This fine history of Rome is slightly too pessimistic about its future, says John Hinton
BY ROBERT HUGHES WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON, £25
Robert Hughes is among the Australian figures – among them Clive James, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries – who have made their mark outside their own country. Hughes left Australia in 1964, enjoying a time in Italy before settling in London where he wrote for national newspapers and the Spectator. He became an art critic for Time magazine and moved to New York in 1970, quickly establishing himself in the United States as an influential art critic. Since, he has become one of the world’s leading art historians, renowned for his racy yet elegant prose style and an unquenchable enthusiasm for his subject.
Rome must surely be Hughes’s “big book”. For as a youngster in distant and provincial Australia, Rome always beckoned like a beacon, far more so then than the journalistic capitals of London or New York. It was as a boy at Jesuit school – speaking a few words of Latin but no Italian whatsoever – that he first became “nuts” about the idea of Rome and longed to be a Roman expatriate, though he confesses his ideas about the city were still poorly formed. It didn’t take long before he met the thrilling reality.
He was just 20, a student from Sydney, when he first set eyes on the colonnades of Bernini’s St Peter’s Square – “the greatest anthropomorphic gesture in the history of architecture” – and immediately threw overboard his own “half-baked notions of historical progress”. At that time, he ate, slept, looked, until he was exhausted and walked his toes to mere stubs in Rome.
And now, with mature hindsight, he sets out his vision of the Eternal City as it was then, and remains today. That he sees it from the perspective of someone who has lived and based most of his career in New York may be obvious from the epic scale of the book which, in 500 pages, covers everything from the city’s foundation, the later empire, the medieval era, the Renaissance, High Baroque, futurism and fascism, to today’s inevitable problems of overcrowding and tourism. The impact of the Church, of course, runs through the book like a thread but how well it is woven may be open to question. The early impact of Christianity occupies very few lines and Jesus Christ merits not one mention in the book’s voluminous index.
In broad terms, Rome is still, of course, the seat of the Catholic Church. Over the course of two millennia the city has produced some of the greatest art and some of the blackest crimes in history. Millions have flocked there and been transformed by its potent grandeur.
After the disaster of Cannae in 216 BC when 50,000 Romans were killed by Hannibal in a day, Rome implacably rallied to start its own astonishing conquests. The author brilliantly evokes imperial Rome as filthy and teeming, with riots and political corruption, but seething with inexhaustible vitality. Of its monuments, the Pantheon is the most astonishing, the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, weighing some 5,000 tons. But then came the reign of Claudius with 159 holidays a year, the time of bread and circuses.
The Renaissance was a rebirth but Counter-Reformation art requires a strong stomach – martyrs boiled in oil, torn apart by bulls or roasted alive. “Many a Jesuit was subjected to frightful torments when on missionary duty; perhaps Pomarancio’s frescoes prepared them for what was coming,” he writes.
Raphael’s images, Hughes reminds us, were as animated as a battlepiece. He acknowledges the power of Picasso’s modern-day Guernica as a public statement yet points out that Rubens painted works of an eloquence and formal beauty that leave Picasso far behind. All we have to do to appreciate Rubens, he suggests, is to step back outside our own time. What makes this difficult is our modern day “distrust of politics and the evaporation of belief in authority”.
And when it comes to the 18th century and the Grand Tour, humour inevitably creeps in. Dr Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, returned from enjoying the favours of Rome’s ladies with “modish distemper” and Horace Walpole’s dog was eaten by a wolf in the Alps. An ultra-zealous Scots Presbyterian tried to convert Pope Pius VI during a service at St Peter’s addressing him as “a mother of harlots, arrayed in purple and scarlet”. The pope politely thanked him for his good intentions and paid for his return to Scotland – which was perhaps punishment enough.
Moving to the 20th century, the futurist and fantasist Marinetti wanted to demolish Venice and fill the canals with rubble. His supporters wanted cities “ugly in their mechanical simplicity” – a dream followed by the town planners of Coventry and Plymouth.
Hughes holds back little fire when it comes to the present day: the world of Silvio Berlusconi and his television circus, “a nightmare world to you perhaps but to most Italians a sort of paradise... an unembarrassed glitz that passes for news, sport and parade of cushionlipped, big-breasted blonde babes”. He believes most Italians are artistic illiterates.
One sometimes wishes such an experienced writer could see more light at the end of the tunnel, but all he foresees for Rome now are waves of advancing tourists. The Sistine Chapel is now unbearably overcrowded 365 days a year.
As he judges it, Rome is creatively exhausted, like most of Europe – although that may be because its sheer cornucopia of art history has built a wall against anything new. Still, he recommends, go there, dodge the Vespas, enjoy a coffee in the Piazza Navona and relish the city “which is a gift to the rest of the world from people who are dead but can never die”. And by all means, take this extraordinary and passionate guide with you.