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Hughes on Rome: History at Fault

Hughes on Rome: History at Fault

Binoy Kampmark
August 1 2011

What an assortment of views. Robert Hughes’s latest and lengthy effort Rome has divided critics in a way rarely seen. One can almost sense that the criticism of the work is as keen as the animosity towards the man. Much like Germaine Greer, the criticism often confuses the subject work with the author.

Already, the comments abuzz in cyberspace on this portrayal of Rome and its history wonder whether this could be the worst editorial disaster since Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. In the views of a few critics, Blood Meridian required more than just a tinker. A dramatic reduction by some 60 percent might, suggested one, done it good. Then again, that wise presence of literary criticism Harold Bloom thought it splendid and captivating in the way that McCarthy’s other books were not. Criticism can be almost as reliably consistent as weather forecasting.

A review of Rome in The Telegraph (Jul 27) by Matthew Sturgis, himself an author of When in Rome: 2000 years of Roman Sightseeing, found similarly that brevity would have been the soul of quality. His other quibbles: there was not a single map in the book. That said, the work in a sense defined Rome as a ‘physical entity’, and was far from being a ‘modish’ biography on a city.

Peter Conrad, in July’s The Monthly, picked up on the exile’s permanent comparative perspective. Rome becomes something of an imprint of personal history on Hughes’s development as an art critic and refugee from the Australian backwater. ‘Italy enabled me to overcome my inferiority complex about not being an heir to Europe.’ His first visit to Rome in 1959, during which he confronted spectacular religious art for the first time, was a shaking catharsis. He became an honorary Roman, though, as Conrad notes, such a figure can only ever be an interloper. He might leave home, but he cannot do without it as a point of reference.

Sir Peter Stothard of the gray Times Literary Supplement assumed the role of diligent school master and supervisor, picking up a howler (Times, Jun 19). ‘Browsing’ through the book, he found that ‘Livia’s eldest by [Augustus], Tiberius’ assured that the transition between Augustus and Tiberius took place ‘smoothly’. Tiberius, in fact, was the son by Livia’s first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero. A mistake easily made, unless one were in fact putting together ‘a history of Rome (and have forgotten Robert Graves and all the soap opera versions too.)’ Then came others: the misplacing of the date the African king Jugurtha died, or the date the Gaulish chief Vercingetorix was executed.

Stothard decides, after spotting a few more errors, that it is best to put down the book – or perhaps wait till the Renaissance. He is also ready to be accused of curmudgeonly TLS pedantry, but he would be doing himself a disservice were he to think so. Key episodes and characters have been misplaced. A lament for the bygone era of editorial scrupulousness proves inevitable.

Sturgis echoes similar complaints, though his gripe is on what Hughes leaves out rather than what he got wrong. ‘Five hundred years of Roman history simply disappear, falling into a gap between chapters four and five. The Sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in 410, one of the climactic events in the world – let alone Roman – history, is not even mentioned.’

Belisarius, Emperor Justinian’s formidable general of the Byzantine Empire, and Gregory the Great fail to make deserved appearances in the narrative, and ‘Charlemagne receives a name-check’. Only once at the Renaissance is Hughes re-established with certainty, his suspended feet now planted on ‘surer’ ground. But the journey, whilst colourful, is chided as self-indulgent. Hughes moves into what he does best – art history – and the history of the city becomes less important than the history of Italian art movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Does this, in the end, matter? Rome itself is impregnable, even to inaccuracies. It is drenched in artistic oeuvre and soaked in blood, in Hughes’s words, a vast ‘concretion of human glory and human error’. And Hughes, himself prone to error, remains a lyrical wordsmith, able to convey an imagination rich in detail and striking in execution. Even a critic such as Sturgis would have to admit that the description of the mannerist frescoes in S Stefano Rotondo as ‘a kind of Sistine Chapel for sentimental sadists’ left him hungry for more.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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