130 of 137 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2011
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.
60 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2011
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). His early training in architecture is much in evidence (as it is in the casual way he connects, say, the Baths of Caracalla to the design of New York's Pennsylvania station - _this_ is is the sort of reason we read him, and why reading him is worthwhile).
Also, he adores serious, formally and technically complex, art for itself, and is infectious about it: the general effect is of an opinionated, very well-read and knowledgable old guy, wandering around in an major museum that he knows extremely well (that would be Rome), digressing off in all sorts of interesting directions (digression is a Hughes speciality) with the occasional self-consciously savoured oath as he goes, who nevertheless always manages to come back to the main theme before too long, and who regularly grabs your arm to drag you off to show you something else ('you've got to see this!', or even 'you've got to see this, it's f****** marvelous!'). The presentation to camera habits of a lifetime have not worn off.
A terrific read (though it would probably be a good thing if the text was proofed a bit more carefully for the american edition). Footnotes would also be nice - there is a bibliography, but no references in the text - this was very frustrating.
The world, to be honest, probably doesn't need more books on Rome, but it can easily find place on the shelf for another book by Hughes.
P.S., There is only one strongly stated opinion (and there are lots of strongly stated opinions here) that made me blink: Giorgio Morandi gave great clay jug, but no-one can seriously think that he has claim to the title of best painter of the 20th century, can they?
75 of 81 people found the following review helpful
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. We are treated to Hughes sharp insights concerning all things Roman. He concisely describes the formidable nature of travel in 1780: "Abroad was bloody and foreigners were bastards." More charitably, Hughes resurrects the reputation of painter Antonio Canova, calling him the "last of a line of geniuses who redefined art" beginning in the 14th century and ending with Canova.
Hughes covers a long historical period and many subjects in this book. But the pace is brisk, the portraits of people and events are well chosen and the author's voice is caring and incisive. Hughes acts as Bear Leader to the reader (as Grand Tour guides referred to themselves) and never lets his charges forget how strongly he feels about the city. Rome, says Hughes, is irksome, frustrating, contradicting, spectacular and secretive. It is, in sum, "an enormous concretion of human glory and human error."
For all its faults, the city is unique and full of wonder. "Nothing exceeds the delight of one's first immersion in Rome," advises the author in his loving introduction. If you have not visited the city in person, you could do far worse than to experience your first virtual immersion in the pages of this book.
57 of 63 people found the following review helpful
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.
- 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."
- in the Australian Book Review, September 2011, Peter Stothard (Editor of The Times Literary Supplement, and author) similarly reports that "Errors abound in Robert Hughes's history of Rome", and he goes on to state that "In his lengthy account of the history of Rome, Robert Hughes is doubly, gloriously, and disgracefully careless."
To give just a very brief example of the "extraordinary number" (as stated by Stothard in his review) of errors present:
- Hughes attributes the Roman Colosseum to Emperor Nero, however the Colosseum was in fact created by Nero's successors and as a propaganda coup against Nero.
- Hughes reports that Numidian King Jugurtha died in Caligula's prison in 104 C.E. The correct date was 200 years earlier.
- Hughes claims that Augustus' tomb is routinely desecrated with trash by passersby, when in fact it is protected from this by a fence, and has been so protected for many years.
- Hughes states that parked cars are allowed around Piazza Barberini's fountain, when in fact this has been prohibited for many years.
It is a real shame - I know that there are going to be many people who have read this book and enjoyed it, and are completely unaware of these deficiencies. But that does not mean that they are OK. If Robert Hughes and his publishers wanted to produce a book with such a volume of details concerning the history of Rome, then surely they should have taken more time to get their facts correct.
I'm providing this review in order to simply give those persons who may become interested in this book a fair warning that it has been soundly criticized. Surely there are many better books to be found on this subject, that do not have such serious deficiencies.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2011
Deeply disappointing because I've been a fan of Hughes ever since I read The Fatal Shore, years ago. I had high expectations of this one...how could you go wrong writing about such a fascinating subject? Well, he's managed it. This book, though well written, is disjointed and badly organized. One minute we are looking at Julian the Apostate, then in no time at all we are at the Renaissance, with a couple of nods to the Donation of Constantine. What happened to the Dark Ages? What really ruins this book though is his sniping at Americans. You'd think there'd be little resonance between daily life in Rome and America, but Hughes finds all sorts of them: any kind of display of faith is echoed in the follies of American religious fundamentalism. The fish paste that Romans loved to eat is analogous to the tomato ketchup that naive Americans put on all their food. Etc. etc. This gets really irritating, and I'm not even an American. If I wanted to read this sort of political opinion I'd pick up Noam Chomsky....I can understand his criticism of Christianity: it's tough to read about the crusades, the Cathars, the persecution of Arians without thinking badly of the Roman Catholic church, but he overdoes this too. I'm only a third of the way through the book, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to finish it. A huge disappointment.
