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Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 1, 2011
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“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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A great study, the first critic to explode absurd, conventional ideas about culture and not tolerate the evaluations of the unintelligent.
Robert Hughes fell in love with Rome. He fell in love with Rome the same way I fell in love with London, with Istanbul. Through myth and legend and story:
"For a time in my adolescence - not knowing Rome in any but the sketchiest way - I longed to be a Roman expatriate ... I was nuts about the idea of Rome ..."
Most of all - and this is something that Rome has in quantities that my particular loves can only dream of - he fell in love with art:
[An elderly Jesuit from his school in Australia, who traveled to Rome from time to time] "would bring back postcards, sedulously and with obvious pleasure gleaned from their racks in various museums and churches ... : Caravaggios, Bellinis, Michaelangelos."
It was art that brought him, eventually, to Rome where, before laying eyes on so much as one Rafael, he realized that right there in front of him was the most important work of art in the entire city. The city itself.
"Nothing exceeds the delight of one's first immersion in Rome on a fine spring morning ... The enveloping light can be of an incomparable clarity, throwing into gentle vividness every detail presented to the eye. First, the color, which was not like the color of other cities I had been in. Not concrete color, not cold glass color, not the color of overburned brick or harshly pigmented paint. Rather, the worn organic colors of the ancient earth and stone of which the city is composed, the colors of limestone, the ruddy gray of tufa, the warm discoloration of once-white marble and the speckled, rich surface of the marble known as pavonazzo, dappled with white spots and inclusions like the fat in a slice of mortadella."
I remember those colors, and if I'd had Hughes' critical eye I might have seen them so. I might have fallen in love with Rome the way I fell in love with Venice. With the color of the stones and the quality of the light on a rainy day.
Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History is all of that. Hughes gives us his personal history of Rome, from the fables of Romulus, Remus, and Aeneas to the fabulous Berlusconi, skimming swiftly over politics and personalities in order to settle down every few pages with a building, a fountain, a painting, a statue. With the stuff that matters. With the stuff that remains.