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Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History

3.8  ·  Rating Details ·  842 Ratings  ·  110 Reviews

One of our greatest art and cultural critics now takes on Rome’s complicated history as a city, an empire, an origin of Western art and civilization, and as his own inspiration.

Robert Hughes opens this authoritative, searingly smart history with his own arrival in Rome in 1958, as a wide-eyed twenty-year-old from Australia. We see him blissfully plunging into the life of t

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Published November 1st 2011 by Knopf (first published 2011)
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Jan 10, 2012 Tony rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
ROME: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. (2011). Robert Hughes. ***.
The two books I have previously read by Hughes, “The Fatal Shore” (A history of Australia), and “Goya” (A biography of the artist), were both excellent, and I was looking forward to this one, his latest. I was disappointed. Although it is a large book – over 450 pages – it still tries to cover too much. There are actually several books hidden in this one that are yearning to get out. For example, Chapters 1 through 5 cov
Grace Tjan
First, I must say that the title is a bit puzzling. I thought that “Visual History” meant something like ‘pictorial history’, but there are too few pictures in the book to justify it. There is art and architecture galore, but other than that, there is a dearth of discussion about other aspects of culture. As for the personal, aside from a few brief anecdotes about the author's various visits to Rome, there is preciously little. Judging from the contents, perhaps the book should be titled ‘Art an ...more
Jim Mullen
Oct 26, 2012 Jim Mullen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Art critic Robert Hughes’ book Rome is a highly opinionated history and art tour of the Eternal City. Major tourist attractions are almost ignored as they have been much covered elsewhere and there are no recommendations for restaurants, no shopping tips for hipsters, no advice on where to stay. Bernini is much more presence than Michelangelo, Caravaggio more than Raphael, the Piazza Navona more than St. Peter’s. There are wonderful asides on how hard it is to move and raise a 500 ton obelisk wi ...more
This is a sweeping, searing history of the Eternal City, giving a grand tour of the city, immersed in history.

This history is primarily focused on the art and culture of the city, offering cutting remarks on the political side of things. With such eminent leaders as Berlusconi, who could blame him for being dismissive?

The only flaw I could notice was that the book needed even more pictures - but that isn't so bad - Google the relevant art works and you should follow Hughes' whirlwind tour of the
Dec 27, 2011 Ruth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Don’t go into this expecting an even-handed, evenly-balanced history of Rome. Hughes is no historian. He is an art critic, and as such he makes a fine art critic. They say that to a hammer everything looks like a nail. To an art critic, the story is told in the art. This is a mostly easily readable, idiosyncratic history by an opinionated writer who focuses on the art, especially in the second half of the book—even to the point of occasionally wandering rather far afield from Rome itself. That s ...more
May 12, 2012 Beth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is nothing if not thorough. It follows the history of the city of Rome in sometimes excruciating detail, from the mythical twins suckling at the she-wolf down through relatively modern times. I'm glad I read it, but it was far too much of an investment to do again. The book ends up following a similar track as the city itself: ancient chapters--Punic wars, caesars, etc.--were riveting; the middle ages were such that even the most skilled author couldn't be expected to liven them up; th ...more
Jul 02, 2015 Sarah marked it as want-to-finish  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Because I am in.
Apr 28, 2014 Josh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Oxford professor Mary Beard recommends skipping the first 200 pages of Rome because it’s inaccurate. I recommend reading Hughes’s whole book, then reading her corrections. That way you can spend more time in Rome with Hughes’s company.

In his first chapter, Hughes tells the story of Giordano Bruno, a heretic who was burned at the stake in 1600 for believing, among other things, the sun was just one of many stars in a vast universe. Bruno told the priests “Maiore forsan cum timore sententiam in me
Gaylord Dold
Sep 08, 2014 Gaylord Dold rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Jerusalem: The Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (650pp.$35)

Hughes, Robert. Rome: A Cultural, Visual, Personal History, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (498pp.$35)

