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 pi...moreFirst, 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 and Architecture in Rome, with Brief Historical Asides’ --- or something to that effect.
There is some history in the earlier chapters, which deal with the Roman Empire and its papal successor, but once Hughes gets to the Renaissance, it’s all art and artists. History only resurfaces after the great works of art have dwindled by the 19th century. Then, it’s almost exclusively political history. The dichotomy is at times disorienting --- I’d love to know more about the political and cultural context of the great artistic eras, or about how the city was governed, and how ordinary citizens lived. Instead, we get some tangential history that is interesting in itself, but is not that relevant to Rome, such as the history of the Albigensian Crusade (obviously, it has something to do with the papacy, but it took place entirely in Provence).
The art history/criticism that is the meat of this book is brisk, bristling with interesting details and occasionally memorably phrased: the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is “almost all body, or bodies. The only sign of a nature that is not flesh is an occasional patch of bare earth and, in the Garden of Eden, a tree”; Caravaggio “thrashed about in the etiquette of early Seicento Rome like a shark in a net.” It is fascinating to learn about the history of all of those obelisks that dot the Roman landscape and the engineering feats that were accomplished to move and erect them. Or about the creative recycling/vandalism that went on through Rome’s history until relatively recent times (the Colosseum, for example, was used as a convenient quarry for the new Vatican, and the ancient bronze cladding of the Pantheon was stripped to make Bernini’s massive baldachino in St. Peter’s). Hughes goes beyond the familiar superstars like Michelangelo and Raphael, covering lesser-known artists like Guido Reni (“There can be few painters in history whose careers show such a spectacular rise to the heights of reputation, followed by such a plunge to the depths.”) and Annibale Caracci, who painted the staterooms of Palazzo Farnese. This was done during a particularly dissolute era in the history of the Church, when it was perfectly okay for a cardinal, later Pope Paul III, to have his private residence decorated with pagan soft porn scenes with a bestial twist like this one (it’s classical! --- it’s from Ovid’s Metamorphoses!):
The Rape of Ganymede by Jupiter's Eagle with Satyrs Ouch!
Hughes points out that “to call such a theme inappropriate for a future pontiff would be a mistake: he had been made a cardinal by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, whose mistress was Alessandro Farnese’s sister, Giulia Farnese. Moreover, he had four illegitimate children of his own, plus an unknown number of by blows.” As a Jesuit-educated ex-Catholic, Hughes pulls no punches against his former faith, in most cases with some justification --- scathingly denouncing the corrupt Renaissance papacy, the reactionary Church of the 19th century, the appeasement of Nazis and Fascists in the 20th, and the $ 500 “hefty ransom” that the Vatican demanded for a private tour of the Sistine Chapel today. But he’s at his crankiest (and funniest) best when charting the decline of 21st century Rome, where statesmanship has gone down from this
Augustus of Prima Porta
“…a multi-multi-millionaire…who seems to have no cultural interest…apart from top-editing the harem of blondies for his quiz shows.”
and art has degenerated from this
“Opening the can would, of course, destroy the value of the artwork. You cannot know that the shit is really inside, or that whatever may be inside is really shit…so far none has been opened; it seems unlikely that any will be, since the last can of Manzoni’s Merda d’artista to go on the market fetched the imposing sum of $80,000.”
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Cleo was an insatiable vamp who seduced two of the most powerful men in Rome using her femi...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Cleo was an insatiable vamp who seduced two of the most powerful men in Rome using her feminine wiles. Cleo might have used her wiles to seduce them, but both Julius and Mark were hardly paragons of chastity themselves: Julius specialized in seducing “aristocratic wives”, while Mark had numerous affairs with both single and married women.
2. Cleo looked like Elizabeth Taylor with too much mascara. We just don’t really know how she looked. The only surviving images of her are stylized coin portraits. Accounts that were written during or shortly after her lifetime didn’t say much about her looks, while later sources seems to have exaggerated her beauty to fit the vampy seductress mold. However, as a Macedonian Greek, she must have looked Caucasian, thus probably closer to the aforementioned Ms. Taylor than say, Queen Latifah.
3. Mark Antony looked like Richard Burton. Mark Antony was “broad-shouldered, bull-necked, ridiculously handsome, with a thick head of curls and aquiline features.” Who knows, he might have looked like a certain Welsh actor. They both surely drank a lot.
