To pulp or to praise him? Divided views on Robert Hughes in Rome
By PETER STOTHARD
The art critic and historian, Simon Schama, writes enthusiastically for our friends at The Daily Beast about Robert Hughes' Rome, a book that, without being itself reviewed in the TLS, has caused a certain amount of discussion here this year.
We did not review it ourselves because it was, in one sense, absurd. As our classics editor Mary Beard pointed out in The Guardian, it deserved to be pulped for the extraordinary number of falsehoods and misunderstandings that it contained.
Despite being a paper much committed to Roman studies, there are many fine books which we cannot review each year. So why waste space, we thought, on one which, as a work of history was, for its first 200 pages at least, so full of error as to constitute a confidence trick on its purchasers?
But this week Simon Schama, one of the finest people with whom to walk through a gallery of art, argues that Hughes’s critics have missed the point.
"So although", he writes, "the ostensible subject of his book is the Eternal City, the real tour d’horizon it offers is a walking tour of the hard-structured, brightly lit, and capacious expanse that is the Hughes brain. It’s an organ that is Olympian — in that it can survey, in a unified vision, the rolling sweep of the centuries — but without any other sort of lofty detachment."
Fine, one might think. Other art critics too, in Britain and the US have, either ignored or failed to notice the historical nonsense of page after page. It is the art and the author’s critical brain that counts. This seems to be the dominant view.
Others at the TLS have argued that we ought anyway to have reviewed the book. We could have pointed out that, while as a tour inside the writer’s head it may be matchless, the casual bookshop purchaser could be misled into thinking that he or she might rely on it for other purposes.There is some force in that.
There it should have ended. My assumption, I happily admit, was that the first edition would be rapidly withdrawn, that the pulpable errors would be discreetly erased, and that later Australian editions would lead readers to the writer’s brain without leading them into absurdity along the way.
We do not want to seem too pedantic here at the TLS (excessive love of exactitude is sometimes sometimes seen as our vice). Surely the embarrassment would disappear.
So far, the Knopf copy of Rome has not yet arrived from New York. The Weidenfeld & Nicolson edition still sits here alone on the shelves. But a reader from Rome, Michael Mewshaw, has looked at the New York offering for Christmas shoppers and writes this week to suggest that all is still not well.
Some corrections have been made, he says. I do hope that the emperor Antoninus Pius (coinage above) is not still a Christian. But many others have not.
Mr Mewshaw's judgement has also reached The Independent newspaper. I cannot yet vouch personally for what he says. I hope he is wrong. But, before TLS readers are tempted to risk their holiday dollars on a history book that is a brain scan, this is what he tells me.
“While in London last summer I read Mary Beard’s review of ROME in the Guardian and your comments in the TLS, followed by your review in Australia. Since I live part of every year in Rome and have done so for the past forty years, I was interested in the subject matter and made note of your remarks about the book’s many errors in ancient and classical times.
When the book appeared in the US edition, published by Knopf, I expected to find that these errors had been corrected. Indeed, I carefully collated the US and UK editions and discovered that the majority, approximately 75% of the mistakes, hadn’t been corrected at all.
What’s more, neither you nor Ms. Beard mentioned that there are similarly howling mistakes in other sections of the book. Some of these suggest that Hughes has no familiarity with the city’s layout, especially in its present-day form. He mislocates the Stadio dei Marmi, Mussolini’s fascist extravaganza for the Olympic Village, in EUR, not north of the city where it actually is. He mislocates the Villa Medici, saying that’s it’s at the “head of the Spanish Steps,” when in fact that’s where Trinita dei Monti is. He laments that Piazza Barberini has been turned into a parking lot where cars sink their snouts into the celebrated Triton Fountain. In fact, the area has been forbidden to parked cars for three decades. He says that the statue of Giordanno Bruno in Campo de’ Fiori is banked with flowers so tall that they cover the plaque commemorating his martyrdom. In fact, the flowers are nowhere near the statue. Hughes describes Augustus’ tomb as a Roman site that is now desecrated with trash and empty bottles tossed onto it by passing pedestrians. In fact, the tomb has been for decades surrounded by a fence that prevents pedestrians from coming anywhere close to it, and in the last few days when I went to see it, there was no trash at all anywhere near the monument.
Hughes describes at length the Ara Pacis, but at no point mentions that it is now housed in a spectacular if controversial modern building designed by Richard Meier that was constructed almost a decade ago. Mention of the Meier building isn’t the only thing missing from the book. Strikingly, given Hughes’ dependence on other people’s histories and studies, he doesn’t include a single footnote. Often there’s the impression that anecdotes and ironies that have been recycled for centuries are somehow Hughes’ original observations.
I’m more than willing to accept Hughes’ opinions and his pontifications. He’s entitled to them and he can be amusing even when I disagree with him. But these factual errors are quite remarkable and call into question the author’s judgment about other matters.
That Hughes hasn’t insisted that they be corrected, hasn’t explained them and that Knopf hasn’t held his feet to the fire, are like wise flabbergasting. But all of this pales in comparison to the fact that Simon Schama reviewed the book for the Daily Beast/Newsweek, was rapturous in praise, and did not mention a single error.
The reviews in the daily New York Times and Sunday New York Times were similarly impressed with the book and while the Sunday Times mentioned mistakes, it delivered its verdict that they made no difference. Finally, I would add that I’m no expert on the Renaissance or the Baroque or 19th century Italy for that matter, but I’d be willing to wager that a careful reading of those sections by a knowledgeable historian and/or art critic would turn up equal numbers of factual errors.”