Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History
by Robert Hughes
No city has offered more inspiration to architects over a longer period of time than Rome. Nolli’s map of the city is ubiquitous, and a residency at the American Academy is coveted even by the most progressive designers. As the capital of an empire and then of a faith, it drew the finest talents and created a series of enduring monuments, some of which may be more inspiring as ruins than they were when new. It’s a fine subject for Hughes, whose battered face glares out from the dust jacket like the bust of a dissolute emperor. A trenchant critic, he skewers this sacred cow while celebrating its past glories. He dismisses the fantasy portrait of ancient Rome as a city of gleaming white marble. “The real Rome was Calcutta-on-the-Mediterranean—crowded, chaotic and filthy,” he observes. “The Pompeian house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto looks like the terrace of Luigi’s Pasta Palace in coastal New Jersey, crammed with sculptures that are more like garden gnomes.”
In this scrappy but entertaining history, there are a few pages of poetry—notably on the Ara Pacis, the Pantheon, the mosaics of San Clemente, and the works of Bernini—but many more of scandalous gossip about corrupt and bloodthirsty rulers. Hughes would probably agree with Christopher Hitchens that “religion poisons everything” and he is careful to distinguish the temples and churches from the dubious characters who built them. One of his heroes is Giordano Bruno, whose statue in the Campo de Fiori recalls the cruelty of bigots who burnt him at the stake for teachings that might win him a Nobel Prize today. Hughes shares the universal loathing of the Victor Emmanuel Monument “the largest and most pompous memorial ever dedicated to a national leader” --and indeed almost everything erected in Rome since unification. In the epilogue he vents his fury at the blight of mass tourism and the philistinism of the Italians, while conceding that the city may survive this onslaught as it did the barbarian invasions of antiquity.