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Empire of the Mind

Robert Hughes’s 'Rome'

Robert Hughes in his SoHo loft, 2008. © David Howells/Corbis
Robert Hughes in his SoHo loft, 2008. © David Howells/Corbis
Cover: July 2011
July 2011Medium length read
 

In 1966 Robert Hughes concluded his first book, The Art of Australia, with a sardonic farewell to a country he had already quit. The final paragraph quotes an anonymous painter who told Hughes, “you can’t begin to grow up until you’ve left the place”, after which the door slams shut as Hughes stalks off to Europe. He glances back over his shoulder at Australia’s forthcoming “cultural explosion”, and in a last scornful riff reduces it to a spasm of chauvinism that will merely confirm the country’s isolation. As if reinforcing a vow, in 1987 he remembered this need to sever relations with Australia in the last sentence of The Fatal Shore, as he crawls through the scrub to a cliff edge on Tasman Peninsula and stares at the barren immensity of “our imprisoning sea”. The expatriate is a latter-day convict who has triumphantly scrambled over the wall, wriggled through the wire and crossed those estranging oceans.

What Hughes wanted, as he says in his 2006 autobiography Things I Didn’t Know, was to be expelled from cramped, uterine Australia – “a womb with a view” – and succoured instead by “Mother Europe”. More than allowing Hughes to grow up, expatriation gave him the sense that he was being born again. But that first breach is merely the start of an inconclusive, unsatisfied quest. With a world’s worth of cultural history inside his head, the expatriate is at ease everywhere but at home only in the one country to which he will not return. Escape into the larger, older, more knowing hemisphere does not bring freedom or forgetfulness: each place visited is appraised in relation to what has been left behind – experienced as an alternative to Australia, or a startling reminiscence of it. Has the journey really been circular?

Hughes suggested as much in 1992 in Barcelona, his historical chronicle of a city he has adored since his earliest days in Europe. His first meals of fried eels and barnacles in the restaurants around the port reminded him of that “populist paradise, … the Bondi Beach I had left behind in Sydney in 1964”. He sympathised with Catalonia because it had been marginalised, defined as a subordinate province by the central government in Madrid; its over-compensation as it defensively puffed the integrity of its local culture was “familiar to anyone who … grew up in Australia”.

Barcelona allowed Hughes access to Europe through a side door. Now, in his new book, Rome (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 576pp; $50.00), he advances to the centre. Tramping through millennia like a centurion as he advances (or perhaps regresses) from Romulus and Remus to Mussolini and Berlusconi, he performs his own grandiose feat of colonisation. Hughes once said, “Italy enabled me to overcome my inferiority complex about not being an heir of Europe.”

Setting himself up as an honorary Roman, he can rewrite his own history and detach himself from the family of transplanted Irish Catholics into which he was actually born. But the expatriate remains an interloper not a native, ranklingly aware that Rome is not where he belongs. The Doric colonnade outside the Vatican stupefied the 20-year-old Hughes, whose idea of monumentality had been established by the stubby pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Overawed by the majestic statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Campidoglio, he asked himself if “Australia had some equestrian bronzes in it”, but could think of none.

Rome once possessed a global empire, whose amplitude mocks Hughes’s origins at the disregarded end of the Earth. Mentioning the banishment of the urbane Ovid, who was sent by Augustus to the Black Sea coast of what is now Romania, he laments the “terrible waste of life-enhancing talent” that followed this “exile to a provincial hole like Tomi”. David Malouf’s Ovidian novel An Imaginary Life treats Tomi as a surrogate Australia, “flat and featureless, … a place of utter desolation, the beginning”. Does Hughes too – whose bourgeois forefathers did not actually disembark in chains – still dread repatriation to the fatal shore?

