James Joyce, who lived in Rome briefly in his youth, disliked the city, saying it reminded him of "a man who made a living by exhibiting to travelers his grandmother's corpse."
Although certainly minority views, complaints about Rome have a tradition that stretches back to antiquity. For the 15th-century Florentine monk Savonarola, Rome was the "sink of iniquity," a sentiment surely shared by Martin Luther, who visited the city in 1510. Modern tourists rendered sleepless by the endless cars and motor scooters will feel sympathy with a commentator who claimed that "Most sick men die here from insomnia," and went on to remark that "rest is impossible . . . the noise would break the sleep of a deaf man or a lazy walrus." And perhaps they will be amused to discover that the author of these sentiments was the poet Juvenal, writing in the first century A.D.
Christopher Hibbert's "Rome: The Biography of a City" is enlivened by a wealth of anecdotes such as these. The author, an English historian who has also written the parallel volume, "London: The Biography of a City," has managed to strike a delicate balance between the historical Rome -- the Rome of caesars and popes -- and the actual city where people have lived, not always comfortably, for thousands of years.
For each age, he has provided a glimpse of the daily life of the ordinary Roman, and the vicissitudes that produced the curious blend of cynic and romantic, opportunist and idealist that constitutes the Roman character. Always there seems to be a tinge of mockery, or self-mockery, in the Roman: Vespasian on his deathbed, for example, saying, "Goodness me! I think I am about to become a god."
Rome is a city that has not only seen it all, but seen it all many times over. One of the traits shared by the city and her people is resilience. Rome has been destroyed not once, but often. Hibbert recounts the Protestant Sack of Rome of 1527 as a devastation that led one observer to state, "Rome is finished." But the city has been burned under Nero, looted by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals in 455, and subjected to repeated invasions and occupations, the last one ending with the liberation of Rome from the Nazis in 1944. The notion that "Rome isn't what it used to be" echoes, in one form or another, so frequently through Hibbert's book that it becomes almost comical.
Another motif in Roman history is the fantasy of reclaiming the glory of ancient Rome. For one golden moment in the 16th century, in the paintings of Michelangelo and Raphael and the architecture of Bramante, this ancient dream was achieved. In the political sphere, however, it more often became a cruel joke or parody. One of several half-mad dictators was Cola di Rienzo, who declared himself Roman tribune in the middle of the 14th century. Another, of course, was Benito Mussolini. Both men attracted fanatical followers who later became disillusioned by their failures, turned on them, murdered them and reviled their corpses. Perhaps they most closely resembled Roman emperors in the manner of their deaths.
One of the aspects of the city that Hibbert devotes particular attention to is the history of the papacy, and the balance that has had to be maintained between secular and religious authorities. Through the 18th century, the church was clearly the dominant force, both economically and politically. The passion for Italian unification in the 19th century was the first great threat to papal authority. In a sense, the conflicting claims of church and state have yet to be entirely resolved, even today; as Hibbert notes, when the communist mayor of Rome died, the mourners along the route of his funeral cortege made the sign of the cross, having first saluted with the clenched fist.
Shelley called Rome "this Paradise of exiles," and the city has always been a magnet for foreigners. Some of the most delightful passages of Hibbert's narrative recount the adventures (and misadventures) of such visitors as Goethe, Gibbon, Boswell and Queen Christina of Sweden. In the 18th century, Rome became one of the central targets of Englishmen on the Grand Tour, and so many Englishmen wound up in the Piazza di Spagna that it became known as "the English Ghetto." Some reactions to the city are proverbial -- Goethe's exclamation on entering Rome, for example: "Only now do I begin to live." Other travelers took a more casual attitude toward the Eternal City and (according to the Frenchman Charles de Brosses) would spend most of their time playing billiards or at some similar amusements, and then "leave Rome without having seen anything in it but their countrymen, and would not know where the Colosseum is."
At the end of Hibbert's book is a long section of footnotes concerning topography, buildings and works of art mentioned in the text. This is profusely illustrated with neat little drawings, and is in effect a short guidebook to the important monuments of Rome. This section would be particularly useful for tourists, and is one of the reasons I would recommend Hibbert's book to travelers. The other would be the wealth of stories and acute observations about this most enriching and fascinating of cities.