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Robert Hughes photographed in Toronto in 2006

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

It is the best of cities, it is the worst of cities. Rome has been, over the millennia, home to some of the most ambitious and inspiring achievements of civilization (Virgil, the Sistine Chapel, Bernini), and of course home to some of the most despicable and inane (Nero, Mussolini, Italian TV).

The Eternal City has been eternally in flux, from its mythical founding on April 21, 753 BC, to its dominance in the years of Augustus and Hadrian, to being close to bankruptcy and home to a mere 25,000 people in the late 1500s, to the current financial and economic woes of its three million inhabitants.

It takes an expansive and inclusive imagination to capture such a city and Robert Hughes is, for the most part, up to the task. The author of such seminal art books as American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America and a previous city book, Barcelona (in which he examines the foliage, trunk and roots of that complex city), Hughes is one of only a few who could tackle Rome: warts, fountains, plaster and all.

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"I have eaten, slept, looked until I was exhausted, and sometimes felt as though I had walked my toes to mere stubs in Rome," he tells us. He then proceeds to walk us through the city's history, art, architecture, literature, politics and popular culture.

Hughes is most comfortable, most capacious, when discussing the world of visual art. Commentaries and opinions on Caravaggio ("He wanted to see reality head-on … down to the last callused foot and dirty fingernail"), Bernini ("He was the marble megaphone of papal orthodoxy in the seventeenth century"), and Michelangelo ("there is something disquietingly irrational about the scene [ The Last Judgment] Why does Jesus look more like a relentless Apollonian Greek god than the 'normal' judge and Saviour of other Last Judgments?") are almost always feisty and challenging.

Hughes is less comfortable discussing the literature and its cultural influences. Virgil's Aeneid is given a synopsis worthy of a first-draft Wikipedia article, Lucretius gets one parenthetical comment, and although Gabriele D'Annunzio gets significant attention, the six Italians who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature are all forgotten, other than one cursory mention of Pirandello.

I know that this is not meant to be a scholarly work, but other than a spotty bibliography, there are no specific credits for many of the people that have led Hughes to germane quotations and historical insights. Where did he find the great quotation about the various orifices of Mussolini's mother, or those spicy stories about the many bizarre and corrupt early popes? Other than guesswork, there is no way of knowing.

Hughes is at his best when he puffs up a bit, when he gets bombastic and brash: "Bed, undoubtedly, was the poor man's opera," he says about how some 18th-century Romans entertained themselves. And writing about the Catholic Church's assumption that Mary had been saved from earthly corruption by having been taken up, body and soul, to heaven: "Perhaps she was, but so far the sight of those pristine blue robes in outer space has eluded the world's observatories."

No one can forget visiting Rome for the first time. For me, it was a few days of holiday during my third year of university, spent in Ireland. I wandered aimlessly around the city, dodged traffic on my way to visit various fountains and other sites, meandered through the Borghese Gardens, and stayed at a hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps. Before this, I had never felt history with every step, never inhaled history with every breath.

Rome has been called the "goddess of lands and peoples, whom nothing can equal" (by Martial); "the queen of the world" (by Castiglione and Raphael); the city "of those who cannot die" (by Shelley); "a parasitic city of landladies, shoeshine boys, prostitutes and bureaucrats" (by Mussolini), and "the school of the world" (by Hughes).

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Reading this book, you cannot help but appreciate that civilization is not a continual, ordained march forward. There are switchbacks and stupidities, geniuses and imbeciles, world wars and civil wars, and overwhelming desires to create and entertain. Civilization, as refracted through the history of this labyrinthine city, is messy, at times self-immolating, swirling, ecstatic.

When Hughes merely rumbles through the insights of others, or starts gnawing on things that he has trouble digesting, the story can get rather stale and uninspiring. When he allows his own idiosyncratic sympathies to guide his writing, we get closer to understanding the tangled tale of this arousing city – a city that has always been driven by its extravagant appetites.

Peter O'Brien is writing a book about studying Latin with his teen-aged daughter.

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