Roman sojourn undone by overreaching ambition
by Robert Hughes
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
I can appreciate Robert Hughes' desire to write a book about Rome. Like him, I came from Sydney to the Italian capital in the 1950s, was entranced by the city and felt an urge to write about it. So much of its past is present in its architectural remains and there is an abundance of tales about its outlandish emperors, outrageous popes and the rivalries between its great artists such as Bernini ('there is no 20th-century artist,' Hughes writes of Bernini, 'who does not look rather small beside him') and Borromini.
Hughes discovered, on his first visit to Rome as a 20-year old in 1959, that 'it resisted abstraction ... Rome turned art, and history, into reality'.
But the city's abundance is a temptation and a trap. How can a book on Rome be endowed with shape and originality? Much work, knowledge and talent has gone into Rome but recounting nearly 3,000 years in 500 pages is difficult. A strong theme is needed otherwise the chronological approach tends to become a series of essays which will inevitably dissatisfy some because of what has been left out.
For instance why does Hughes, who writes at length about the Crusades, merely mention in passing the Galileo trial which took place in Rome? As the subject of each chapter is worth a book in itself, they tend to be either superficial or incomplete. The most enjoyable are those on the Renaissance and Baroque period driven by Hughes' enthusiasm. Here his eye for illuminating details both about the work and the artists is at its sharpest.
Hughes excels in the description and history of the visual arts but, instead of confining himself to them, aims at a general history. As a result, at times he exceeds about the visual arts and short changes on the context. For instance, I find there is too much on mainly insignificant post-second world war Italian artists and too little on the 1950s-60s transformation of Italian society which is comparable to that of China today. In this section he perceptively recognises that the greatest visual artist of the period was film director Federico Fellini, but surprisingly ignores Fellini's film Roma which concerns the subject of his book.
Mary Beard, Cambridge professor of classics, has lambasted the outdated bibliography and the 'howlers, errors and misunderstandings' of the first chapters on pagan ancient Rome which, she claims, makes them 'little short of a disgrace'.
Mistakes are not confined to the first chapters. Hughes calls Pope Clement V an Italian when he was French which makes nonsense of a point he wants to make about the 14th-century transfer of the papacy to Avignon. He attributes the opera Tosca to Verdi instead of Puccini. He says there is no 'compelling historical or archaeological evidence' that St Peter is buried under the basilica dedicated to him. However there is evidence from the end of the first century to Probus early in the third century, and again from the archaeological excavations during the second world war.
He asks why emperor Diocletian bothered to unleash a persecution against Christianity which he calls a 'small, peripheral Jewish religion'. But by the time of Diocletian, Christians were probably the largest religious group in the empire.
Hughes attributes Christianity's growth largely to political backing, ignoring American sociologist Rodney Stark who attributes it to the Christians' radically new behaviour, particularly towards women.
Mistakes are par for the course in a blockbuster, but the editing is lax. Annoyingly, Hughes does not supply any sources list and only occasionally cites the name of those he quotes. Pope Sixtus V is said to have been rector of many convents before his election when obviously monasteries are meant. Not all the extracts from Italian poems are translated. Hughes writes about several paintings without saying where they are located.
Hughes' architecture course at the University of Sydney stands him in good stead because he writes well on architecture and how things are done such as the transfer to St Peter's Square of the obelisk that was the centrepiece of Nero's racetrack.
He is lenient on Benito Mussolini who took Italians into the ruinous second world war. He says Mussolini was not a racist like Adolf Hitler. But it is difficult to say who was worse: a fanatic like Hitler who wanted to eliminate Jews from the face of the earth, or Mussolini who went along without sharing his fanaticism.
It is the book of a frequent visitor rather than a resident. Hughes has little to say about contemporary Rome but most of it is negative. He does not even mention the rapid recent increase of non-European residents from Africa, South America and Asia, mainly Filipinos but also many Chinese, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans.
Deploring the effects of mass tourism on enjoyment of works of art, he calls the overcrowding in the Sistine Chapel a 'kind of living death for high culture' and warns against what will happen when 'post-communist prosperity has taken hold in China and expresses itself as mass tourism'.
His summary is that there have been many Roman renaissances, but the present is a bare spell. However, Rome is not principally a jeremiad, indeed it is comparatively mellow for a writer who is skilled in verbal slash and burning. It is a celebration of what remains of Rome's splendid past.