A few years ago, while staying with a friend in Florence, The Observer decided to take a day trip to Rome. There was something liberating in the absurdity of spending only one day in the ancient capital where Julius Caesar was assassinated, Michelangelo spent three years on his back in the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter was crucified upside down, Mussolini made his opponents eat living toads, and a young Australian named Robert Hughes, later to spend 31 years as Time magazine’s chief art critic, first ate a zucchini flower. Because we knew we couldn’t see everything, we felt no obligation to try, and we could simply enjoy whatever small fraction of the city we happened to find by chance. We could accidentally discover an equestrian statue of Constantine; take our time getting drunk over lunch; spend an hour sitting in the portico of the Pantheon, watching other tourists walk by and imagining all the men in doublets and togas and English linen who’d once sat where we were sitting doing precisely the same thing.
If we’d had Mr. Hughes as a guide, to judge from his freewheeling, massive, magisterial, alternately ponderous and pyrotechnic new history of the city, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History (Knopf, 512 pages, $35.00), it would have been a much better informed but far longer day. He would have explained, for example, that the statue we thought was of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was really of the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, but that it had survived the Middle Ages because a series of popes had made the same mistake we did. He could have explained, always apropos of some immediate physical landmark, how aquaducts were constructed (with considerable ingenuity); the legal position of Roman slaves (it wasn’t good); the similarity of a modern Vietnamese sauce to an ancient Roman staple (nuoc mam and garum are both made by fermenting fish); and how Bernini succeeded in hijacking an important commission expected to go to Borromini. (After being barred from the competition, Bernini smuggled in a silver model too beautiful to be refused.)
But all this in due time: Rome begins at the beginning—which, if you’re trying to give equal time to histories both actual and mythological, means both in 753 B.C.E., with the descendants of Aeneas and his band of Trojan refugees, and at some other, less defined date with the Etruscans. And then it continues, in brisk, review-length sections stitched together into chapters, through the Republic, the Empire, the establishment of Christianity, the division of the Empire, multiple sackings, the rise of the papacy, the Renaissance, the Risorgimento and Fascism, right up to Marcello Mastroianni’s turn as a seedily glamorous journalist in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
It’s very much, as billed in the subtitle, a “personal” history—one animated by historical persons and personalities as seen through the personality of the author. Capsule biographies of Caesars, popes and other men of power alternate with bios of architects and artists. But Mr. Hughes’s strongest passion is for the art itself, and the book burns brightest when Roman art burns brightest, even if the art itself remains offstage.
Classical easel painting existed but hasn’t survived, and the earliest chapters of Rome, unfortunately, suffer from what seems like a related lack of interest: names and introductions are repeated, segues between segments are rough, and in one case the author absent-mindedly cites the same block quotation twice, in two different translations. But when—to continue the day-trip metaphor—we get to something like the Sistine Chapel, our guide conjures up a well-known work of genius and makes it new, moving effortlessly from biography to art to engineering as he illuminates its every detail.
The Chapel, he explains, is named after Pope Sixtus IV, who built it in the late 15th century and had it decorated with frescoes by Botticelli and Pinturicchio and ceiling paintings illustrating the sacred history of the world. But more than 10,000 square feet of ceiling were left with no more decoration than a coat of “ultramarine blue, dotted with golden stars,” and everything that happened between Creation and Moses remained undepicted, until 1508, when Pope Julius II contracted with Michelangelo Buonarotti to paint it.
Painting done directly on a wall or ceiling will not endure, however, because every wall is more or less permeable and salts work their way through into the paint. It’s much more secure to paint while the surface itself is still wet, so that the colors can bond with the plaster—except for those pigments, like ultramarine or malachite, that don’t agree with the plaster’s alkalinity and have to be applied later, a secco. Some colors, meanwhile, dry brighter and some dry darker, even among those that can be painted wet; and painting wet means painting in one small area at a time, in this case supine and with barely enough room to move, while keeping the whole design in mind. Goethe remarked after his own visit (in Mr. Hughes’s paraphrase), “No one could have any idea of what a single individual could accomplish on his own unless he had stepped inside this huge hall.”