I just finished reading Rome: a cultural, visual and personal history. I expected to enjoy it—Robert Hughes is an entertaining writer—but in the end I was studying it like a crime scene investigator.
Hughes has lost it. The astute aphorist has become an unreliable, rambling bore.
I had already read Peter Stothard’s detailed evisceration of Rome. Mary Beard agreed, but cheerfully advised that once Hughes got to the Renaissance, “he is well in command of his material and is on characteristically cracking form.”
But that was way too charitable.
The book is a disgraceful ramble through anything remotely related to the city of Rome, the Roman empire, or Italy past or present.
This would be OK if Hughes wrote with the wicked concision of his art criticism. Instead the pages are full of pointless guidebook gunk—a synopsis of the Aeneid, an outline of the Donation of Constantine, the program of the Sistine Chapel frescos, the plot of La Dolce Vita, …. God help us.
His crankiness, which gives his account of contemporary art such spice, is here just cluelessness.
Why in the world does Hughes provide a detailed account of the career of a very minor conceptual artist, Piero Manzoni, who has no connections to the city, but then dismisses Rossellini’s Rome Open City, an indelible representation of the place, with a single word ("classic"). A word that Hughes encases in scare quotes, for reasons also known only to himself.
And some of his other comments are just astonishing: “It is an extremely sexy sculpture, and should be, since its subject is a rape …” Oh really?
Somebody take this guy’s computer away from him.