Hughes addressed Barcelona to a ghost, “my younger self when I first came under the spell of the city”, and in Rome too he relishes the memory of long-gone, happily misspent days. At the climax of the book he makes a regurgitated meal of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita which, when he saw it in Australia in his “hot-potato twenties”, represented “Europe on celluloid” and catered to his callow “yearning for foreign parts” (including those of Anita Ekberg, who splashes through the Trevi Fountain like Venus whipping the water into an excited froth). He recalls his excitement when someone identifies the sea beast hauled up in a net at the end of the film. An off-screen voice speculates that the unclassifiable monster perhaps comes “from Australia”. “On hearing this,” says Hughes, “I felt mildly buoyed with semi-patriotic pride. My homeland’s tiny, whispered impact on Rome!” Hughes’s noisy, often obstreperous prose at least ensures that Australia no longer speaks in an intimidated whisper.

Rome serves a double purpose in Hughes’s expatriated existence: it snubs the bland, cringing Australia of his youth, but it also warns against the arrogance of the United States where he has spent most of his adult life. Only New York, as he says, has ever rivalled Rome as a citadel of ferocious ambition – and this surely was what attracted him to move there when Time magazine hired him in 1970. But the analogy is troublesome: Rome’s corruption and its collapse hint at the likely end of the overblown American empire, so that Hughes likens the obscene extravagance of Diocletian to “the manic overindulgence … of the American super-rich today”. As Christianity spread throughout the empire, a retributive holy war sabotaged Roman rule, and Hughes balefully draws a parallel with the Islamist terrorism that assails the US.

Barcelona starts with reminiscences of gobbling seafood, and Rome begins by evoking the luxuriance that delighted Hughes on his first visit in the spring of 1959: trees that were “tender green, not the more pervasive drab grey of the Australian eucalypts I was used to”, blossoming azaleas and oleanders, headily fragrant herbs in the Campo dei Fiori, tomatoes that looked as if their red skins were uniforms worn for a parade. The city’s gastronomic treats shamed the starchy Australian diet to which he was accustomed. Growing up in Sydney, he “was never … offered something as exotic as baccalà, salt cod”, and in a juicy tribute to artichokes he kvetches that “as an Australian Catholic I was all but unaware of the existence of Jewish food.”

This is Hughes in Virgilian mode, composing his own lip-licking equivalent to the Georgics, the poet’s salute to the bounty of the earth. But the ardent stripling who gorged on zucchini flowers half a century ago has aged into a spluttering ogre, a latter-day mimic of the satirist Juvenal, the critic of Rome’s decadent dependence on “bread and circuses”. In 1984 Hughes wrote a neo-Roman satirical poem in rhyming couplets called The SoHoiad, which used the model of Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad – a scathing anatomy of literary London in the 1740s – to denounce the fraudulence of Manhattan’s downtown art scene. In Rome he brings satire back to the city where it began, hence his disgust on an imaginary tour of the Cloaca Maxima, his outrage over a crush in the Sistine Chapel and his bilious contempt for Berlusconi and his television game shows.

The clash between youthful glee and elderly dyspepsia gives Rome a moody chiaroscuro. Returning to the city, Hughes is haunted by the religion of his ancestors, which he thought he had shed when he left Australia. In 1968 he published a learned study of Heaven and Hell in Western Art, and since then his worldview – as a former Catholic who still bends the knee in St Peter’s Square, to the gods of architecture not religion – has alternated between those extremes of bliss and anguish, paradise and perdition. The Art of Australia praises Albert Tucker for possessing a “sense of evil” that Russell Drysdale and Brett Whiteley lacked. “I know that I am imperfect and a sinner,” Hughes confesses in Things I Didn’t Know, sounding almost proud of a wickedness that is malevolently un-Australian. When he lay trapped in his crashed car outside Broome in 1999 he deliriously imagined he was under attack by the ogres that swarm in medieval depictions of hell. Beaked phantasms tore his flesh and, as he waited for his car to catch fire, he disquietingly called up the image of Satan’s scorching grill from the Duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures. What crimes was he volunteering to be punished for? Or was this the fulfilment of a prediction made by Sidney Nolan, who – referring to Australia’s envy and resentment of runaways with successful European or American careers – once warned Hughes: “They’ll kill you.”

