In the spirit of his Barcelona (1992), the art critic and cultural historian zooms through Roman history, from Romulus and Remus to today.
Hughes’ (Things I Didn’t Know, 2006, etc.) subtitle is a bit misleading—“personal history” composes but a nail or two in the impressive edifice he has erected—but few readers will complain about anything else. Though his focus is principally on architecture, painting and sculpture, he pauses occasionally to provide historical context, offer portraits of key personalities and grouse about popular culture. Hughes eviscerates The Da Vinci Code (“wretchedly ill-written”), religious fundamentalists (who, he says, have created no art above the level of “drive-in megachurches”), the belief in the virginity of Mary and the noisy crowds in the Sistine Chapel (“just shut the fuck up, please, pretty please, if you can, if you don’t mind, if you won’t burst”). He also raves about artists and artistic works he loves, injecting his text with heavy doses of superlatives: The Pantheon is “certainly the greatest of all surviving structures of ancient Rome”; the Sistine ceiling is “one of the world’s supreme sights.” (Hughes also gives a grand account of the debate about the recent cleaning of Michelangelo’s masterwork.) The author’s knowledge about individual artists and works—and about Roman history—is prodigious, but he is never is pedantic or dull. There are a couple of strange moments—do readers need to be told what Schadenfreude means? Isn’t it a stretch to say that Keats and Shelley were friends?—but mostly there are moments of delight and surprise. We learn that on the Grand Tour, Horace Walpole saw his dog eaten by a wolf in the Alps; we smell the streets of ancient Rome; we discover that hippos were among the animals that fought in the Colosseum.
An appealing mixture of erudition about high culture and curmudgeonly complaints about low.