Grace Tjan's Reviews > Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History

Rome by Robert Hughes
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Dec 15, 2011

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bookshelves: 2011, art, architecture-interior, ebook, history, roman-empire, renaissance

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 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

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

to this

“…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

to 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.”

No shit, indeed.

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Reading Progress

December 15, 2011 – Started Reading
December 15, 2011 – Shelved
December 15, 2011 – Shelved as: 2011
December 15, 2011 – Shelved as: art
December 15, 2011 – Shelved as: ebook
December 15, 2011 – Shelved as: history
December 15, 2011 – Shelved as: roman-empire
December 15, 2011 – Shelved as: renaissance
December 15, 2011 – Shelved as: architecture-interior
December 18, 2011 –
page 250
48.83% "...complete with the ancient patriarch’s eldest son committing what had become known as the Sin of Ham—not overindulgence in prosciutto crudo, but gazing upon his inebriated father’s nakedness."
December 30, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Hayes (new)

Hayes You are the second person I know who is reading this. Shall I put it on TBR?

Grace Tjan Why not? After all, it's about your (adopted) hometown. :)

It's written by Robert Hughes, who wrote

The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding, which received good reviews here on GR, so it should be pretty good. I'm only in the first hundred pages so can't tell you for sure yet.

message 3: by Hayes (new)

Hayes I will keep an eye peeled (or two even) for your reviews and comments.

Grace Tjan Hayes wrote: "I will keep an eye peeled (or two even) for your reviews and comments."

Hayes, as you live in Rome and have all the art, history and architecture discussed in this book on your doorstep, you are more qualified than me to judge its merit. Maybe I'll post some excerpts that seem striking to me and let you comment on it. Or perhaps we can do a joint review?

message 5: by Hayes (new)

Hayes I'll have to track down a copy first. If I can find one, I will join you. A trip to the Anglo-American bookshop might be in the cards. I don't usually go there as it is A Dangerous Place.

message 6: by Kim (new)

Kim Is it a dangerous place because you leave it poorer, Hayes?

I saw this in my local bookshop the other day and was very tempted to buy it either for myself or for my Italophile friend. It looked pretty dense, I must say, which is typical Hughes. I think I will wait for a review before committing myself.

message 7: by Hayes (new)

Hayes That's it exactly, Kim. It's a fabulous lovely bookshop and I want to own each and every book in it.

message 8: by Hayes (new)

Hayes Well, I went to the bookshop today and found a hardback copy, which leapt into my arms, along with two other books. I had to beat off three or four others and ran quickly from the shop before any further damage was done... (my husband will wrap them and put them under the tree for me, so all is well).

Grace Tjan Hayes wrote: "Well, I went to the bookshop today and found a hardback copy, which leapt into my arms, along with two other books. I had to beat off three or four others and ran quickly from the shop before any f..."

Good for you! :)

message 10: by Athens (new)

Athens Good comments and reviews. Appreciate it.

Grace Tjan Bird Brian wrote: "What does the title mean by "visual history"?"

I don't know.. I thought that it meant something like 'pictorial history', but there are too few pictures in the book to justify it. In fact, having finished with the book, I feel that the title is a bit odd.

message 12: by Christy (new)

Christy Like your critical review! Even if it had too few pictures, and I would have wanted many, too, you picked good ones here. Got to Rome for the first time year before last, and am still generally in awe thinking about it.

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