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Rambling Roman à clef

Do we need another book on Rome? Or, for that matter, another more or less autobiographical book by Robert Hughes?

His new Rome starts with a familiar recital: the privileged childhood in Sydney, the scholastic Jesuits, disenchanting bondieuseries (devotional objects), Sydney bohemia, London bohemia, Cosmopolis. All are described with his biting wit and engagement.

And then his personal Rome. He arrives in the vast theatre of St Peter’s Piazza sideways and by mistake, but that provides the shock which initiates a passionate involvement with the city, its origins, its dialect, its markets as well as its monuments − and ends, foreseeably, in the squalor of Berlusconi’s burlesque television circus.

It is all told episodically: origins, Republic, Empire, the arrival of the Christians, the Cathars, Crusades and the Avignon Papacy; Renaissance; Baroque; neo-classical Grand Tour; Pio Nono and Italian Unity; Futurism and Fascism.

The book has been wretchedly edited. Some paragraphs read as if someone just forgot to press the ‘delete’ key, and there are slips that I can’t bring myself to ascribe to Hughes − such as a dungeon scene in Verdi’s [sic] Tosca. Except for the last chapters, none of the information is new and some of it is all over the place. Reading the book continuously is like listening to an intelligent pianist playing a jumbled Beethoven sonata and scattering it with false notes.

But it would be a very intelligent, as well as a very sensitive pianist. When writing directly about works of art that have marked him, as did the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Hughes is not only fulsome, but sharp and tender, as well as to the point: his remarks on the angry polemics which broke over the restoration (he was lucky to spend three days on the restorer’s scaffolding) are informed and judicious.

In the same way, the last two sections of the book, which deal with the time after the War, offer as sensible an account of Italian painting and sculpture of that
period as you are likely to get. He is perceptive about Arte Povera and the later Transvanguardia. He is less assured about the buildings, unaware it appears of Marcello Piacentini, the dominant figure of Roman architecture in the 1920s, ’30s and well into the ’50s − in spite of his having been Mussolini’s favoured architect, responsible for the vast University buildings and the site of the aborted World’s Fair of 1940. The same holds true for the EUR, as well as the wretched Via della Conciliazione, the avenue of obelisks leading to St Peter’s Basilica, planned in the 1930s and finished in time for the Holy Year of 1950; and he misses (for once − it is one of the things he is rather good on) the Roman jibe which called them Supposte del Ano Santo ‘suppositories of the holy anus’.

The omission of Piacentini is odd, because Hughes writes so well about Mario Sironi, whose largest painting, a vast panorama of Roman history, still graces (the word seems apposite) the stage wall of the University of Rome’s main hall, which Piacentini designed. He is appreciative and just about Sironi, and it leads him to raise the problem of an artist’s excellence when he is inspired by an unworthy ideology. It is an old problem, to which the fall of Fascism gave a new urgency. The best architect of the period, Giuseppe Terragni, was a devoted Fascist, even though he was assertively ‘European’. He suffered an unexplained nervous breakdown when he was sent to the Russian front; on being repatriated home, he constantly excused himself for his past views to anyone who would listen in the year remaining until his death.

At any rate, his best-known building is the Casa del Fascio in his native Como, and as Hughes points out, it incorporates his revolutionary vision of Fascist ideology (why he finds it ‘Miesian’, I can’t think − nor did it ever have the portrait of Mussolini on the blank facade − though there were projects for it), and it has remained one of the principal monuments of the town. So there is inevitable embarrassment not only about their political attitudes but − as with Sironi − in coming to terms with some of their best works.

All that is incidental to the story. After all, this is a book about Rome. You can organise a book about a city either topographically or chronologically, and Hughes has opted for the second approach, though he is not very good on Rome’s origins nor does he appear to be interested in what archaeologists have discovered there recently. Topography tends to get in the way of the chronicle − so that the section on Early Christian Rome includes a long excursus on the Trastevere district, on its dialect as well as on the satirist poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, who wrote voluminously in it during the early 19th century. Still he does get Belli right.

More importantly, Hughes is well worth reading on Sixtus V (the only man in Europe she would consider marrying, Queen Elizabeth I is reported to have said), though the author does appear too censorious, I think, about his project of turning the Colosseum into a textile factory. It is a pity that as he gets nearer to our times, the city disappears under the chronology. Pages are devoted to a summary account of the Risorgimento as well as to the troubles of Pius IX and Pius X with what came to be known as ‘Modernism’, though Hughes is as fair as can be expected to both popes.

To sum up my bemusement: I can’t quite urge you to go out and buy the book at once. For a guide it is too rambling, and it is too episodic and unreliable to work as a handbook. But if it comes your way, don’t reject it. It really is a very good read. Hughes will engage you even if you jib − as I did − at a lot of the detail. If you want an agreeable, general account of the Eternal City or need encouragement to embark on a visit, you can welcome it as a friendly and alluring companion.

Rambling Roman à clef, Rome

Author: Robert Hughes

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Price: £25

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