On the 8th of the Jewish month of Ab in A.D. 70, the armies of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, commanded by his son and heir Titus and numbering some 60,000, were camped before the walls of Jerusalem. Inside the walls, perhaps half a million starving Jews survived the diabolical conditions and were still, mostly defi
May 07, 2013 Anne rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not one to rate a book only one star, especially one that as highly lauded as this book but I gotta say that I absolutely did not enjoy any part of this book. This is particularly surprising due to the fact that I am a history major with an intense interest in architecture and art history, but its true, I absolutely could not get into this book. From the very beginning I should have realized that I was not going to enjoy it due to the author's lack of structural and historical organization. ...more
Rob Atkinson
* 3 1/2 stars *
An entertaining and informative read for anyone who knows and loves Rome, or wants an account of the city weighted towards its aesthetic history -- particularly its art and architecture. Hughes is best when discussing the art of the Renaissance and thereafter, and there are especially rich sections on Baroque Rome and the 20th c. avant garde, particularly Futurism, and its links to Mussolini's brand of fascism. However the book is marred by a few avoidable errors in its recounting
Philip Girvan
May 04, 2016 Philip Girvan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Anyone who thinks of the young Picasso as a prodigy should reflect on the young Bernini, and be admonished. There was no twentieth-century artist, and certainly none of the twenty-first century, who does not look small beside him." -- p.283

Hughes's formidable intellect, the depth of his expertise, his refusal to mince words, particularly as concerns (post) modern art (he doesn't like it), and the sheer force of his writing make him an magnificent guide to Rome. I've never read a book that made
Boris Limpopo
Sep 11, 2012 Boris Limpopo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hughes, Robert (2011). Rome: A Cultural History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2012. ISBN 9780297857853. Pagine 624. 7,49

L’anno prima della maturità uno dei miei figli andò per 6 settimane a Melbourne per uno scambio culturale organizzato dalla scuola. A cavallo delle vacanze invernali, per ricambiare, ospitammo per 6 settimane il ragazzo, suo coetaneo, della famiglia dove era stato mio figlio. Fu subito ribattezzato «’a mumma», come il protagonista di uno dei film de paura di Corrado Guzz
Thomas Simard
Nov 12, 2014 Thomas Simard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is as wonderful as the city he describes.
David Bisset
Nov 15, 2016 David Bisset rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robert Hughes writes brilliantly. He is erudite, witty and always interesting. His appraisals of works of art and buildings are memorable. He writes fascinating history, and has bitter sweet comments about the Papacy! Also about modern Rome! It is an appalling city, but also glorious. I agree!
Melody Nelson
Nov 27, 2016 Melody Nelson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent book, spoiled by the extremely patronising and frankly ignorant epilogue. Totally unnecessary to finish such an interesting book with an old man's rant about " the good old days".
Ashley Cobb
Jan 16, 2015 Ashley Cobb rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I picked this book up on a whim. I was in Barnes and Noble's, it was on a discount rack for $6.95. As a Latin teacher, the allure of the deal was too good to pass up. I selected this book prior to my completion of "How To Read a Book" so I did none of the pre-reading exercises I learned in that book before making the decision to buy this one. The sub-title of "A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History" really drew me in. I was thinking it would be on overview of Rome (the empire). I scanned the t ...more
Jun 16, 2012 Sean rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Probably best viewed or read as an "introduction"/overview to Rome and Roman history. Given that it aims to give a biography to 2,000+ years in a little under 500 pages, it jumps from one subject to the next without much fanfare, by necessity. Which works fine, really (although it would have benefited a lot from sub-headings, so you can tell for sure when Hughes has officially elected to change focus and you're now reading about Bob Bobberson instead of Smith Smitherson (, I'm not particula ...more
Barbara Stoner
Nov 14, 2014 Barbara Stoner rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Robert Hughes fell in love with Rome. He fell in love with Rome the same way I fell in love with London, with Istanbul. Through myth and legend and story:

"For a time in my adolescence - not knowing Rome in any but the sketchiest way - I longed to be a Roman expatriate ... I was nuts about the idea of Rome ..."

Most of all - and this is something that Rome has in quantities that my particular loves can only dream of - he fell in love with art:

