Rome

A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History

By Robert Hughes

Knopf. 512 pp. $35 nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by John Timpane


Could you have a better guide to Rome than Robert Hughes?

To the idea of Rome, I mean, or, closer yet, to the idea of the history of Rome?

This book is a panoramic account of Rome's several ascents: pagan empire of 1,229 years; Christian empire for nearly as long; capital of art for millenniums; one of the homes of modernism; dysfunctional yet somehow influential modern citadel of corruption.

Hughes tells the story of an ancient city in which art and power have long been locked in the dirtiest, most lingering of embraces. His Rome, however, can also teach us the moral and spiritual importance of paying attention. This, says Hughes, is its gift to the world - even as the town itself is endangered by its very touristic popularity.

No better writer could be your guide. Hughes is among the best prose stylists in English. Telling stories, describing artworks, puncturing ignorance, dissecting politics, speaking now of Stoic philosophy, now of the Avignon Papacy, now of futurism and fascism - he does all with Hughes grace and care.

He has much to do. Sometime in the eighth century B.C., a walled city enclosed a population of Latins battling to establish culture and dominion. Nearly 3,000 years later, Rome is dozens of cities layered one on top of another, a palimpsest of multiple histories (including the anxieties of our present moment), congested, dirty, with outbursts of unspeakable beauty. No city has a richer, longer, more maddening story. No city means as much - literally, as in "has as much significance," in so many directions, but also as in "so many disparate things" - as Rome.

Each chapter could embrace many volumes, and inevitably Rome is a marathon at a sprinter's pace. But I'd rather sprint with Hughes than linger with others. Rome does escape being a potted history - sometimes only via the magisterial Hughes prose alone. Lovely sentences abound:

The construction of Saint Peter's took 120 years and lasted for the lifetime of twenty popes.

The Sistine ceiling is almost all body, or bodies; the only sign of a nature that is not flesh is an occasional patch of bare earth and, in the Garden of Eden, a tree.

To dismiss [Mussolini] as a buffoon, a swollen bullfrog on horseback, as Anglo-American propaganda constantly tried to, is to underrate him.

Most often, Rome succeeds via the stupendously learned and sensitive Hughes mind. No better guide. A city emerges for which power and the arts have ever been entwined. Virgil slaves to write a Roman epic to equal the Odyssey, help turn Latin into a literary language, and flatter Augustus Caesar in the bargain. Michelangelo lies on his scaffold, painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling for Pope Julius II. It's there, too, in the crucifixion of Peter, and Giordano Bruno's agony at the stake.

The art/power nexus has always burned strong in Rome because the city itself - whether dream of a unitary state, centerpoint of a religious empire, or linchpin of a national identity - has so often seemed the ideal home for these ultimate aspirations. Rome is where the art of power was perfected (Hughes calls the Campo dei Fiori, where Bruno died, "essential Rome five times over"), and where the power of art still mesmerizes, humbles, amazes.

As it amazed young Hughes on his first youthful visit in 1959. This book is framed by that visit, and by what he learned. The prologue is especially gorgeous:

Nothing exceeds the delight of one's first immersion in Rome on a fine spring morning. . . . The enveloping light can be of an incomparable clarity, throwing into gentle vividness every detail presented to the eye.

He describes his near-ecstatic encounter with markets in the Campo dei Fiori:

Bunches of thyme, branches of rosemary, parsley, bundled-up masses of basil filling the air with their perfume. Here, a mountain of sweet peppers: scarlet, orange, yellow, even black. There, a crate filled with the swollen purple truncheons of eggplants. . . . Even the potato, a dull-looking growth as a rule, took on a sort of tuberous grandeur in this Mediterranean light.

Hughes stresses that "it is the sense of care - of voluminous attention to detail - that makes things matter" in Rome as in life. For him, full-minded, full-bodied attention is the basis of morality, of spiritual and political life, of an engaged, informed sense of past and present, what's possible and what's to be wished.

It's a hard city to know, even harder to love; Hughes has known and loved it for a long time. And he hates what's happening to it. "No European city that I know has been as damaged, its civic experience as brutally compromised, by automobile and driver as Rome," he writes, in an "Epilogue" with a fearsome view of an impossibly crowded Rome, with great art you can't see because there are too many of you:

The degree to which the Sistine Chapel is overcrowded represents the kind of living death for high culture which lurks at the end of mass culture - an end which Michelangelo, of course, could not possibly imagine, and which the Vatican is completely powerless to prevent. . . . But since the Sistine is one of two things (the other being Saint Peter's Basilica itself) that every tourist in Rome has heard of and wants to see, the crush there is numbing; it defeats the possibility of concentration.

If there's a way out, Hughes can't see it: "You cannot filter the stream. A museum is either public or it's not."

Hughes' love for Rome is lyrical and infectious. His dark conclusion makes the reader want to see Rome - what Rome is left - before it's too late. Rome is a fine book to read before going, after going, or if you never go.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or @jtimpane on Twitter.