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Mythical City

February 29, 2012

Andrew Curry in Wilson Quarterly:

Rome has had an influence like that of no other city. Its 2,500 years of unbroken history make Paris and London seem like recent arrivals. In Rome, Robert Hughes gives a thorough account of the Eternal City’s history and its influence on two millennia’s worth of artists, architects, and writers. A former art critic for Time and the author of books on subjects as diverse as Barcelona, Australia, and modern art, Hughes was first awed by Bernini’s fountains at the Piazza Navona a half-century ago. He sees traces of Rome just about everywhere, from the works of Goethe to Manhattan’s original Pennsylvania Station.

The ancient Rome of our imagination—and as conjured by the sculptors and painters Rome has attracted for millennia—is a pristine marble sculpture garden populated by orators in clean togas. The reality was more like “Calcutta-on-the-Mediterranean,” Hughes writes, “crowded, chaotic, and filthy.” Flimsy apartment buildings lined streets strewn with human and animal excrement, garbage, and the occasional corpse. Residents commonly hurled full chamber pots out the window, braining anyone unlucky enough to be passing below.

Yet rising among the slums were astounding feats of engineering that still inspire, including the Coliseum, the Pantheon, and the monuments of the Forum. Others, just as spectacular, are lost: The Circus Maximus, now buried under modern Rome, had seats for 250,000 spectators, who crowded in to watch charioteers careen around a mile-long course, of greater length than some NASCAR tracks. [More]

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