Hughes, Robert (2011). Rome: A Cultural History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2012. ISBN 9780297857853. Pagine 624. 7,49 €
L’anno prima della maturità uno dei miei figli andò per 6 settimane a Melbourne per uno scambio culturale organizzato dalla scuola. A cavallo delle vacanze invernali, per ricambiare, ospitammo per 6 settimane il ragazzo, suo coetaneo, della famiglia dove era stato mio figlio. Fu subito ribattezzato «’a mumma», come il protagonista di uno dei film de paura di Corrado Guzzanti. La mummia era infatti di una passività impressionante e faceva venire in mente un famoso passaggio dell’Apocalisse (3,16): «Ma poiché sei tiepido, non sei cioè né freddo né caldo, sto per vomitarti dalla mia bocca.» Non che fosse del tutto privo di interessi: gli piaceva mangiare, preferibilmente la carne, ma dopo un po’ anche la pasta (aveva imparato a dire: «So’ un botto pieno») e gli piacevano le compagne di scuola, soprattutto una. Noi genitori ci preoccupavamo di fargli amare o almeno vedere l’Italia, e volevamo ricambiare l’ospitalità di cui aveva goduto nostro figlio. Lo portammo a Milano, a Venezia, a Mantova. E poi, un giro di alcuni giorni in macchina da Roma: Viterbo, la Cassia, la val d’Orcia (a Bagno Vignoni apprezzò la tagliata di manzo, a Pienza la cioccolata calda), Siena, San Gimignano, Firenze, Pisa. Mia moglie, laureata in lettere con una tesi d’archeologia, spiegava l’epoca romana, il medioevo, il rinascimento. Scendendo dalla torre di Pisa, la mummia uscì dal suo consueto indifferente silenzio e chiese: «But what do you mean, exactly, by the middle ages?».
Alcuni fili tenui, ma non insignificanti, legano la mummia con Robert Hughes, l’autore di questo libro: il primo è che entrambi sono australiani di nascita; il secondo, che entrambi hanno studiato dai gesuiti, anche se il primo a Melbourne e il secondo a Sydney; il terzo è che entrambi sono venuti a Roma da giovani, ma a sua giustificazione la mummia può addurre di aver avuto 5 anni di meno dei 21 che aveva Hughes quando restò folgorato dalla bellezza della città eterna. Tanto da risiedervi per alcuni anni, e intraprendere poi una fortunata carriera da critico d’arte che lo avrebbe portato prima sulle colonne della stampa inglese ((The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, The Times e The Observer, tra gli altri) e dal ultimo su quelle della rivista americana Time, fino alla precoce morte, all’inizio di agosto di quest’anno.
[…] for the new and uninstructed arrival, such as I was in 1959, it is naturally the very big and rather obvious ones that strike first, and for me the most decisive and revelatory of these first encounters was not in Piazza S. Pietro, that mythic centre of faith, but on the other side of the Tiber, up on the Capitol above Piazza Venezia. Its messenger was not a religious work of art, but a pagan one: the ancient bronze statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (reg. 161–80 CE) riding his horse, in the most noble silence and stillness, on a pedestal which rose from the centre of a twelve-pointed star, in the trapezoidal piazza Michelangelo designed for the Campidoglio. I had seen photographs of it, of course; who hadn’t? But nothing really prepared me for the impact of that sculpture, both in its mass and in its detail. It is by far the greatest and, indeed, a rare surviving example of a type of sculpture that was widely known and made in the ancient pagan world: the hero, the authority figure, the demigod on horseback; human intelligence and power controlling the animal kingdom, striding victoriously forward. There used to be twenty or so such bronze equestrian statues in Rome, and yet more throughout Italy, such as the Regisole or ‘Sun-King’ in Pavia, which was so thoroughly destroyed in 1796 that not a skerrick remains and the only surviving trace of it is a mere woodcut on paper. All were toppled, broken up and melted down by pious, ignorant Catholics in the early Middle Ages, who believed that their vandalism was an act of faith, an exorcism of the authority of the pagan world. Only Marcus Aurelius survived, and by mistake. The good Catholics mistook the statue for a horseback portrait of the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great. But for that sublimely lucky error, Marcus Aurelius would have joined all the other bronze emperors in history’s indifferent melting-pot. [279-281]
Il lungo viaggio che Hughes compie e ci fa compiere con lui – oltre 600 pagine che si leggono d’un fiato, o quasi – inizia e si chiude su questo momento. Ed è un viaggio sempre tenuto a livello alto, e spesso altissimo, che parte dalle origini della città e si chiude ai giorni nostri, con un lamento per il declino che Roma, e l’Italia intera, stanno attraversando. E che, come spesso accade, è particolarmente evidente anche a noi, quando la osserviamo con gli occhi più disincantati di un osservatore straniero.
