviews of familiar material, punctuated, too rarely, with the brilliant, stimulating opinions and opinionatedness of the author. I suspect we are also seeing here signs of what may be a more and more common theme in books such as these: Little or no editing. After putting together this huge 500 page book, a no-longer-young Hughes was entitled to a first rate editor, who could easily have rescued him from the minor but constant and annoying repetitions that fill the book. Hughes deserved this careful editing; his readers deserved it too.

The author is at his best when examining works of art and artists, as when he observes that “Gazing on masculine nakedness was, of course, Michelangelo’s unwavering obsession” (pg. 230); there are many other pithy and amusing gems such as this sprinkled throughout the book, as well. On the other hand, the author seems to muddle up history or get thoroughly off track. For example, the chapter on Pagans versus Christians was the weakest in terms of topical interest and historical analysis. When discussing Constantine, the first Roman emperor who chose to convert to Christianity, the author made no mention that his mother was already a believer and was likely the instrumental cause for his conversion, irrespective of the “vision” at the Milvian Bridge. In the same chapter the author delves into Christian persecution of intellectual pagans, not naming one intellectual or philosopher, nor any specific anecdotes, and instead using a quote from Reformation Germany as an analogy, a clever anachronistic touch. Was it only the early Christian leaders who kept diaries and none of the persecuted pagans? Then in the chapter on the High Baroque, the author decides to turn his interest to the Basque country in Spain and provide his thoughts on Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Not sure why this diversion on a character whose relevance to the book's topic is no more than nominal, as Ignatius never produced a work of art or architecture that we know of; could it be their militant Catholicism of the times?

Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History is easy to read and, overall, rather enjoyable. But it is written in a scatter-shot manner as to become distracting, starting off as the history of Rome, then turning into the story of early Christianity, before morphing into a primer on painting. It seems the author got carried away by one subject after another, following first one thread and then another. In the end it is many things, but certainly not the story of Rome.

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