4. Cleo was a dumb floozy who had nothing going on for her except her seductive beauty. As a Ptolemaic princess, Cleo received a first rate education by ancient standards, which is to say that she was well versed in mathematics, astronomy/astrology, Greek philosophy and literature, and rhetoric. According to Plutarch, she spoke nine languages, in addition to Egyptian, which other Ptolemaic rulers didn’t even bother to learn. She managed to make herself the absolute ruler of Egypt, while preserving her country’s independence against Roman encroachment for almost two decades. She must have been a pretty smart lady to be able to accomplish such feats.
5. Cleo was an incestuous queen who murdered her siblings to gain the throne of Egypt. Essentially true. The Ptolemies followed the ancient Egyptian custom of royal intermarriages. She was married to her 13-year old brother (prior to fighting him for the throne and causing him to be killed by Caesar’s men), and then to another brother. She also had her sister Arsinoe, a rival claimant to the throne, murdered. But to be fair, murdering relatives had been a centuries old tradition in her family, and those siblings would not have hesitated to off her if they had the chance anyway.
6. Ptolemaic Alexandria was an astounding city of Cecil B. de Millean proportions. Alexandria’s famous lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), library and gymnasium dwarfed anything in other 1st century B.C. cities. Forty-foot tall sculptures of former Cleopatras greeted new arrivals in its harbor. At least one “colossal hawk-headed sphinx” towered over the palace wall. “Glossy thirty-foot long sphinxes” guarded the temples. The Canopic Way, Alexandria’s main drag, could accommodate eight chariots driving abreast. The cosmopolitan population was “hyperkinetic”. Rome was nothing but a staid, crude muddy hamlet in comparison.
7. Cleo corrupted the Romans with her Eastern luxuries and debaucheries. Orientalism nonsense that began as Octavian’s propaganda. It’s true that the Ptolemies threw the best parties in the ancient world (at one particular feast, the gold dinner vessels alone were said to have weighed 300 tons), but Cleo was also one of the richest ruler on earth, so she could well afforded them. Peacock-eating Romans could be perfectly extravagant and corrupt without any Eastern influences.
8. Cicero is the “greatest boaster alive”, a fawning hypocrite who “was perfectly capable of maligning a man one day and swearing eternal devotion to him the next.” Cleo didn't want to lend him her book (probably from the great library of Alexandria) and he spent the rest of his life maligning her.
9. Herod was an “entertaining” friend of Mark’s who later turned treacherous. He was also a fake Jew who probably didn’t deserve the throne of Judaea. Herod and Cleo fought over asphalt and balsam monopolies, and this resulted in Flavius Josephus maligning her.
10. Cleo killed herself by putting an asp to her bared breast. Painters and moviemakers love this scene. But it’s most probably not true. Cleo, a “woman who is known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning” would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to an unreliable wild animal. She had plenty of quicker, less painful options, such as the poisons that she was reported to have experimented with. It was also as well a little too convenient to be killed by the royal emblem of Egypt: the snake made more symbolic than practical sense. Octavian did display a model of Cleo with an asp in his triumph, and this was probably where the legend started.
“…We are left to square intelligible decisions with obscure accounts…”, Schiff wrote of the contradictory historical accounts about Antony and Cleopatra’s conduct at the battle of Actium. The same might be said of virtually all historical accounts about her, be they written by Plutarch, Suetonius, Dio, Josephus or others. If your agenda is to remove 2,000 years of sexist and/or orientalist distortions from Cleopatra’s portrait, which account are you going to accept as reliable and which are not? Are you going to accept those that support your thesis only and disregard those that do not, even though they are consistent with other accounts? After all, “no story in the ancient world is unvarnished”. In Cleopatra’s case, the varnish might have been so thick and persistent that it has become virtually impossible to remove.
Schiff’s book is an entertaining, occasionally snarky, impressively detailed reconstruction of what Cleopatra might have been like, but there were times when I wondered whether she was just as biased as her ancient predecessors. What really happened 2,000 years ago? Who knows?
Finished Vol. I Book I only. Lost interest because it's only a rehash of familiar biblical stories so far. Perhaps will take up again if the Librivox...moreFinished Vol. I Book I only. Lost interest because it's only a rehash of familiar biblical stories so far. Perhaps will take up again if the Librivox recording have reached the post-Biblical parts.(less)