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Book review: 'Rome' by Robert Hughes

The art critic brings his usual attention to detail to a personal history of the Eternal City, told largely through its art.

November 06, 2011|By Suzanne Muchnic
  • A statue of Giordano Bruno in downtown Rome.
A statue of Giordano Bruno in downtown Rome. (Andrew Medichini) / Associated…)

Robert Hughes wastes no time luring readers into his love affair with Rome. After tracking the infatuation to his youth in Australia, he's off and running in the Eternal City. At his favorite piazza, the Campo Dei Fiori, he expounds upon its bronze statue of Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance hero burned alive as a heretic, then quickly moves on to glorify fountains, analyze an equestrian sculpture of emperor Marcus Aurelius and offer tips on cooking fried salt cod and Jewish-style artichokes.

Recalling the intellectual and aesthetic force of the city as he first encountered it, Hughes presents Rome as a guide to the past and the future. For the impressionable young writer who paid his first visit in 1959, it was the perfect place to learn how to look backward as well as forward. He saw a continuum of beauty and ugliness, triumph and tragedy as never before. More important, he writes, the experience "gave physical form to the idea of art." Rome made art and history real.

And that's just the prologue.

Overwhelming as the first 14 pages may be, they will not surprise followers of Hughes' work. Chief art critic of Time from 1970 to 2001, he also has written a dozen books — on modern art, the history of Australia, the city of Barcelona and artists Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francisco Goya. 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.

Early on, he introduces the first Roman emperor not as a man but as "Augustus of Prima Porta," a marble sculpture, circa AD 15, that exemplifies artistic propaganda. The work may not be a masterpiece, but it conveys an important message. Portrayed as a military hero who projects "calm, self-sufficient power," in Hughes' words, and accompanied by a tiny figure of the love god Eros, Augustus was meant to be seen as a living god descended from Venus.

Like many other classical Roman portraits, the statue may be the work of a Greek artist and possibly produced in a factory-like system nearly 2,000 years before Andy Warhol churned out images of celebrities and heads of state. Delighting in such then-and-now correspondences, Hughes likens ancient Rome's inflated prices of fine art to today's "hysterical, grotesque pricing of Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns." Rome's loss of the papacy to Avignon, in the 14th century, was something like "what might happen to modern Los Angeles if the whole entertainment industry, the production and promotion of movies, TV, pop music, were suddenly wiped out."

As centuries fly by, Hughes singles out Roman cultural landmarks, including Raphael's work in the Vatican, for praise and critical analysis. The author sees Santa Maria Maggiore, an early pilgrimage church, as an emblem of the papacy's triumph over the aging Roman Empire. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo, contains "the most powerful ... series of images of the human figure in the whole history of European art." Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini was an artistic embodiment of the Counter-Reformation, "the marble megaphone of papal orthodoxy in the seventeenth century."

Rome was a magnet for wealthy English travelers in the 18th century and for foreign artists in the 19th century. But in Hughes' view, Giorgio de Chirico was among the last influential painters to emerge in 20th century Italy. "It is depressing, but hardly unfair, to admit that, by the beginning of the 1960s, Rome, the city that had produced and fostered so many geniuses in the visual arts across the centuries, had none left — not, certainly, in the domains of painting, sculpture, or architecture," he writes. A few pages later he adds that filmmaker Federico Fellini (1920-93) "may well have been the last completely articulate genius Italy produced in the domain of the visual arts."

Hughes' laments about Rome's artistic demise and "the huge and ruthless takeover of mass tourism and mass media" ring sadly true. But as he mourns the waning of a love affair, he can't dismiss the city's connection to the past or its enduring attraction. "The Rome we have today," he writes, "is an enormous concretion of human glory and human error."

A former Times staff writer, Muchnic is the author of "Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture."


A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History

Robert Hughes

Alfred A. Knopf: 512 pp., $35

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