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Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 1, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“In his engrossing, passionately written new book, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, Robert Hughes, the former art critic for Time magazine and the author of critically acclaimed works like The Fatal Shore, gives us a guided tour through the city in its many incarnations, excavating the geologic layers of its cultural past and creating an indelible portrait of a city in love with spectacle and power . . . The reader need not agree with Mr. Hughes’s acerbic assessments or even be interested in Rome as a destination on the map to relish this volume, so captivating is his narrative. Although his book is a biography of Rome, it is also an acutely written historical essay informed by his wide-ranging knowledge of art, architecture and classical literature, and a thought-provoking meditation on how gifted artists (like Bernini and Michelangelo) and powerful politicians and church leaders (like Augustus, Mussolini and Pope Sixtus V) can reshape the map and mood of a city. . . . razor-sharp portraits . . . intriguing asides . . . vigorous, pictorial prose.” —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

“A fascinating personal history of the Italian capital, “Rome” begins with an exegesis on the founding myth of Romulus and Remus and ends with a rant about how the city has lost its “Dolce Vita”-era glory.” —Stephen Heyman, New York Times Magazine blog
“. . . freewheeling, massive, magisterial . . . It’s very much, as billed in the subtitle, a “personal” history—one animated by historical persons and personalities as seen through the personality of the author. . . . our guide conjures up a well-known work of genius and makes it new, moving effortlessly from biography to art to engineering as he illuminates its every detail.” —Will Heinrich, New York Observer
“Ever since Livy dipped his quill and Gibbon marked his proofs, histories of Rome have been a dime a dozen. But there is only one Robert Hughes—only one writer, it’s safe to say, who would describe the ancient city as ‘Calcutta on the Mediterranean’ and then convince you of the rightness of that vision. . . . This is vintage Hughes, and reading his strenuous, argumentative, vitally impassioned prose you are reminded just how insipid, prim, and nervously conventional most history and art history writing is. Hughes could be writing about Lady Gaga’s choice of nail polish or manuals of plumbing and it would still be tonic. In fact, being the kind of writer whose head—even when communing with Michelangelo—is never lost in the stars, he does write about Roman plumbing, and reminds us that the word itself has everything to do with the lead from which its engineering masterpieces were fashioned. So although the ostensible subject of his book is the Eternal City, the real tour d’horizon it offers is a walking tour of the hard-structured, brightly lit, and capacious expanse that is the Hughes brain. It’s an organ that is Olympian—in that it can survey, in a unified vision, the rolling sweep of the centuries—but without any other sort of lofty detachment. . . . [N]o one will put this book down feeling deprived of historical company, for it is essentially history as portrait gallery—almost all of it painted with unforgettable sharpness. . . . Without laboring the point, Hughes catches in this exhilarating, rambunctious book something that has eluded more solemnly exhaustive accounts.” —Simon Schama, Newsweek
“Robert Hughes wastes no time luring readers into his love affair with Rome. . . . Like the Rome of his description, Hughes is driven by appetites and passions. His big books are feasts of information, opinion and fascinating detail—too much to digest but nourishing even in small bites. Rome is one of those. It’s a sweeping, personal history that races from the city’s beginnings to its current state as a woefully crowded tourist attraction. Fortunately, the author pauses for Hughes-style reflection. No ordinary tour guide, he makes the story compelling by focusing on art. With typical bravado, wit and rage, he puts art and architecture in sharp social, political, religious and historical context.” —Suzanne Muchnic, Los Angeles Times
“With elegance and beauty, Hughes majestically conducts us through the rich history of Rome . . . In a delightful guide, Hughes—whose The Shock of the New was recently named by Britain's Guardian one of the 100 greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century—provides a sometimes cantankerous but always captivating tour through the remarkable depth and breadth of the ancient city.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred)

About the Author

Robert Hughes was born in Australia in 1938. Since 1970 he has lived and worked in the United States, where until 2001 he was chief art critic for Time, to which he still contributes. His books include The Shock of the New, The Fatal Shore, Nothing If Not Critical, Barcelona, Goya, and Things I Didn't Know. He is the recipient of a number of awards and prizes for his work.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (November 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780307268440
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307268440
  • ASIN: 0307268446
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #635,810 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert Hughes was born in Australia in 1938 and has lived in Europe and the United States since 1964. Since 1970 he has worked in New York as an art critic for Time Magazine. He has twice received the Franklin Jeweer Mather Award for Distinguished Criticism from the College Art Association of America.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

