To many travelers, visiting Rome is akin to experiencing magic. The reputation is deserved — it is hard to walk through sites like the Colosseum and not be reminded of the city’s former splendor, to be struck by its air of romance and mystery. But Rome has evolved, even though our imagination of the Eternal City has not. These books explore the culture, art and grandeur of ancient Rome, but also bring visitors to the present, including a guided tour by a former art critic and a deep exploration of one fictional Italian family.
By Robert Harris
Set in ancient Rome, this historical novel casts Cicero, best known for his oratorical contributions, in a different light, exploring his ascent to what we would now call a career politician. The novel is presented as a biography written by Cicero’s former slave, Tiro, and chronicles his start as a lawyer and aspiring politician. Cicero confronts corruption head-on in a case against Verres, a former governor, accusing the courts of showing preferential treatment to “any man, no matter how guilty, if he has sufficient money.’’ The book is more engaging for its accuracy — in many cases, the author uses Cicero’s actual arguments — and draws parallels between the dynamics of contemporary politics and those of ancient Rome.
A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History
By Robert Hughes
This book, by an opinionated former art critic, is hardly the dry city biography one might expect. Robert Hughes captures ancient Rome in rich detail, with revelations such as Emperor Augustus’s propensity for commissioning sculptures of himself (with some 25,000 to 50,000 stone statues estimated to have been produced). Mr. Hughes does not limit himself to critiquing art, offering observations about the city’s infrastructure, including Rome’s apparent adoration of fountains, as well as ancient Romans’ tendency toward spectacle. Mr. Hughes’s guided tour of the city is impassioned, informative and entertaining.
By Domenico Starnone
This novel by one of Italy’s leading novelists is told from the perspective of a couple, Vanda and Aldo, as well as their grown children, across decades — and shows the effects betrayal can have on a marriage. Vanda and Aldo’s relationship experiences a rupture when Aldo sleeps with a younger woman. With 1970s politics as a backdrop, Vanda accuses Aldo of falling victim to the times: “You came across a respectable young girl close at hand and in the name of sexual liberation and the dissolution of the family you became her lover,” she writes in a letter that opens the book. The two eventually get back together, but decades later the adultery re-emerges — after they return from a vacation to find their Rome apartment ransacked — as artifacts of the betrayal come to light. An emotionally affecting work, “Ties” explores what binds people together and what forces them apart.
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