Now I've finished the book, and he's dropped his sneering remarks about Americans. Once he gets to the Renaissance, the book becomes not a history of Rome, but a history of Roman art: renaissance, baroque, rococo, and finally modern. I read this part with my computer on, going to the web to find illustrations of the artists and buildings he was talking about--the renaissance ones well known, and the contemporary ones I'd never heard of. But there's hardly a word about the city itself except that which is connected to painting, sculpture, and architecture. This is fine, but great swathes of history are almost totally neglected. In fairness to him, the title does say that it's a personal and artistic history, so I guess I shouldn't complain about the fact that it's not really a history of the city, as a city, at all. On the whole, though, I wish I hadn't bought it.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2011
I have enjoyed Hughes for many years, "The Fatal Shore" is a first rate history book and a good read. Rome however is neither of the above, I have been slogging through a "one damn thing after another" list of what happened in ancient Rome and now I find errors abound. I will find my information from other sources. Hughes begins the book in a very personal way and then goes on to recite a litany and puts himself in the background. He is erudite, opinionated and interesting usually; I am not sure he cared enough for his subject.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2013
I have to disagree with many of the editorial reviews of this book, which were, perhaps understandably, written by those with little prior knowledge of the subject matter. In particular, the reviewer who called the book "sharp" doesn't know his blades. I did enjoy the book - Hughes is a gifted story teller who, in the end, gets his message across on most pages of the book: he continually wants to make a point, and he always chooses the right anecdotes to support his points. So, from that perspective, the book is ok. Where it is not ok is in its factual accuracy.
At first, in an area where I know a lot about, I was just amused by the number and scale of errors. These were unforced, unnecessary errors, not helping the story at all, not simplifying, but just adding confusion. For example p.46 "Only Patricians could be elected to any office, including the all-important senatorships". This is an example of a sentence that is wrong in so many aspects that it's difficult to know what on earth Hughes actually meant. Senators were not elected, were not an office and thus were not all that important, and non-Patricians could be elected to all the magistracies (whereas Patricians couldn't be elected as Tribunes), but they couldn't be elected to certain priesthoods. About the only word in Hughes' sentence that I wouldn't have a disagreement with is "the". After a while it dawned on me that just about every page contained factual errors of similar scale. Sometimes it was due to editorial sloppiness. Completely misplaced sentences are common. On page 20 it says "All Romans were Latins but not all Latins were Romans". True, but of no relevance at all to the Abduction of the Sabine Women, given that the Sabines were not Latin, and even if they were, the sentence would be irrelevant where it was placed. But it might have made sense if it were relocated to the discussion, 10 pages later, on how Rome incorporated its allies. After a while I took to mouthing the word "wrong" each time I came across an error, and that was typically once every paragraph.
I did expect that my awareness of these howlers of fact and relevance might diminish later in the book, either due to my own lesser knowledge, or Hughes greater knowledge of other eras. To an extent my own knowledge gaps meant that I only mouthed "wrong" once every few pages rather than once per paragraph, but I suspect that many more errors of fact and relevance must have been masked by my own lack of knowledge. The confusions continue right until the very end. Hughes for example ties himself in knots of confusion trying to explain something very simple on pages 508-509: what were the new show-piece roads Mussolini built in the centre of Rome, and where did they go to. He cannot make up his mind whether Via dell'Impero or Via del Mare connects Rome with EUR and the sea (big hint: "Mare" means sea in Italian).
Such basic confusion about the geography of the ancient centre of Rome leads me to wonder whether Hughes did much more than skim Wikipedia and write a work of personal travel writing based on what he came across, added to his own opinions. But really all these errors could have been picked up in a thorough editorial review.
Postscript: having looked over other reviews after I posted my own, I see two types of criticism: the majority who, as I do, note the sloppy editing and countless errors, and a minority who criticise Hughes for his opinions and areas of focus. I don't support the latter. After all, this is travel writing. One buys travel literature precisely in order to hear the opinion of the traveller, and if one doesn't like his views on Rome then there are plenty of alternative opinions. So I cannot criticise Hughes for his opinions (e.g. on the evident misbehaviour of elements of the church over time), nor for his entertaining writing (no other reviewer passes comment on his entertaining writing style, so clearly that's a highly-thought-of aspect). The book showcases his views on Rome admirably and is written in an entertaining manner. But the editing and fact-checking was a complete shambles, and given that he was apparently suffering dementia when written, the publishers should have stepped up their game.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson: you are to squarely blame for turning this from a five star to a three star or worse book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2012
For centuries, students around the world --- whether studying mythology in elementary school, oratory and history in high school, or philosophy and ancient religion in college --- have come upon Rome. And for centuries, the curious, the romantic, the faithful and the adventurous have come to the city to be inspired, educated and awed. Art critic Robert Hughes was no different, drawn to this powerful civilization and remarkable city as a young man. He first traveled there from his native Australia in 1959 and was enthralled.
Now over 50 years later, he returns to the city with a sharp eye and even sharper pen in ROME: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. This elegant work of nonfiction is not quite history and not focused only on the visual arts, though art and history play a huge role in it. Instead, it is a sweeping exploration of Rome as more than just a city. Here, Rome is an idea, a creative energy as well as the geographic place that has bred or drawn some of the most influential minds in western civilization.
Hughes starts at the beginning, though, as he admits that "nobody can say when Rome began." Perhaps the city was founded by Romulus in the eighth-century BCE or perhaps earlier. In any case, by the second century BCE, the Romans themselves had lost the foundation of the city to the cloudiness of the past. What is clear is that when it emerges, Rome adopts the ideas of other cultures like the Etruscan and the Greek, and at the same time builds on those ideas, mingling them with their own, to create a civilization bound for greatness. Early on, the Romans proved to be skilled administrators, military men and politicians. The organizational and technological talents eventually allowed them the luxury to create fantastic works of art, the art that countless tourists flood the city to see every year.
Hughes introduces the Caesars and other early figures without resorting to a dull textbook tone. In fact, his narrative is so charming, so smart and at moments so funny that it makes for an entertaining and illuminating read. Even when explaining "Senatus Populusque Romanus," the work of the second-century jurist Ulpian or the poetry of Publius Ovidius Naso, Hughes's writing remains mostly fresh and accessible. At times the narrative gets a tad muddied, especially as the parade of emperors, orators and early Christian saints go marching quickly by. But just as it seems Hughes is about to lose control, a next section will be better written and perhaps more meticulously researched.
ROME doesn't just present the city's ancient past; here we meet medieval popes, Renaissance painters and modernist filmmakers. Raphael and Michelangelo are expected figures, as is Mussolini. Spartacus is here as well as the Medicis. But Hughes finds space for Lollia Paulina (the third wife of Caligula), futurist artist Filippo Marinetti and sculptor Giacomo Zoffoli, not to mention the scores of artists, writers and thinkers who came to Rome for a period of time or to make it their home.
Spanning thousands of years and addressing vast topics, ROME is a weighty read without ever getting too bogged down and a serious read that manages to be fun. The history and culture of Rome is a fascinating subject, and in Hughes's capable hands it is even more so. Because it is not a traditional history book but instead a book of ideas about the ideas of Rome, the pace and choice of subjects may feel strange to some. But in the end, this is Hughes's understanding of Rome. Read that way, it makes for a challenging and highly recommended book.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2012
There are folks who would gaze upon the Mona Lisa and say "I don't like the frame"...and walk away with nary a further thought or comment.
Just finished the book on Rome by Hughes and it was a fun ride. Gosh, to think a book covering centuries with untold numbers of facts might have some errors? And there's...gasp... some "repetition"...oh my.
I lived in Rome 40 years ago and am always fascinated by the city and it's influence on art and history. This book filled in some areas. I only wish Hughes was as funny and critical throughout the book as he was in the end part where he really lets loose on the death of culture in Rome.
And I don't agree with him always; I will always think that Rubens was one of the worst painters ever. But who cares. He goes into detail about MANY things I've always wondered about. It aint the be all, end all of books on Rome but it sure beats the hell out of many. It doesn't PRETEND to be anything other than what it is; one man's view (and love) of Rome. Sadly, Hughes died very soon after and didn't have the time to get it all perfect and tied up in a nice bow for the wanna be critics. He was on his last frail legs (literally) and suffering greatly as he did this book. I for one, loved it.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2012
It was with great anticipation that I bought this book. What a mistake. I bogged down badly about 40% of the way through it and really don't know whether to bother any more. As everyone stated, factual errors abound, the writing is uneven to say the least, and the timeline of events is confused, confusing, and simply impossible to follow. Fatal Shore was good, Barcelona not so much, but this is really quite a sad event in this author's career.