Tag Archives: Rome

Worth the wait: ‘Rome and the Barbarians’

Rome and the Barbarians

As a child — shy, bookish, obscurely discontented with my lot and fairly certain that something more interesting lay elsewhere, chronologically if not geographically speaking — there was little I loved more than curling up in an armchair in some half-lit room, seeking escape from the supposed inadequacy of ordinary things through the pages of really good picture-book.

My sense of ‘really good’ was, admittedly, eclectic and gappily critical. At the time, so immaculate was my intellectual innocence that I accepted as mere point-and-shoot accuracy, for instance, the hard-won Neo-Romantic dreaminess of Bill Brandt’s photography in Literary Britain (1951) without consciously noting its function as both commentary and criticism of that other picture-book favourite of mine, an enormous volume of photographic images of the Second World War, a topic broadly construed as taking in everything from Nanking to the Berlin Blockade, the not-yet-revivable glamour of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth co-existing as a matter of fact alongside incomprehensible if unforgettable visions of burning cities, tangles of broken and tortured bodies — a rich if unruly grammar of visual imagery not entirely tamed, if memory serves, by the broadly reassuring commentary of its post-war American editors on what was, at least in the mid 1970s, America’s ‘good’ war, to be recalled and even celebrated in the context of more recent and problematic conflicts. Or so I remember thinking at the time. (Perhaps, on reflection, I wasn’t as innocent as all that.)

But of course there was more to my canon of picture books, even in those days, than moody mid-century photography. Continue reading

8 Comments

Filed under art, books, culture, history, reviews

Dilapidated or just complicated? ‘The Roman Forum’ by David Watkin

forum

A few sentences into David Watkin’s The Roman Forum, notice is served that this will be no ordinary guidebook. The first paragraph establishes a tone that will persist throughout:

“The Roman Forum is one of the most famous of all historic sites, the heart of the ancient city, the hub of the Roman empire, the goal of tens of thousands of Grand Tourists. It is still visited by millions of people a year, yet it can be a baffling experience. Part of this is because archaeologists dig deeper and deeper in the understandable pursuit of knowledge about Rome and its early history, leaving behind rubble and holes which are ugly and difficult to understand. It is also because some of the most prominent monuments, which are believed by almost all visitors to be antique, turn out essentially to be products of the nineteenth or twentieth century.”

Yet how many other guidebooks would, by way of introducing the reader to ‘one of the most famous of all historic sites’, begin by asserting that the site in question is not only ‘baffling’ but also ‘ugly’ and ‘difficult to understand’ — let alone insist on the illusionless point that what may be seen today of the Forum is, in large part, a modern restoration? How many authors would dismiss archaeologists’ ‘pursuit of knowledge’ at the Roman Forum, of all places, with recourse to that pity-saturated adjective, ‘understandable’?

Prof Watkin, on the other hand, is no ordinary compiler of guidebooks. Professor of the History of Architecture at Cambridge University, fellow of Peterhouse since 1970 and a convert to Roman Catholicism, he has written important books on Sir John Soane,Thomas Hope, C. R. Cockerell, Athenian Stuart, John Simpson and others. His account of George III’s architectural patronage was a scholarly history in which the effort to avoid writing an instruction book for princes was palpable, if not wholly successful. Prof Watkin’s most famous work, Morality and Architecture (1977, revised edition 2001) indicated a willingness to defend as a matter of present-day urgency the inherited architectural vocabulary of ancient Greece and Rome, while at the same time acknowledging timeless doctrinal truth as simultaneously fundamentally different from and confidently superior to the sort of claims that can be made in favour of style, zeitgeist or positivist assertions of ‘progress’.

Not everyone has admired this. Thus Prof Mary Beard who, in her role as general editor of Profile Books’ ‘Wonders of the World’ series, commissioned Prof Watkin to write the present volume, again demonstrates the bracing disinclination to avoid controversy which has not only offended sensitive souls along the way, e.g. here, but lent energy to her re-invention as a successful uber-blogger, achieved without damage to a career as a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and a classicist of formidable seriousness.

For commissioning Prof Watkin, in any event, Prof Beard is to be warmly congratulated. The Roman Forum is, to use the almost too predictable phrase, a triumph. Clear-eyed, surprising, malicious, injunctive, polemical and often intensely funny, it achieves a minor wonder of the world in taking a place all civilised people feel they know and rendering it, if not new exactly, then far more complicated, contestible and immediately significant than had previously seemed to be the case. Continue reading

13 Comments

Filed under architecture, books, history, religion, reviews

Pompeo Batoni at the National Gallery

He was dashing if slightly bookish — always impeccably turned out — owned a pointed brindle greyhound of delightful character, came across as refreshingly mature for his 21 years, and understood the hard-to-achieve magic spell that is companionable, genuinely sympathetic silence.

In short, he could hardly have contrasted more extremely with most of the men I knew at Cambridge, which may perhaps explain why, in the late 1980s and early 90s, I wasted so many pleasant hours in the Fitzwilliam, in a vast vaulted room where the quiet was all but hypnotic, just standing and looking, absorbing something from his taciturn company that seemed unobtainable anywhere else, but no less desirable for that. His name, I should perhaps add, was Charles Compton, the short-lived 7th Earl of Northampton (1737-1763), as portrayed in this full-length canvas by Pompeo Batoni.

A shelter, amid the flood of mortal ills
The Fitzwilliam was, in those days, as much my refuge as my nearest world-class art gallery. Those born after the early 1990s may find this hard to believe — having cut milk-teeth on a disregarded PalmPilot, lisped their first syllables into an iPhone, and, for all I know, employed some chunky plastic Bob the Builder-style Blackberry to precipitate their very first playground flame-war — but in the period of which I write, it was possible, by the simple expedient of moving from one physical space into another, to cut loose the chains that bound one, however irksomely, to the world of human communication. Continue reading

5 Comments

Filed under art