[An elderly Jesuit from his school in Australia, who tr
Sep 17, 2016 Caro rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: malta-and-rome
A chronological survey of Roman art, enlivened by some personal stories and Hughes' strongly held opinions. I most appreciated his chapters on Roman art of the Renaissance and beyond. Mary Beard advises not trusting him on the history of ancient Rome (and I noticed that at one point he places Lake Erie "in Illinois" so perhaps details are not his strong point). Refreshingly opinionated and enthusiastic where he thinks it's merited. Three stars for the content, but four stars for his strong voice ...more
Sean Newgent
Despite enjoying the first two hundred pages of prose detailing the history of the early Roman empire in an amusing and more accessible way from typical history books, Robert Hughes' Rome became a muddled mess by the halfway point that led to my putting the book down. Hughes book, before I quit reading, had a few issues but nothing major enough to keep me away. I read this book like a madman, enjoying every page, despite the fact the author seems to stray from the timeline, jumping around in a r ...more
Elliott Bignell
Jul 24, 2015 Elliott Bignell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Let's be straight about it, this book is primarily an art history of Rome rather than a general history of Rome with sections about art. The opening sections covering Etruscan and Classical periods and the final section covering fascism justify the blurb calling this a history and a travelogue, but the emphasis is very much on art and artists. Even the extended section on the Roman Church treats mainly of its relationship to devotional art and only secondarily with its theological and ecumenical ...more
Daniel Etherington
Inevitably packed with information about this most incredible of cities ,Hughes' Rome could, however, have done with a serious edit. Not only is it overlong and repetitive, it's also scattered with factual errors, never a good sign for a book that's ostensibly authoritative. (Eg p232 it refers to Clement V as a former "Italian cardinal" - he was French, and this is the whole thrust of the argument in the section about the papacy moving to Avignon; eg p543 it has the dates for Ammianus Marcellinu ...more
May 13, 2013 Thorlakur rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a thouroughly enjoyable book by the late Robert Hughes (d. 2012) on the eternal city. Mr. Hughes is, as always, not shy in sharing his opinions with the reader. I think it fruitless to focus to much on what he omits, which is of course necessary in the case of a 500 or so page book on this vast and old city. His disdain for output of twentieth century Roman artists is quite obvious and his predictions for the future are quite bleak. However, a visitor to Rome gains a better understanding ...more
Jul 10, 2016 Garnette rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book has gotten mixed reviews and I had originally crossed it off my list because the early sections have some factual errors and sloppy history usually puts me off. Overall, I'm glad I reconsidered because at times, when Hughes pauses to examine a particular building or work of art, he offers a different perspective, a richer context. I thoroughly enjoyed Corrado Augias' The Secrets of Rome and wanted something similar, a knowledgeable introduction to Rome that would help me see the city f ...more
Sep 10, 2012 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This follows the template of Barcelona, Hughes's epic biography of a city. Starting with the basic history, colorfully told (how could it not be with characters like Seneca, Ovid, Cleopatra, Caligula, Nero, and the various Caesars?), Hughes explores Romes cultural highs and lows, including politics, art, philosphy, poetry, architecture, humor, food, engineering, sexuality, social class, and much more to come in the next 400 pages. Some of this moves a bit hastily with jump cuts from topic to top ...more
Sep 07, 2014 Katy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: my-books
A very interesting history of Rome. I started reading this right after returning from a visit there, so I could picture many of the places Hughes mentioned. He does include some pictures, though I wish there were notations of which references have an image so I wasn’t constantly checking.

Hughes does a great job narrating history so that it’s almost always an interesting story. This means, though, that there’s not always recognizable logic. Sometimes the focus is on the papacy, sometimes on art,
May 28, 2012 Bap rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This a sweeping portrayal of the city of Rome from its founding to the present day. It is idiosyncratic with an emphasis on art and architecture as befits Hughes an art critic. I found the first third of the book which focuses on classical Rome to be less interesting than his accounts of Rennaissance Rome through the Baroque era where we see the city take shape through fountains, plazas, and buildings to make it one of the most beautiful places in this world. The catholic church and a series of ...more
Santiago Ortiz
Mar 18, 2016 Santiago Ortiz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: work, history, art
I'm enjoying very much this book.

Some absences startled me, though. What happened with Trajano, Adriano and Marcus Aurelius?, these great emperors are barely mentioned.

As this book will deal a big deal with christianity, is understandable that the confused and confusing Constantine occupies as much space as Julius Cesar and Augustus, but then right after his death, the author jumps, in a very few pages, from IV century to XI century, not even mentioning the sack of Rome of 410! (is this a deci
Jul 14, 2012 Lou rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: italy

A dear friend who is an aficionado of Rome recommended this book to read before my return to the Eternal City after a 37 year hiatus. I was pleasantly surprised at how perfect this was for me. Just the right amount of history, both ancient and art, memoir and commentary. I particularly noticed the "secular" tinge when covering the Catholic Church. I found this perspective refreshing because it describes the forces in play that more often than not appear to be contradictory and at time hypocriti
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Robert Studley Forrest Hughes, AO was an Australian art critic, writer and television documentary maker who has resided in New York since 1970. He was educated at St Ignatius' College, Riverview before going on to study arts and then architecture at the University of Sydney. At university, Hughes associated with the Sydney "Push" – a group of artists, writers, intellectuals and drinkers. Among the ...more
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