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Io penso di essere un conoscitore passabilmente istruito di Roma, che è la mia città d’adozione ma non di nascita. E penso anche di aver letto un numero non piccolo sia delle fonti classiche sia degli studi successivi. Eppure ho trovato nel libro di Hughes molte cose che ignoravo. Qualche esempio? Questo spassoso aneddoto su Publio Claudio Pulcro, ammiraglio romano della prima guerra punica:
The aim of augury was not simply to foretell the future. It was to find out whether a proposed course of important action was likely to have the approval of the gods. A common way of doing this was by consulting the sacred chickens. These otherwise ordinary fowls (there seem to have been no criteria for telling a sacred chicken from a non-sacred one) were carried in a cage to the field by Roman armies. Before the battle, they would be given chicken-feed. If they pecked at it with gusto, letting bits of food fall from their beaks, it was greeted by the augurs as an excellent omen. If they ignored the offering, it was a very bad sign. If they ate half-heartedly or seemed choosy, that too had its meaning for the augurs. Many Romans of the highest rank took this charade perfectly seriously. One who did not was Publius Claudius Pulcher, an admiral of the Roman navy who, just before an engagement between the Roman and Carthaginian fleets off Drepanum during the First Punic War in 249 BCE, cast the grain before the fowl and was told, by the ship’s augur, that the birds would not eat. ‘Then let them drink,’ Pulcher exclaimed rashly, as he grabbed the chickens and threw them overboard. Alas, he lost the ensuing battle. 
Luna marble was the finest available if you wanted perfect whiteness, which Augustus and his builders did. Its whiteness rivalled that of the moon, from which it took its name. 
If your vehicle, of which the most common type was known as a carpentum (whence, ‘car’), threw a wheel or broke an axle along the way, you could call for a mechanic or carpentarius (whence, ‘carpenter’) to repair it. 
Le gloriose gesta del vituperato, ma simpaticissimo, Giuliano l’Apostata, per “educare” i cristiani:
‘Since by their most admirable law they are bidden to sell all they have and give it to the poor so that they may attain more easily to the kingdom of the skies . . . I have ordered that all their funds that belong to the church of Edessa . . . be confiscated; this in order that poverty may teach them to behave properly and that they may not be deprived of the heavenly kingdom for which they still hope.’ 
Il fatto che la Scala Santa fosse stata portata a Roma da Elena, madre di Costantino:
Her other large souvenir of the Holy Land was brought back in pieces and reconstructed in Rome – the flight of twenty-eight marble steps from the residence of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. Jesus Christ was believed to have walked up these steps on the way to trial and judgement by the Roman procurator, and the Scala Santa or Holy Staircase, as it is known, was reconstructed in Rome in its former papal residence, the Lateran Palace. 
Il fatto che bugger, che ora in inglese sta per sodomita, fosse originariamente riferito agli eretici catari originari della Bulgaria; e che i Catari fossero fondamentalmente vegani:
Where did the Catharist faith come from? Because nearly all its ‘scriptures’ and holy books were destroyed, burned along with the Cathars themselves, it is difficult to be certain about this, but most scholars seem to agree that it was an eastern import whose roots lay in the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire. It was related to the beliefs of the Bogomils or ‘friends of God’ who, being particularly strong in Bulgaria, were also known as the Bougres – whence our durable term of extreme disparagement, ‘buggers’. 
The majority, the rest of the Cathars, the credentes or simply ‘believers’, led relatively normal lives in a normal world, farming and trading, but abstaining from meat, milk, cheese and other animal products, not swearing oaths or engaging in acts of violence. 
Il ruolo delle miniere di Tolfa e Allumiere nella crescita economica della Roma di Papa Giulio II:
Much of the money for his military enterprises came from Italy’s textile industry. The dyeing of cloth requires a fixative, which in the sixteenth century was a mineral, alum. Most alum had come from Turkey, but large deposits of it were to be found north of Rome in an otherwise unremarkable spot named Tolfa. The fortunes of the mines of Tolfa, with their virtual monopoly on the mineral, rose with the textile trade and so were a large source of income for the Papacy. 
L’etimologia di Vaticano:
Another part of its mythic history was that Etruscan priests used to watch for auguries and make prophecies (vaticinia) from this spot. Hence the name ‘Vatican’ for the general area. 
La battuta anti-gesuitica di un Granduca di Toscana:
It was for this reason that the Grand Duke of Tuscany suggested that the Jesuits’ motto, whose initials are IHS, ought to be rendered Iesuiti Habent Satis, ‘The Jesuits have got enough’. 
