Here at Rome the Second Time, we’re interested in all things Roman, with an emphasis on the 20th century and contemporary Rome. That isn’t Robert Hughes’s favorite period, to say the least. He appreciates some recent figures in Rome’s cultural history, particularly Mario Sironi, Giorgio de Chirico (early work only), Federico Fellini, and Ernest La Padula, the architect of the “Square Colosseum” at EUR. But mostly he sees Rome’s not-so-distant past—the last two centuries—as a period of tragic decline in the arts and architecture, one captured in the reign of Silvio Berlusconi, when Rome was “gutted by the huge and ruthless takeover of its imagination by mass tourism and mass media….”
We don’t think it’s quite that bad, but we didn’t read the book for its take on the modern era, which we know well enough, and it’s not why we are recommending it here. We’re recommending ROME because Hughes is a fine storyteller, able to capture the essence of the Punic wars in less than 10 pages; because he understands how individuals link to, and represent, the larger currents of history—how, for example, Bernini, “the marble megaphone of papal orthodoxy,” served the counter-reformation. We enjoyed his quirkiness (sections on Rome’s public toilets and on the technology used to move giant obelisks); his biases (he seems to favor realist artists—Poussin, Caravaggio, Guttuso—in every era); his skepticism of religion and, especially, Catholicism (don’t miss his critique of “Mariolatry,” the cult of the virgin); his concern with ideas (“the Caesars underwrote leisure, the blank tablet on which amusement is written”). Some reviewers have noted errors in the book, and we wish he hadn’t put parked cars inside Piazza Barberini or Lake Erie in Illinois, but ROME has too much to offer—too much pleasure, too much erudition, too much of the author's delightful irascibility—to condemn it, or the author, for such lapses.