Rome, La Citta Eterna- A book Review- by Brian Keeler
"June Evening, Rome" Above, a plein air oil painting by Brian Keeler, done from Piazzalle Caffarelli, the charming pine-shaded overlook on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.
Rome - A cultural, Visual and Personal History by Robert Hughes, Knopf
Although this book professes to be about Rome, (which we assume to be the city of Rome and the Roman Empire, and it certainly is that,) the book is truly much more. For starters, to make it relevant to artists, Hughes’ book is a comprehensive romp through the history of the Roman Empire, then culture, politics and all manner of western art, but obviously, Italian art is the focus. And the author does it like no other historian, as he serves his subject up with verve, strong opinions and his own unique take on the arts. In other words, we can depend on Hughes to convey his views in an unadulterated fashion without euphemisms. We get to revisit so many artists who were important in the grand scheme of things whom we thought we knew, as well as lesser-known artists whom Hughes brings to deserved attention with his pithy characterizations.
The book grabbed me from the beginning. In the prologue Hughes expounds on the cowled statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno who stands on a tall plinth in the middle of the piazza known as Campo di Fiori. I love this piazza, where I have painted and sketched the bronze of Bruno en plein aire, towering over the piazza with its riot of color from the fruit, flowers and clothes in the market and over the restaurants, bakeries and bookstore on the periphery. Campo di Fiori also is special to me for its amazing (and authentic) gypsy jazz in the evenings. Dancing to the Django-like rhythms is great, albeit challenged by the cobblestones.
Anyway, Hughes takes a broadside at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church for burning Bruno at the stake (right in this very piazza.) Bruno was such a noble and adventurous thinker who dared to suggest that the earth was not the center of the Universe and that the stars represented a plurality of centers. His ideas were blasphemous to the Catholic Church of that era but merely parallels the U.S. current penchant in some sectors for denying science, global warming and evolution, just to show that some things just change slowly and remain relevant after 500 years.
The book, a tome really, reflecting the author’s massive effort, reads easily while offering many cultural and historical insights. However, for today’s artists this will not be a disappointment, as the artists that were so central to many aspects of Italian history are revealed in new light. Some of my favorites are included, e.g., Bernini and Boromini and the high Baroque, whose undulating figurative statues on bridges, buildings and fountains are so essential to our experience of Rome today. Hughes includes lesser-knowns (to me at least) like Piranesi, the eccentric engraver of fantasized prison views.
Near the end Hughes presents a wonderful essay on the Macchiaioli ( a unique school of Italian Impressionists painters) led by Giovanni Fattori. I have seen two special exhibits of this school of painters in recent years, one in Monte Pulciano and another in Florence at Villa Bardini. And then an extensive chapter on the early 20th century Italian Futurists, where Hughes expounds on the political and social agenda of these artists as well. Remarkably, he tells of the now largely forgotten detail that the Futurists, under their leader Filippo Marinetti, wanted to eliminate pasta from the Italian diet because it was not compatible with their manifesto. Such an ill-conceived mission seems positively Quixotic today in light of how essential pasta is to Italian cuisine, yet it must have held some sway in its day.
Hughes pulls out all the stops in his invective against the gargantuan white marble edifice in Rome at Piazza Venezia, known as the monument to the first king and unifier of Italy, Vittorio Emanuelle II. Hughes calls this monument that was built on the most sacred hill (The Capitoline Hill), near the Roman Forum, as the most stupefyingly pompous memorial ever dedicated to a national leader in Western Europe. Hughes further opines that never has such singular disproportion been given to personal mediocrity. He acquaints us with various nicknames the monument is known by, including “Piscatiaoio Nazionale” or National Urinal. I have to admit that there is one statue here in front of the monolith that I am particularly fond of, an angel holding a brush or stylus out-stretched, which I’ve regarded as a modern St. Luke, patron and protector of painters.
Mussolini and his Fascists are covered, as are the artists who accompanied him or gave a visual presence and propaganda to his dead end waltz with Hitler. But Hughes shows how the Fascists held had influence and appeal to significant swaths of the Italians, yet he defends the art created under its banner as independently laudable, in spite of its origins and ideological inspirations.