132 of 139 people found the following review helpful By Maynard Mack Jr. on December 9, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Robert Hughes' Rome is a big book, a rich book, and, sadly, a careless book. It is worth reading, if you can ignore the repetitions and the occasional outright mistake (ranging from the order of some of the Caesars to the plot of Shakespeare's King Lear). Hughes tells us that the project was pushed on him by his agent--shame on her. Hughes seems simply not to know enough to write a book about Rome from 800 BCE to today. Who would? His past work has usually been totally informed and incisive; long sections of the new Rome book are little more than medium length reviews of familiar material, punctuated, too rarely, with the brilliant, stimulating opinions and opinionatedness of the author. I suspect we are also seeing here signs of what everyone says will be more and more common (and something Amazon itself is trying to bring to pass): inadequate, or no, editing. After putting together this huge 500 page book, a no-longer-young Hughes was entitled to a first rate editor, who could easily have rescued him from the minor but constant and annoying repetitions that fill the book. Hughes deserved this careful editing; his readers deserved it too. So buy the book, read it, enjoy it (you will), but shame on lots of folks involved for bringing us a bold effort plagued with minor distractions and a few whopper outright mistakes--enough to make a careful reader mistrust what he or she is reading. A fine, opinionated author like Hughes can't afford such sloppiness.
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60 of 62 people found the following review helpful By S. Matthews on July 7, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
Hughes got a bit of a whacking from Mary 'they had it coming' Beard in the Guardian for this recently, who threw a scholarly hissy fit on the grounds that the first three chapters were full of historical whoppers. I think Beard, whose verdict was, essentially, 'pulp it', which she then backtracked into reluctant, somewhat watery praise, glossed with 'skip the first chapters', overstates the case wildly. I found a fair number of mistakes in the beginning, but they are all pretty minor, and are easily explained by poor copy editing (maybe I missed something, I'm certainly not going to go into the ring against Mary Beard), but are really neither here nor there. It is certainly true that the beginning is sort of the higher schoolboy history, and it doesn't look to take account of recent scholarship ('yeah, including my work on Roman Triumphs', I can hear Beard snarling from the back of the room) but that sort of detail isn't really important, and, if you were to take her advice, you'd miss some great stuff. What Hughes is extremely good at is both visceral reactions to serious art, and the supporting technological nitty gritty. He really gets carried away not just about art, but about civil engineering in its service. For instance he has a great discussion of the details, not just of how to design and build an aquaduct, but also the ongoing maintenence issues after the thing is up and running, and the like. He stops too for an extended explanation of why the Pantheon has good claim to being the greatest achievement in structural engineering ever, anywhere. And later there is a loving description of how, under the popes, the various obelisks where brought up vertical again, or even relocated while standing (a non-trivial problem).Read more ›
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75 of 81 people found the following review helpful By The Ginger Man VINE VOICE on November 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Hughes' Roman biography moves chronologically from the foundation of the city through events of the fascist era. While his previous book about Barcelona is social history, Rome combines cultural, visual and personal history with straightforward political and military narrative.

The focus of Hughes analysis depends on the historical period under consideration. In his chapter on the founding of the city, Hughes confines himself largely to political developments including the first and second Punic wars, the rise and fall of Julius Caeser and the ascent of Octavius. Similarly, his history of the nineteenth century includes tales of Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, Pope Pius IX, the Syllabus of Errors and ultramontanism. Along the way, Hughes pauses occasionally to provide the reader with aesthetic insights. He criticizes the Vittoriano monument, for example, on both aesthetic and historical grounds: "Neither in design nor in material does the typewriter look Roman, and, in point of fact, it is not."

In his chapter on the Renaissance, however, Hughes focuses almost exclusively on art and architectural history including discussion of Brunelleschi, Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo. His work is especially illuminating in sections such as the one covering the Grand Tour and Neoclassicism. Here, Hughes brings to bear his formidable understanding of cultural history to reveal less widely known facts about Roman history. We meet leading English purveyors of inauthentic Italian antiquities Thomas Jenkins and James Byres, first choice for foreigners wanting Roman portraits Pompeo Batoni, master of more than 1,000 engravings of Roman architecture Giovanni Battista Piranesi and inventor of archeological categories Johann Jonachim Winkelmann.
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57 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Phil (not) in Mågnoliá TOP 100 REVIEWER on December 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book represents itself as a readable, narrative history of Rome, covering the period beginning over two thousand years ago and continuing to the present day. It is written by Robert Hughes, an accomplished and highly respected writer, and there are plenty of positive reviews in the U.S. press (many of them helpfully provided by Amazon on the product page for this book) that attest to the quality of the writing ("captivating", "engrossing", "passionately written", and so forth).

Unfortunately, other critical reviewers - who are knowledgeable about the history of Rome and of the many historical incidents and backgrounds that are given in the book - have pointed out that it is full of errors. In fact, it is simply inexcusable that they were not corrected, if not before initial publication, then surely before the book was released in the U.S.

You see, this book was released in the U.K. and Australia 6 months prior to its U.S. release, and immediately knowledgeable reviewers proceeded to point out the many errors contained in the writing. Those could have been corrected before the book was released in the U.S., but they were not. They could have delayed its release in the U.S. in order to fix these problems, but they did not.

For example:

- in The Guardian, 6/29/11, reviewer Mary Beard (herself a Cambridge scholar and author), states that "The first half of the book, especially the three chapters dealing with the early history of Rome, from Romulus to the end of pagan antiquity, is little short of a disgrace - to both author and publisher. It is riddled with errors and misunderstandings that will mislead the innocent and infuriate the specialist.
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