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. The “city of the imagination,” he writes, is “mostly white ... white cylinders of stone gleaming in the sun ... white ramps, white colonnades, flights of white steps ... White people inhabit this townscape of course and they are wearing white togas.” But the real colors of Rome were terra cotta, brick red, and tawny stone, and most of its people lived in a city that was “crowded, chaotic, and filthy ... tall jerry-built tottering blocks of flats known as insulae.”
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 a 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. White, in any sense, it ain’t. If what you’re looking for is measured judiciousness—the bloodless mediocrity of the evenhanded—go elsewhere. Over and over in Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, Hughes, sometimes sounding like Tacitus after a bad night, makes inspired connections between the follies of Now and the excesses of Then. The garden of the Pompeian house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto reminds him of “the terrace of Luigi’s Pasta Palace in coastal New Jersey.” The self-consciousness of 16th-century Mannerist painting, all “arty metaphors and elaborate concetti,” is the ancestor of the “fatuous” stuff “that would come to be praised as ‘postmodernism’ four centuries later: pedantic, clever-clever, garrulous, and full of weightless quotation.”
So when he tells you, in the subtitle, that this is a personal history, you’d better believe it. Sometimes Hughes just can’t help buttonholing you—his hands on your lapels, lion’s eye locked onto yours—with the last brilliant thought he’s just had. But more often than not, they are genuine illuminations. The Pantheon—for Hughes and many of the rest of us the acme of Roman architecture—strikes the “alert visitor ... less by its great age than its inexhaustible newness.” To imagine Bramante’s St. Peter’s in its original form, you need (as indeed you must) go to Santa Maria della Consolazione, where Bramante’s church “simply emerges from the earth, flooded with light inside. No mosaics, no statuary, no gilt, no marble: only strong, ideal, geometric form.”
Sometimes Hughes makes the counterintuitive into the only possible truth. The power of Raphael’s platoon of philosophers, The School of Athens, is not its legendary composure but an energy “almost as animated as a battle piece, crisscrossed with vectors of agreement, exposition, and surprise.” He hails Nicolas Poussin, conventionally celebrated for gem-like classical severity, for conveying the sensuous “earthiness of the world” (even though his publishers have supplied the wrong version of Et in Arcadia Ego to illustrate Hughes’s pleasure in a “long-thighed” shepherdess). Over and over, his epigrams nail it. Borromini’s lantern in Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza is “flamelike and aerial”; the Fascist hero-heavyweight Primo Carnera is “the King Kong of the ring.” And after giving us the pretentious ramblings of the Futurist Filippo Marinetti on Fascist poetry—“the fervor of fecund work, in human acts of salvation, material or spiritual”—Hughes comments with the lapidary force of a chunk of masonry dropped on the pumped-up bloviation: “All was now as limpid as the bed of the Tiber.”
Don’t go to Hughes’s Rome expecting sustained inquiries into long-term historical change. Despite the fact that they seem literary soulmates, not least in the asperity of their wit, the calculated cadence of their syntax, and the vividness of their picturing, Hughes barely touches on the great issue that consumed Edward Gibbon’s life and gave him the title for his multivolume masterpiece. Unlike the 18th-century historian, Hughes implies rather than asserts that Christianity had much to do with ancient Rome’s decline. Early intimations of imperial mortality don’t get much space. Marcus Aurelius seems to interest Hughes more in the form of his equestrian statue than his Meditations—and Hadrian, embattled from Scotland to Judea, more surprisingly barely gets a look other than as the master builder of the stupendous Tivoli and the besotted adorer of the boytoy Antinous.
Yet no 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. Of course, the material is fabulous. Nero’s favorite pastime “was to prowl the alleys of his imperial capital with a gang of friends and bash strangers insensible,” depositing anyone who had the temerity to resist in a sewer. The gladiator-emperor Commodus rampages around the Colosseum “lopping off the heads of terrified ostriches like some madman in a park decapitating tulips with a swing of his walking stick.” But Hughes is after something more serious than picturesque entertainment. Defying the art-historical dogma that All Is Context, he reverts unapologetically, like Vasari, to a heroic view of creativity. Against those who would see history as moved by the slow, impersonal forces of demography and social structure, he sees it shaken and altered by the likes of Augustus Caesar and Nicholas V, the Renaissance pope who was determined to re-create from the ruins of antiquity a new Christian Rome. Likewise Hughes is unembarrassed about genius, recognizing that Caravaggio and Bernini transformed their respective arts in ways undreamed of by predecessors and less visionary contemporaries.
It’s not just the famous who get Hughes’s attention. There are some lovely pages devoted to the likes of the 18th-century wholesaler of antiquities, Thomas Jenkyns, and to the slightly melancholy figure of Pompeo Batoni, who, following the failure of his Fall of Simon Magus to find a place in St. Peter’s, became the mass producer of portraits for caravans of snooty British milords on the Grand Tour. And when Hughes descends from Parnassus to the physical matter of power and spectacle, he manages to make literature out of engineering. There’s a love song to Roman concrete that will stay with you as long as the stuff itself does, and if you fancy hewing an obelisk from granite—and shlepping it across town like Pope Sixtus V—Hughes will tell you exactly how.
Without laboring the point, Hughes catches in this exhilarating, rambunctious book something that has eluded more solemnly exhaustive accounts: the attraction of Romans to the mastery of mass and volume. It was that feeling for engineering space and spectacle that distinguished them from the Greek passion for refinement, or Florence’s narcissistic addiction to the graceful. Rome’s political and cultural chest-beating—its orgiastic indulgence in extreme power play, whether on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or in the blood-boltered sand of the Colosseum—might, depending on its forms of expression, be crudely vainglorious or sublimely exalted. But it reaches deep into an elemental desire for the marvelous. To behold the greatest of Rome’s masterpieces is, Hughes writes, to be shown “what you cannot imagine doing, which is the beginning of wisdom.”