Robert Hughes' Rome a mixed blessing

Robert Hughes Rome Weidenfeld And Nicolson $A39.95

“Reader, be warned,” says Mary Beard in her review of Robert Hughes' Rome in The Guardian. “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.”

Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge and author of The Life of a Roman Town. 

She writes that Hughes offers “some delicious pen portraits” of the artists and architects who designed and made what are now the tourist high-spots of the city. These include 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 but increasingly admired in the 20th.” 

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.”

Hughes says the answer is "to pay what is in effect a hefty ransom to the Vatican". 

He says well-heeled tourists can now book a two-hour visit to the museum plus chapel in a small group after closing time for €300 a head.

While the second half of the book is “packed full of sharp observation and trenchant one-liners, artfully and fearlessly told”, the first half “is little short of a disgrace – to both author and publisher.” 

“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. 

“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.”

FULL REVIEW: Rome by Robert Hughes – review (The Guardian)

LINKS:

Rome by Robert Hughes: review (The Telegraph)

Empire of the Mind: Robert Hughes's Rome (The Monthly)

Robert Hughes (Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, ABC TV)

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