Ancient and modern: Tourists at the Pantheon, just one of Rome's timeless enticements
Where do you start with a project like Robert Hughes's Rome, and more importantly where do you stop? The Roman Empire? The Roman Catholic Church? Latin literature? Italian art? European culture? It's a massive undertaking and even with 500 pages to work in, you wonder whether Hughes wouldn't have been better off sticking very firmly to the theme of the city rather than rambling through its various cultural associations, but then the passages about the Roman mastery of concrete are never going to be as pleasurable as reading about the sexual peccadillos and excesses of the Roman emperors.
There is something special about Rome; I've enjoyed visiting Athens, but Athens doesn't have any atmosphere, and it certainly doesn't have the character that Rome does. In Rome you feel the history, you constantly trip over it, it gets mixed into everyday life in a way I've never seen anywhere else. Rome's got soul. And indeed Italy seems to have more history than it can cope with — it never ceases to amaze me that there are vast sites such as Herculaneum and Hadrian's villa that haven't been fully excavated.
Hughes fesses up in his preface to having been educated by the Jesuits. His teachers would be reaching for the cane if they could see this homework. The bad news is that the book is fantastically sloppy. There's repetition such as Tacitus being quoted on Nero and the early Christians twice, slips such as some of the poetry of the Romanesco poet Belli not being translated and straight cock-ups such the death of Vercingetorix, reported once as beheading and then again as strangulation.
Then there's this passage: "This proved a costly defeat and ended with the British defeat of Italian forces at El Alamein in 1943. Now the Germans sent the Afrika Corps to North Africa, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and dragged Italy with it." If a contemporary 15-year-old is a bit hazy on the progress of the Second World War that's one thing, but Hughes was alive at the time, and dates are eminently checkable.
What Hughes does well is what we know he does well-covering the art. On the art, he's informative, insightful and entertaining. It's almost worth getting the book just to read Giorgio De Chirico's withering vituperation of the Surrealists. And like a good bear-leader, Hughes has an abundance of obiter dicta and one-liners to amuse (the origin of the word "fornication", according to Hughes is from the arches — fornix — where the prostitutes of Rome used to ply their trade).