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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
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Jonathan Keates


'The Piazza di Spagna, with the Spanish Steps' by Piranesi

Rome is the ultimate city, the defining metropolis, that same civis from which the fundamental concept of civilisation derives. The place enshrines extremes of human grandeur and baseness like no other, reminding us of the enduring paradox of our species - that transcendent resources of imagination, faith and creativity can exist alongside barbarism, arrogance and folly. Whether living in Rome or looking at it, we learn by degrees something about who we are.

For the art critic and social commentator Robert Hughes in Rome (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 528pp £25), this Roman learning curve has two alternative starting points. One is Campo dei Fiori, that distillation, within a single piazza, of the entire urban experience, best savoured on a spring morning when 'the enveloping light can be of an incomparable clarity, throwing into gentle vividness every detail presented to the eye'. Here, amid earth pigments of limestone, tufa, stucco and dappled marble 'like the fat in a slice of mortadella', with the accompanying hubbub of a vegetable market rich in plump aubergines, tumid tomatoes and different kinds of toothsome salad leaf, rises the statue of Giordano Bruno, intellectual paladin of the Renaissance, burned on this spot in 1600 for the heresy of suggesting that our planet might actually be a mere fragment of a far larger universe. Holy Mother Church's protests were unavailing when, several centuries later, a monument was raised to the man whose ashes she had cast into the Tiber, having consigned his works to the Index.

Hughes's other Roman reference point is the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius occupying the centre of Michelangelo's trapezoidal Piazza del Campidoglio. Its survival, at a time when early medieval church authorities were busy destroying other such imperial icons as idolatrous, was apparently due to a mistaken belief that the horseman was intended to represent Constantine, first of the Christian emperors. To the author this sculpted image fully deserves idolatry, whether for details such as the rider's hair - 'a nimbus of corkscrewing locks' - and the grimace of the horse's lips as he pulls on the bit, or for the indwelling sense of movement created by the interplay between the statue's limbs, equine and human.

These two figures, the heretic and the emperor, tragic and triumphant, are worthy gatekeepers to Robert Hughes's history of the city from the perspective of its astonishing accumulation of art works. He is a writer who does nothing by halves, and Rome positively crackles with his splenetic downrightness (any clarifying subtitle for the book has been deemed unnecessary). We enjoy reading Hughes precisely because he avoids any of that corseted coyness which characterises too much art-historical writing nowadays. Thankfully not having to worry about securing professorial tenure at a university or gaining a coveted gallery curatorship, he can speak with the candour of a visceral enthusiasm, savaging mediocrity and rhapsodically defending excellence.

Take, for example, his account of the circular church of Santo Stefano Rotondo. Its frescoed martyrdoms, executed by Pomarancio during the 1580s for Pope Gregory XIII, are evoked for us here as 'posturing figures, all contortion and clumsy maniera, a kind of Sistine Chapel for sentimental sadists'. Or test his claim that Rubens (one of many northern talents intoxicated by the gamy air of the Roman Baroque) handled the grand themes of public art 'with an eloquence and formal beauty that leave Picasso far behind him'. Bernini's colonnade around St Peter's Square becomes 'the greatest anthropomorphic gesture in the history of architecture', while the underwhelming effect of the avenue laid out by Mussolini as a suitable approach to it is lethally dismissed in the two words 'dumb clarity'.

Il Duce sought to reorder the zigzags and obliquities of a Rome which, together with its inhabitants, he found insufficiently Roman for his taste. Until 1870, as R J B Bosworth's Whispering City: Rome and Its Histories (Yale University Press 368pp £25) reminds us, the townscape, with its orchards, gardens and grass-grown piles of masonry among which cows grazed and transhumant shepherds drove their flocks, mixed papal grandeur and classical echoes with the sort of softened rusticity that made it specially attractive to painters. While Nathaniel Hawthorne, at his Puritan starchiest, dismissed it as 'a heap of broken rubbish, thrown into the great chasm between our own days and the Empire, merely to fill it up', Henry James, driven wild on a first encounter, confessed to 'reeling and moaning thro' the streets' for days on end.