Che anche Filippo Tommaso Marinetti fosse un ex alunno dei Gesuiti:
He had been schooled by Jesuits, which may well have contributed to his sense of confident exception. This was confirmed when his Jesuit teachers expelled him for cultural rowdiness: he had been passing around copies of Zola’s realist novels. 
Perché il famoso mercato della Vucciria di Palermo si chiami così:
The name of the place derives from the French boucherie […] 
E naturalmente, last but not least, la Bolla Papale che proibiva il tabacco per la sovrapposizione tra sternuto e orgasmo, di cui ho parlato qui:
He also – to descend from the serious to the absurd – issued a Papal Bull, in 1624, that made smoking tobacco punishable by excommunication. The reason was that when smokers sneezed, their convulsion resembled orgasm, and this struck Urban as a mortal sin of the flesh. 
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Hughes ha evidentemente una cultura enciclopedica, e altrettanto evidentemente conosce l’italiano piuttosto approfonditamente (c’è qualche errore e qualche accento mancante, ma nel complesso se la cava bene). Eppure ci sono nel testo alcuni errori pacchiani, che persino un buon editor o un buon correttore di bozze avrebbe potuto scovare: come l’attribuzione a Verdi della Tosca  o l’affermazione che Vittorio Emanuele II fosse figlio (invece che nipote) di Vittorio Emanuele II  o il far seguire temporalmente il bombardamento americano di San Lorenzo a Roma (19 luglio 1943) a quello infernale di Dresda (13-14 febbraio 1945) .
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Ho anche imparato una parola nuova, proleptic: pertaining to prolepsis or anticipation; previous; antecedent.
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Di seguito altre annotazioni sparse, prese durante la lettura, che spaziano dal meditato giudizio estetico all’invettiva al motto di spirito. Vi troverete certamente qualche cosa che v’invoglierà a leggere il libro. Riferimenti numerici all’edizione Kindle.
Here a tangled story begins, with many variants, which tend to circle back to the same themes we will see again and again throughout Rome’s long history: ambition, parricide, fratricide, betrayal and obsessive ambition. Especially the last. No more ambitious city than Rome had ever existed, or conceivably ever will, although New York offers it competition. 
The ideal was askesis, ‘inner calm’; the Stoic did not preach indifference or anaesthesia, far from it, but rather a reasoned concentration on the truths of life. 
Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, wrote Horace, et artes intulit agresti Latio: ‘When Greece was taken she enslaved her rough conqueror, and introduced the arts to cloddish Latium.’ [1404: è sempre stata una delle mie frasi latine preferite]
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi [1832: anche questa, che però è di Ovidio]
The Drunkenness of Noah, complete with the ancient patriarch’s eldest son committing what had become known as the Sin of Ham – not overindulgence in prosciutto crudo, but gazing upon his inebriated father’s nakedness. 
[…] art itself is a lie – a lie told in the service of truth. 
It is a horse made by committee. [5836: è una nota definizione del cammello, di incerta attribuzione]
It is a fabolous concetto, scarcely diminished even by the parked cars that cluster around it, the avvocato Agnelli’s hogs at a trough. [5920: a proposito della fontana del Tritone]
[…] tempus edax. [6582: è l'Ovidio delle Metamorfosi, tempus edax rerum]
This was in imitation of the Roman Senate, which after 212 CE had erased the once honoured but now disgraced name of Geta from a dedicatory inscription on the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Forum Romanum. 
Inevitably, one’s feelings about the singularity of Canova are increased by his isolation within his moment in Italian cultural history; aside from him, that history, at the start of the nineteenth century, was at a low ebb – the lowest it had ever reached, though not as debased as it would be by the start of the twenty-first. 
It is not often that one can say an official document gets everything wrong, but the Syllabus of Errors came as close to that exalted state as anything set forth by the Catholic Church since the death of Luther. 
The modern Catholic theologian Hans Kung, who was appointed official theologian for the Second Vatican Council in 1962, thought that the First Council ‘was so severely compromised’ that its infallibility doctrine was null. ‘Painful and embarrassing as it may be to admit, this council resembled a well-organized and manipulated party congress rather than a free gathering of Christian people.’ Kung would argue that the pope got infallibility translated into dogma for four reasons. ‘Pius IX had a sense of divine mission which he carried to extremes; he engaged in double dealing; he was mentally disturbed; and he misused his office.’ Ludicrously but unsurprisingly, the Church in 1979 banned the impeccably scholarly Kung from ever teaching theology in its name. 
