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Robert Hughes

Rome - as a city, as an empire, as an enduring idea - is in many ways the origin of everything Robert Hughes has spent his life thinking and writing about with such dazzling irreverence and exacting rigour. In this magisterial book he traces the city’s history from its mythic foundation with Romulus and Remus to Fascism, Fellini and beyond. For almost a thousand years, Rome held sway as the spiritual and artistic centre of the world. Hughes vividly recreates the ancient Rome of Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Nero, Caligula, Cicero, Martial and Virgil. With the artistic blossoming of the Renaissance, he casts his unwavering critical eye over the great works of Raphael, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi, shedding new light on the Old Masters. In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Rome’s cultural predominance was assured, artists and tourists from all over Europe converged on the city. Hughes brilliantly analyses the defining works of Caravaggio, Velasquez, Rubens and Bernini. Hughes' Rome is a vibrant, contradictory, spectacular and secretive place; a monument both to human glory and human error. This deeply personal account reflects his own complex relationship with a city he first visited as a wide-eyed twenty-year-old, thirsting for the sights, sounds, smells and tastes he had only read about or seen in postcard reproductions. In equal parts loving, iconoclastic, enraged and wise, peopled with colourful figures and rich in unexpected details, ROME is an exhilarating journey through the story of one of the world’s most timelessly fascinating cities.


Robert Hughes is Australia’s – and perhaps the world’s – most famous art critic. He’s famous for his combination of erudition and accessibility, resulting in a series of terrifically readable books, with The Shock of the New (1980, his third book), The Fatal Shore (1987), Culture of Complaint (1993) and most recently, Things I Didn’t Know (2006) among them.

The magic of Hughes is his way of leading the reader through his chosen subject, explaining, describing and debating it so vividly and enthusiastically that both his knowledge and his passion are irresistibly infectious. (‘Nothing exceeds the delight of one’s first immersion in Rome on a fine spring morning.’) His work suits relative newcomers to his subjects and aficionados alike – a rare talent. And, of course, despite the impressive breadth of knowledge and thought he brings, it is his lively, elegant, impeccably stylish writing that is the true joy of his work.

I have to confess that Rome arrived on the last day of production for Readings Monthly, so I’ve only just cracked the spine and read the prologue and opening chapter … but I can say that I’m already hooked. By way of introducing his topic, Hughes takes us back to his first encounter with Rome, as a 20-year-old Australian architecture student, dazzled by the place, the art, the architecture, the food and the history. ‘How would one know if art of any kind was any good?’ he muses in reflection. ‘Mainly – if not only – by going to Rome and seeing the real thing in the real place.’ He had hoped Rome would deliver him sophistication, taste, spirituality and earthly delights – and confides that it mostly delivered.

This book is a thrilling tour of the city that has profoundly shaped Hughes, as a critic and a person. Rome – as a city, an empire, and an enduring idea – is in many ways the origin of everything he has spent his life thinking and writing about. Here, he traces the city’s beginnings, from its mythic foundation with Romulus and Remus. He recreates the Ancient Rome of Julius Caesar, Caligula, and Virgil. And with the artistic blossoming of the Renaissance, he casts his critical eye over the great works of the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo, shedding new light on the Old Masters.

I’ll leave the last word to a critic who has read the entire book, rather than lingering over the opening pages – Jonathan Keates, writing in the UK’s Literary Review: ‘[Hughes] is a writer who does nothing by halves, and Rome positively crackles with his splenetic downrightness (any clarifying subtitle for the book has been deemed unnecessary). We enjoy reading Hughes precisely because he avoids any of that corseted coyness which characterises too much art-historical writing nowadays. Thankfully not having to worry about securing professorial tenure at a university or gaining a coveted gallery curatorship, he can speak with the candour of a visceral enthusiasm, savaging mediocrity and rhapsodically defending excellence.’

If you have any interest in Rome –for its long history, its thousand-year cultural dominance, its myths, or its art – I urge you to feast on Rome, with Robert Hughes as the perfect tour guide.

Jo Case is Editor of Readings Monthly

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