Travel literature review: Rome

Rome by Robert Hughes

Rating: 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Wayne Murphy

As a past student of Roman history, I began Robert HughesRome with excitement and enthusiasm. An entire book focussing on Rome? Let me at it! Then, I read the prologue...

Wading through a morass of purple prose that seemed to have been only lightly edited I soon found my enthusiasm waning. I’ve visited and marvelled at the wonder of Rome, I love history and Roman history especially, and yet Hughes’ introduction to the city made me doubt I had the strength to endure over the tome on the titular Eternal City. And yet, somehow I did.

Was it worth it? I’m still not sure. As a historian, Robert Hughes makes a great art critic.

The initial chapters are laden with errors. Dates, names and events are mangled with impunity, but fortunately these initial chapters detailing the early history of Rome are not without their charm. I looked forward to learning more of Rome’s Dark Ages and ploughed onwards, only to be faced with disappointment. Without warning, over 500 years of history are summarily skipped over, accelerating the reader abruptly from the latter days of the Roman Empire directly into the Renaissance.

Here, some readers may decide Hughes has hit his stride, for he embraces the artistic flourishes of the Renaissance with gusto. Others may find the middle half of the book to be merely a laundry list of Italian artists, some with only tangential links to Rome herself. As the years pass and Hughes’ recounting proceeds, the book wanders away from Rome into a jumbled dissertation of Italian art movements, Fascism and even the bizarre eating habits of the Futurists. Even an entertainingly scathing denouncement of Berlusconi’s Rome of today does little to salvage what, upon reflection, is an overly long and variably successful recounting of the history of Rome and its people.

They say in every fat man is a thin man trying to escape, and I feel the same applies to Hughes’ Rome. If Hughes had merely attempted an art history of Rome, or had restrained himself in the breadth and detail of some sections, this could have been a consistently entertaining read. Unfortunately, the inconstant delivery, lack of attention to detail in the early stages and over-slavish commitment to recounting Roman artists and their works has resulted in a work that is, like Rome, crammed with interesting elements yet ultimately flawed in many ways.

Perhaps in this respect, Hughes has succeeded after all.

Wayne Murphy is a cartographic designer who works in Lonely Planet’s Melbourne office. His trip to Rome will always be a highlight of his travel exploits that, fortunately, even reading Robert Hughes’ Rome cannot tarnish.

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