Robert Hughes, Rome, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2011)
Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic famous for his account of the convict system, The Fatal Shore, died in New York last month. Rome was his last work. Sadly, it is also his worst. Anyone who has read The Fatal Shore will be familiar with Hughes' pungent wit. The man clearly loved the sound of his own voice - but what a voice !
Rome, Hughes declares, was to be a history and travelogue of a city he loved. But it is clear he spent little time there and was unfamiliar with much of its history. The first section, which covers the foundation of the City by Romulus and Remus up to the fall of the Roman Empire, seems to have been cobbled together from lecture notes and is replete with errors. In one glaring example, the Emperor Augustus is described as Julius Caeser's son (he was his grand-nephew).
The book improves significantly when Hughes reaches the Renaissance and Baroque due to his familiarity with the great artists of the time and their works. But even then, the book drains into a thinly-connected series of biographers of one painter and sculptor after another. The City itself barely gets a look in. The following chapters on modern Italy up to Berlusconi's time are schematic and not particularly interesting.
Sometimes, the Great Man throws out one of his characteristic bon mots. But not often. In fairness to Hughes, he was under in significant discomfort while completing the book, having been seriously injured in a car accident. But his editors have much to answer for. If you are unfamiliar with the history of western Europe, you may benefit from reading Rome. But if you like Robert Hughes and history, you will be disappointed.