One can have a certain sympathy with the annoyed Italian writer who, when asked if he didn’t agree that Marinetti was a genius, retorted ‘No, he’s a phosphorescent cretin’, but in fact he was less than the first but a good deal more than the second. [7825: il giudizio è di Gabriele D'Annunzio, che peraltro reagiva a Marinetti che l'aveva definito "un cretino con lampi di imbecillità"]
[…] a host of others whose names can never be known because they died too soon for their talent to have a chance to make a mark. [7926: a proposito dei potenziali artisti uccisi nella I guerra mondiale prima che il loro talento si manifestasse]
What he and Marinetti had in common was an ecstatic sense of the possibilities of the modern city – a mighty switchboard of information, manufacture and perception, a social turbine hall, humming away, almost without human interference. [7942: si sta ovviamente parlando di Sant'Elia]
We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense, tumultuous construction yard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail; and the Futurist house must be like a gigantic machine. The lifts must no longer be hidden away like tapeworms in the niches of stairwells; the stairs themselves, rendered useless, must be abolished, and the lifts must scale the heights of the façades like serpents of iron and glass. Houses of concrete, glass and iron, stripped of paintings and sculpture, rich only in the innate beauty of their lines and relief, extraordinarily ugly in their mechanical simplicity … must rise on the brink of a tumultuous abyss: the street will no longer lie like a doormat at ground level, but plunge down into the earth, with multiple levels … linked up for necessary interconnections by metal gangways and fast, moving pavements. The decorative must be abolished … [7945: forse qui si radica la visione del Centre Pompidou]
[…] ruthless and staggeringly narcissistic Mussolini […] 
Se Rosa, illuminata di alma luce,
La notte in cui fu concepito il Duce,
Avesse al fabbro predappiano,
Invece della fica, presentato l’ano,
L’avrebbe preso in culo quella sera
Rosa soltanto, ma non l’Italia intera.
[8079: l'oscena poesiola è detta in diverse versioni; questa di Hughes ha qualche evidente errore, che ho poco filologicamente corretto]
The sorry truth is that whole cultures, like individual people, do run down; with age, their energies gutter out. They have a collective life, but that life depends entirely on the renewal of individual talent from decade to decade. […] This was not a sudden implosion, but a slow leakage. 
[…] Mario Schifano (1934–98), an ‘Italian Pop’ artist who briefly enjoyed the reputation of being Italy’s answer to Andy Warhol as if an answer were needed! 
[…] the Italian talent for obfuscatory theory. 
[…] the last can of Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista to go on the market fetched the imposing sum of $80,000 – no shit, one is tempted to add. 
What makes it worse is that whoever installed the great sculpture inside the Capitoline deprived it of its base and placed it slantwise, cantilevered out on an inclined ramp. This is vandalism. It is absolutely intrinsic to the meaning of the Marcus Aurelius that the horse and rider should be level and horizontal; otherwise their firm authority is lost. In its new installation, slanting meaninglessly upwards in a way Michelangelo would never have countenanced for an instant, the sculpture becomes a parody of the huge bronze of Peter the Great by the French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet (1716–91), the ‘bronze horseman’ of Pushkin’s poem, riding up his rock in St Petersburg. It would be very hard to imagine a more stupid treatment of a great sculpture than this: ‘design’ run amok, vulgarizing the work it was meant to clarify, ignoring all ancient meanings for the sake of an illusion of ‘relevance’ (to what?) and ‘originality’ (if you don’t know the Falconet). But sadly, that’s Rome now – a city which, to a startling extent, seems to be losing touch with its own nature, and in some respects has surrendered to its own iconic popularity among visitors. 
Many of them see the past as a profitable encumbrance. ...Continua
This book is a no-brainer if you are into Roman history, meaning: a must read. Hughes makes a ‘grand tour’ of the various epochs, which all together make up what Rome was and is. It brought me a few interesting facts, I was not aware of before: like what we owe to Caligula at St Peter’s Square and who’s idea EUR was anyway.
Huges pays homage to the expected names (Michaelangelo, Carracci, Caravaggio, Rafael, Bernini,..) but also to many other, less known artists. He describes Rome’s demise and rise (or re-discovery) in the 17th century. And the rise and fall of the power of the church. It’s all in there.
I guess this reads even better when in Rome…...Continua
I've read more books by Robert Hughes, notably his excellent book about Barcelona. So I started full of anticipation. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed. There are a lot of factual errors in the book, especially in the part about the classical era. Also, Hughes tends to lose sight of Rome from time to time, e.g. in the descriptions of the Cathars and Futurism.
If you really want to have a book about the history of Rome, this one is not for you.
Aside from these critical notes, it is often a very good read and I loved the style and the way he tells a very personal story about his love for the Citta Eterna.