Explore the Eternal City with Robert Hughes’ masterful new book, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History.The subtitle of Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History (Knopf, $35) is slightly misleading, but in a good way. Author and Australia native Robert Hughes — chief art critic for Time magazine for more than 30 years — does briefly recall his first time visiting Rome in 1959, but the book is not personal in the sense of a memoir.
Instead, it stands as a highly individual and always well-informed view of the art, architecture and general culture of the Eternal City. Indeed, Hughes admits right off the bat: “I have eaten, slept, looked until I was exhausted and sometimes felt as though I had walked my toes to mere stubs in Rome, although I have never actually lived there.”
All the more astonishing, then, that he is able to tie together the city’s history in such a relatable way. Hughes begins his tour in 753 B.C. with the twin brothers Romulus and Remus. From there, he moves through the reigns of various emperors, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and right up to the retaking of Rome out of fascist hands.
Hughes fills more than 400 pages with his observations, yet the book never feels didactic or rote. While he does parse elements like Hadrian’s villa, built on a site “about the same size as central Las Vegas,” he also has an engaging way of bringing history to life and great art down to earth: Brunelleschi and Donatello collaborating, for instance, is “a Quattrocento buddy movie”; Futurist leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s first manifesto, on the other hand, takes the form of “a stream of Mr. Toad-like rantings.”
Rome can be a contradictory place, and it is often difficult to define. Here, Hughes has done a masterly job of representing the city as it truly is — rich and chaotic and always rewarding.