Thursday, November 24, 2011

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.

By Suzanne Muchnic, Special to the Los Angeles Times
November 6, 2011

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 Cultural, Visual, and Personal History

By Robert Hughes
Alfred A. Knopf: 512 pp., $35

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

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Rome by Robert Hughes – review

Mary Beard regrets that an elegant history of Rome is marred by howlers
By Mary Beard
The Guardian                                         

Does modern art matter? In 1980, in The Shock of the New – a BBC television series-turned-book – Robert Hughes convinced millions of sceptics that it did. Shock was a powerful antidote to the Kenneth Clark style of TV art history. Hughes was a straight-talking Australian; there was no posh, languid reverence in his presentation. His message was that you didn't have to like 20th-century art (in fact he happily pointed the finger at some that was pretentious, overvalued and bad); but you did need to see how art contributed to the great debates of the period, from technology to the politics of social change.

It must have been a hard act to follow. Since 1980 Hughes has continued to work as a critic; he has written, among other things, a bestselling account of British transportation of convicts to Australia (The Fatal Shore) and a volume of memoirs; and he has weathered accusations of plagiarism, a near-fatal car-crash and years of litigation that followed. Now in his 70s, he has brought out Rome, a cultural history of the city he first visited in 1959; it is a narrative that stretches from Romulus and Remus to Berlusconi.

Reader, be warned. Skip the first 200 pages and start this book at chapter six, "The Renaissance". By the time Hughes reaches this point, he is well in command of his material and is on characteristically cracking form. He offers some delicious pen portraits of the artists and architects who designed and made what are now the tourist high-spots of the city: the Sistine chapel, the Piazza Navona, St Peter's basilica, the Campidoglio. Particularly vivid is his discussion of Bernini, "the marble megaphone of papal orthodoxy" – who was loathed by most visitors in the 19th century ("intolerable abortions" was Charles Dickens's description of Bernini's monuments), but increasingly admired in the 20th. And he nicely captures the spirit of the 18th-century grand tour. The desire of the young milords to discover the grandeur of ancient culture was only one side of the story. Sex tourism was the other. Rome was, as Hughes observes, the Thailand of the period, and he includes plenty of revealing stories about the brash bigwigs who turned up in the city: Lord Baltimore, with his harem of eight women, or Colonel William Gordon, who (if Batoni's famous portrait is anything to go by) pranced around the Mediterranean in a kilt and swaths of his family tartan. What on earth did the locals make of these people?

In his epilogue, Hughes, the modern cultural critic, elegantly savages the mass tourism and commercial culture of Berlusconi's Italy. A visit to the overcrowded Sistine chapel has become, he insists, close to unbearable, "a kind of living death for high culture" – which can only get worse "when post-communist prosperity has taken hold in China", and the Chinese flood in by the million. The same, he might have added, is also true of St Peter's basilica itself. It may be large enough inside to hold huge numbers of visitors in relative comfort, but they now have to go through a metal detector to get into the place. When I tried to visit one afternoon last December only two of these machines were working, and people in the queue winding around the piazza would have been waiting for more than an hour.

So what is the answer if you really do want to see the Sistine chapel in some peace and quiet? It is "to pay what is in effect a hefty ransom to the Vatican". For you can now book a two-hour visit to the museum plus chapel in a small group after closing time (with a guide "whose silence", as Hughes ruefully notes, "is not guaranteed"). This gives you a full 30 minutes to view the Michelangelo ceiling, in the company of no more than 20 other people. The only trouble is that it costs €300 a head, and the enterprise is run by outside contractors who are presumably splitting the profits with the church. This is, of course, typical of 21st-century Italy's approach to its heritage (the new director of the Ministry of Culture is apparently "a former chief of McDonald's" and the restoration of the Colosseum is to be sponsored by an upmarket footwear company). "If you don't like it," Hughes shrugs, "you can always write to the Pope; or else buy some postcards and study those in the calm and quiet of your hotel."

So far, so good. In fact, the second half of the book is an engaging history of this wondrous city, very much in the tradition of The Shock of the New, packed full of sharp observation and trenchant one-liners, artfully and fearlessly told. The first half of the book, especially the three chapters dealing with the early history of Rome, from Romulus to the end of pagan antiquity, is little short of a disgrace – to both author and publisher. It is riddled with errors and misunderstandings that will mislead the innocent and infuriate the specialist.

True, the occasional mistake in detail can sometimes be a price worth paying for the kind of long view that Hughes attempts to take here, covering almost 3,000 years of history. If a book is brave enough to think big, we can perhaps forgive a few errors with the proper names (of which there are several in Rome – "Miltiades" the famous fifth-century Athenian general, for example, being curiously substituted on one occasion for "Mithridates", the first-century king of Pontus). But Hughes has made more than a few pardonable slips. The "ancient" parts of this book are littered with howlers.
Sometimes, for example, CE and BCE are confused (so that Julius Caesar's Gallic enemy Vercingetorix is said to have been beheaded in 46CE, almost a hundred years after Caesar himself was assassinated), or the correct chronology is flagrantly reversed ("a succession of autocrats, starting with Augustus himself and continuing onwards through Pompey and Julius Caesar", he writes, when in fact Pompey and Caesar preceded the emperor Augustus). On other occasions, the identity of the characters is hopelessly muddled. Hughes clearly has not been able to distinguish "Pompey the Great" from his (very different) father, also inconveniently called "Pompey".

Beyond such basic errors, there are also plenty of wider historical misunderstandings. Hughes somehow manages to attribute the foundation of the Colosseum to the wicked emperor Nero, when in fact the whole point about the Colosseum is that it was founded by Nero's successors as a propaganda coup against him. (Vespasian and Titus built it, with the spoils of the Jewish war, as a place of popular entertainment, open to all, on the very spot in the centre of Rome where Nero had established his exclusive and very private pleasure gardens.)

His characterisation of Roman pagan religion as full of "nature spirits" until the poet Ovid invented deities with personalities in the first century BC is a caricature even of the views of the antiquated text books he cites in his bibliography; and no decent scholar of Roman religion has suggested anything like that for half a century. In one of the most gratuitous howlers, he claims that the great altar of Pergamon (in modern Turkey), now on display in Berlin, was "torn asunder and looted by German archaeologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries and shipped, section by damaged section, to Berlin" – as if we should be imagining its desecration by a bunch of Teutonic Lord Elgins. In fact, the altar had been ruined for centuries when the German archaeologists arrived; they set about finding and gathering together its widely scattered fragments.

The list could go on.

We often talk about the decline of interest in the classical world. But, so far as I can see, interest in antiquity is as strong as ever (and, to give him his due, Hughes has seen that it is impossible to talk about modern Rome without acknowledging its dialogue with the ancient city). What has declined is any sense of obligation to write about the classical world with care and knowledge. Any old stuff will do and almost no one notices.

If a book about the history of the 20th century had as many mistakes as this one, I am tempted to think that it would have been pulped and corrected. It certainly would not have been widely praised and enthusiastically recommended as Rome has been.

Mary Beard's Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town is published by Profile.

1 comment:

chief gabril said...

His "natural spirit", until the Roman poet Ovid's characterization of pagan deities invented the characters in the first century BC, is a cartoon or even the old textbooks, the books he cited in his opinion.

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