Most visitors shared the younger American's reaction. Bosworth's refreshingly original study is based principally on the ways in which ownership of the city's past has been sought in successive eras since Italian unification. Once Pope Pius IX had been deposed as sovereign ruler of the Roman state and King Victor Emmanuel had taken up residence at Palazzo Quirinale, the liberal utopians led by finance minister Quintino Sella set out to create a new Rome, free from decadence, disease and obscurantism. Even if, for numerous reasons, this experiment failed in practice to match the improvers' dreams, the site clearance for new government offices, law courts and railway stations was shadowed by a legion of archaeologists charged with refashioning the city's history so as to create a coherent narrative, linking the Caesars directly to the new imperial horizons of the royal house of Savoy.

With stealthy accuracy of focus, Bosworth demonstrates the ways in which Rome, during the past hundred years, has become a battleground in what he calls the 'history wars' fought by successive regimes, local or national. Fascism's projection of Mussolini as a new Augustus designated the latter's Ara Pacis as 'a holy site of empire' and raised an entire new suburb on the site of the 1937 Universal Exposition. It was followed by the airbrushing and purges undertaken during the 1950s 'economic miracle'. Bosworth's irreverent reading of the subtext in Roberto Rossellini's Rome: Open City, one of neo-realist cinema's sacred texts, and his agreeably sardonic account of the political spin applied to commemorating the Nazi massacre of civilians at the Ardeatine caves, show how fertile a soil continues to exist in Rome for the manufacture and manipulation of history.

Zaha Hadid's prizewinning MAXXI museum, the most recent Roman essay in the monumental, came too late for inclusion in Bosworth's book. It forms a suitable cut-off point in Matthew Sturgis's expertly entertaining When In Rome: 2000 Years of Roman Sightseeing (Frances Lincoln 263pp £20), shrewdly focused on the role of the sightseer - from the Greek cartographer Crates of Mallos to the author himself in San Luigi dei Francesi, stumbling across Caravaggio while looking for Domenichino - in shaping the city's millennial destiny. Few books on Rome have more successfully captured its multiple incarnations, as an earthly paradise for medieval pilgrims and relic-hunters, as a drawing-board for the Renaissance pope Sixtus V, whose mercilessly brilliant civic reordering restored its metropolitan splendour, or as a haven for Grand Tourists, notching up connoisseur credits while admiring the Laocoön, the Farnese Hercules or the Apollo Belvedere.

There's more than a faint sense of melancholy in Sturgis's closing pages, with their vision of a Rome enduring travellers rather than enjoying them as once she did. The last of her glory days, during the 1950s 'Hollywood On The Tiber' era, are recalled in Death and the Dolce Vita: The Dark Side of Rome in the 1950s (Canongate 401pp £20), Stephen Gundle's inspired reconstruction of the still unsolved case of Wilma Montesi. The archetypal 'good girl' from a petit-bourgeois Roman family, she was found dead on a beach near Ostia, her body oddly untampered with. This classic did-she-fall-or-was-she-pushed story became a cause célèbre, a legal melodrama of Italian socio-politics dragging in everybody from ex-Fascist wheeler-dealers and wannabe screen goddesses to feckless aristocrats, Mafioso fixers and oleaginous government ministers. Gundle makes neat connections here between the Montesi case and the Fellini movie that gives his book its title, plausibly suggesting that there was scarcely a planetary distance between poor starstruck Wilma's murder and Anita Ekberg's dance in the Trevi fountain. The whole gloriously unimproving narrative provides the essential backstory for the Berlusconian bunga-bunga of Italy in our own day.

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Jonathan Keates's most recent book, The Siege of Venice, is published by Chatto & Windus.