The Crass, Beautiful Eternal City

Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome/Scala/Art Resource
Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647–1652

In the spring of 1959, a twenty-one-year-old Australian architecture student named Robert Hughes made his first visit to Rome. He captures that first heady plunge into the city’s stew of chaos, sensuality, history, amber light, and sudden moments of piercing beauty by lingering over the fruits and vegetables of the market called Campo de’ Fiori, the “Field of Flowers”:

Bunches of thyme, branches of rosemary, parsley, bundled-up masses of basil filling the air with their perfume. Here, a mountain of sweet peppers: scarlet, orange, yellow, even black. There, a crate filled with the swollen purple truncheons of eggplants. Next to that, a parade of tomatoes, fairly bursting with ripeness—the red egg-shaped San Marzanos for sauce, the broad-girthed slicing tomatoes, the ribbed ones for salads, the green baby ones. Even the potato, a dull-looking growth as a rule, took on a sort of tuberous grandeur in this Mediterranean light.

Then there became apparent something of a kind I had never seen at home in Australia. All this vegetable glory, this tide of many-colored life, this swelling and bursting and fullness, welled up around a lugubrious totem of Death…a vertical totem of bronze darkness and melancholic gravity in the middle of all that riot of color, and it may take a moment or two to find his name on a plaque half hidden behind the sprays of flowers. It is Giordano Bruno, and even a tyro from Australia had heard of him.

The rest, as we know, is history. The young student of architecture, as it turned out, had a gift for writing as well as a ravenous, penetrating eye (and some other ravenous appetites as well). Though he gained in sophistication, he never lost his initial Australian brashness, and that is why, in the end, Robert Hughes, author and critic, has such an original, persuasive take on the Eternal City. As he says at the very end of Rome: “For all its glories, and for all the legacy it left in art, thought, and politics, Greek civilization did perish. That of Rome is still somewhat with us.” And the reasons for Rome’s staying power, he argues, have to do with the city’s eternal embrace of crassness, as intrinsic to Roman grandeur as majesty, beauty, and spiritual transcendence.

It is hard to read Hughes on his first experience of Rome without thinking of another foreign visitor’s plunge into that same irresistible mix of sensual pleasure and shattering beauty: it was that same year, 1959, when Anita Ekberg made her majestic progress through the waters of the Trevi Fountain for the young director Federico Fellini’s film La dolce vita, trailed by a mesmerized Marcello Mastroianni, himself as beautiful a creature as the buxom Swede and the mewing white kitten she has been carrying through the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.