Rome makes up for many of the Australian deficiencies that pained the youthful Hughes, but above all it atones for his country’s lack of religious art. At school he had to make do with statuettes of effete Christs and insipid plastery Madonnas clasping bouquets of lilies. “Where,” he asks, “could one see the real thing? Clearly, only in Rome.” His ecstatic accounts of Bernini or Caravaggio demonstrate that, for him, art is what remains after the loss of faith, with criticism – or avid appreciation – as a substitute for theology. He knows that it is nowadays unfashionable to call Raphael’s work “divine”; even so, he believes that the adjective tells a kind of truth. In Barcelona he exults when the morning sun dapples the columns of a local church, “lifting them in radiance”, and regrets that the city’s cathedral “presents – at least to this lapsed Catholic – fewer such epiphanies”. There is no need for him to lament the lapse because his finest writing has an epiphanic radiance.

Publishers often tout Hughes as an epic writer – the American subtitle of The Fatal Shore is The Epic of Australia’s Founding, and American Visions, spun off from a television series in 1997, is subtitled The Epic History of Art in America – and Rome has the same ambition, to be as colossal as the Colosseum. In fact Hughes’s gift is for episodic brilliance not epic breadth. Dutifully paraphrasing acres of secondary material, Rome often plods along with a gait that is literally pedestrian, as when Hughes yawningly avers, “The nineteenth century was an exceptionally rich period in the history of the French Academy in Rome.” At times it sounds like the fussy spiel of a superannuated tour guide who overrates the enthusiasm of his customers: apparently an illusory perspective of pillars designed by Borromini in Palazzo Spada “was (and is) one of the most charming minor sights of Rome”, but who is likely to succumb to the charms of a sight defined as minor?

Hughes, so encyclopaedically knowledgeable about painting and architecture, also reveals the limits of his sympathy and curiosity. He attributes Tosca to Verdi not Puccini, and says nothing else at all about an opera that in its thunderous orchestration and its sinisterly sanctimonious action sums up the domineering magnificence of Rome. An editor prepared to outface Hughes’s ire might have improved the book by cutting it in half, though then it could hardly have been marketed as a blockbuster. A narrative such as this inevitably measures itself against Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a true epic that completed the eighteenth-century’s grand task of connecting and comparing past and present; towards the end of Hughes’s book – which dodders off into irrelevant rants about postmodernism as it limps into our own time – I began to wonder whether the writer himself, not Rome, might be declining and falling.

Like all old men, Hughes is instinctively apocalyptic or perhaps just apoplectic, pleased to think the world will not outlive him for long. Expatriation has made him proficient at rejection, and he tends to use up and discard countries as he harrumphs his way through them. The Art of Australia finishes with an unsentimental envoi as Hughes sails away, and on the last page of Things I Didn’t Know he abandons Italy, watching its coast recede below the plane as he journeys to begin work at Time. He may have expected to undergo a kind of reincarnation in New York, but in American Visions he signs off with a curt dismissal of the US: the nation’s optimistic creed “no longer rings culturally true,” he declares, “because America is not new but old” – the cruellest of insults to that eternally juvenile land. Rome likewise ends by bemoaning Italy’s retreat into imbecility, although Hughes has the good sense to suspect that the verdict may be dictated by his own sclerotic temper. “Do I feel this,” he asks, “only because I am older, somewhat calloused, less sensitive to indications of renewal?” It’s a rhetorical question, which, glaring and grumbling as usual, he defies us to answer.

About the author Peter Conrad
Peter Conrad is a writer, academic and regular contributor to the Observer. His books include Verdi and/or Wagner, The Art of the City and Modern Times, Modern Places.