This is a tacky book. I nearly stopped reading it before I finished the Prologue, and to some extent I regretted reading it by the time I had finished the Epilogue. Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic, has written this ‘deeply personal’ book (so described on the flyleaf) about the eternal city, but the reader is never quite sure what he is trying to achieve. The best (and to me, most interesting) parts of the book are where Hughes provides a brief history of some of the significant events and personalities of the past twenty-five centuries in Rome. But far too often he goes off on a tangent, with salacious comments about the sexual prowess or proclivities of various characters, scatological comments of his own, and always art, art art. If it were marketed as Rome: an art history, perhaps this would be expected, and I suppose given that the author is an art critic one should not be surprised, but the book careens back and forward from art criticism to art history to social/cultural history, to politics. And worst of all, there are a number of things in the book that are just plain wrong. Not many, but just enough to cast doubt on the veracity of the rest of the book, such that I will not be quoting any anecdotes from this book unless I am able to verify them from other sources.
The quote which made me nearly put down the book in the first place was this. In reference to the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius which stands in the Piazza Venezia:
It is by far the greatest and, indeed, the only surviving example of a type of sculpture that was widely known and made in the ancient pagan world: the hero, the authority figure, the demigod on horseback …
It may be that Australia had some equestrian bronzes in it – war memorials, perhaps – but if it did, I do not remember them. It probably didn’t, because the fabrication of a life size bronze man on a bronze horse consumes a great deal of metal and is prohibitively expensive in a country that had no tradition of public sculpture. It also requires a special foundry with special skills to work in it, neither of which could have been available in my homeland. (pp. 11-12)
Now of course, as everyone who has ever travelled anywhere in Australia knows, bronze equestrian statues abound in Australia – it almost seems as though every town and every suburb has them. Most are memorials from the Boer war or the First World War. Melbourne has equestrian memorials to Sir John Monash, Commander in Chief of the Australian Forces during World War 1, and also to Lord Hopetoun, the first Governor-General of Australia. Adelaide has an equestrian statue commemorating George V, and Sydney has one commemorating Edward VII. To name but a few.
At the other end of the book, after regaling us with nearly 500 pages about the art, history, art, personalities, art, history and art of Rome, Hughes writes
Italian popular culture in general – is crap, always has been, and will never be anything else. It may not be the absolute worst in the world, but it is certainly way down there. (pp 477-8)
Hughes has tried hard to support this thesis in his book, but in my opinion he has not succeeded. Rome is one of my favourite places in the world for a whole host of reasons, but mainly because history, religion, food and wine are amongst my favourite things, and Rome has all of them in abundance and in excellence. Hughes book touches on all these, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying.