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Customer Review

62 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The drama of the technological sublime, July 7, 2011
This review is from: Rome (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). 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?
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 10, 2012 7:10:33 AM PDT
'Morandi gave great jug' - I think you have a new fan

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 30, 2012 3:01:26 PM PDT
Robert Giles says:
You have Misquoted Hughes;
He said Morandi was the best of the 19302 AND THEN... "Some would say" the best of the 20th century. A huge difference.
I find Morandi boring myself. De Cirico was an egomaniac, but I love the early works. And Hughes was spot on about him and so much else...except Rubens horrible stuff.

Posted on Jan 3, 2013 5:48:27 PM PST
Congratulations on a great review - considered, thoughtful, honest and really helpful in contexting this work.
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Location: Mainz, Germany

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