Recently released in paperback by Vintage, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, is the art and culture critic’s last published book. Hughes died in August 2012.
Hughes has always been good at mixing history with an entertaining story, and Rome doesn’t disappoint–but it is a dense read. There is a lot of information in its almost 500-page length. Luckily there are also many color illustrations to aid the reader with unfamiliar artists or architecture.
Rome is undeniably one of the world’s great cities. One can learn of its amazing history, from its Etruscan roots, to its Imperial grandeur and fall, to its Renaissance glory, to its 20th century cool. But there is nothing like actually visiting the city, and being able to experience the collision of all of those eras, sometimes on one street corner, or Roman encounter. Hughes (Shock of the New, Barcelona, Culture of Complaint) tries to capture all of Rome’s glory and contradictions in his rambling, yet entertaining narrative.
Hughes tries to convey, in only the way he does, how he views the city of Rome. “In other places fountains are special events,” he notes, “but in Rome they are simply part of the vernacular of city life; you notice them, you see them as exceptions to the surfaces of stone or brick, but it seems that they are there to be breathed, not just seen.”
Throughout Rome he gives his very personal, mostly chronological history of the city, highlighting the art and people that he deems most important or interesting. Hughes starts off by taking the reader through Rome’s beginnings, the Roman Empire and all of the magnificent art and architecture that resulted from Emperor Augustus and his successors, through the city’s shift to becoming the center of Christianity.
In his chapter on the Renaissance Hughes is truly in his element, focusing on art and architecture. He tackles not only the creation of probably Rome’s most well-known artwork, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but also the more modern controversy around whether they should have been cleaned. He has always stood firmly in the “yes” camp on that issue and reiterates his position here.
Jumping ahead to Rome in the 17th century and its Baroque period of art, Hughes enjoys talking about “bad boy” artist Caravaggio as well as Spanish painter Diego Velasquez. Velasquez only stayed there a year, but Hughes believes he was profoundly influenced by the city and its art.
When he reaches the 20th century Hughes highlights the connection between Mussolini’s fascism and art, reiterating the commonly held view that the political movement’s roots can be found in the poetry of famed Italian poet and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio. As Hughes tells it, only in Italy, only in Rome, could art and politics mix so fully.
He ends his tour of Rome with the cinema of the 1950s and ’60s. Film studio Cinecittà (also with links to Mussolini, who founded the studio to produce propaganda films in 1937) turned the city into a filming destination, both for location and subject, hosting religious epics like Ben Hur, and Quo Vadis. Native efforts with more contemporary themes, especially Fellini’s iconic La Dolce Vita changed and influenced modern cinema. He enjoys dropping fascinating tidbits such as producer Dino DiLaurentis’s desire to have Paul Newman play the character of Marcello in La Dolce Vita (sacrilege!)
The overall effect of Hughes’ Rome is like the eternal city itself. If you have never been there, whether you are diving in or just sampling, this book will make you want to visit. If you have already been to Rome in the past, Hughes easily and entertainingly reminds you why you need to return.